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The Top Ten Mistakes Motivational Speakers Make

27 Apr Posted by in Business | 5 comments

So, you want to be a motivational speaker. Join the club. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a REALLY BIG club. So start working now to make sure you find ways to stand out from the crowd. We’ll start with looking at what you should NOT do.

You know you’ve got a powerful message. You know you’ve got a killer story. You’ve got the brochures printed and the website up and running. You can hear the applause. You can envision the standing ovation. You know exactly where the cameras should be to get your best angle. You’ve even found the perfect outfit. You’ve got the cover of your book designed, and you’ve already told everybody in the neighborhood that you’re a speaker, including the pizza guy who has already hired you as his life coach. There’s just one thing you don’t have – a speech. Yeah, that’s a problem.

If you haven’t crafted a spectacular speech, or even a pretty good speech, then you have just created a brand around no product. You did say you’re a speaker, right? That means you get paid for speaking. Don’t feel bad, there are many speakers out there who spend all their time packaging their product and never really get around to writing that darn speech. The speech is what you are selling. The speech is what the client is going to buy. The speech is what you will deliver. The speech is your product. Without a speech you have just branded air – and if you can sell a speech that you haven’t even written, well, I commend you on your selling skills, and if this doesn’t pan out, you can try selling snake oil from a covered wagon. Anyway, not having a speech is your bad news. The good news is that I would rather help a speaker who has no speech, than a speaker who has spent years delivering a crappy one. You have a clean slate to work with and nothing excites me more than a clean slate. Okay, so maybe chocolate excites me more. And campy sitcoms. And the words “buy one get one free.” But, still, a clean slate is pretty high up there on my list.

So you’re pumped up and ready to go. You have an idea of what you want do and how you want to do it. In fact, you have spent an obscene amount of time telling anybody who will listen what you want to do and how you want to do it, and asking everybody and their mother what you should do and how you should do it. For months it has been all about you. STOP. (Sorry to yell.) It’s not about you – it’s about them. This is always about them – your listener, your reader, your audience. This is not about what you want to do, it’s about what they want to see and hear – that you are qualified to speak about, of course. Did you hear that? That you are QUALIFIED to speak about. So let’s spend this time together talking about what it is that audiences want in a motivational speech. Because if you give them what they want, you will leave them cheering, wanting more, and remembering your name. Which is the point. Sorry for all the sentence fragments. Let’s just say I won’t be a speaker who talks about grammar!

I think that sometimes the best way to learn is from our mistakes. So let’s talk about the ten mistakes that most motivational speakers make in their speeches. And, yes, I have made every mistake myself, more than once. I repeat, these are mistakes. Don’t try them at home. Unless you want to lose an audience in thirty minutes or less. Or maybe that’s your goal. If that’s the case, then you’re in luck, because it’s easy to lose an audience. There are thousands of speakers out there doing it every day.

So here are the top ten mistakes motivational speakers make in their motivational speeches:

Just “Wing It” – As long as you have a general idea of where you want to go, that’s good enough. Every word that comes out of your mouth is worth listening to. You’re convinced your words are music to their ears. Just stand up there, smile, and start talking.  WRONG. You’re a professional. You are paid to be up there. Earn your money. Write a speech. Learn it. Practice it. Practice it again and again. Find as many audiences as you can that will let you test it on them. And food for thought: Audiences shouldn’t pay you to test your speech. Sometimes you should pay them, if you know what I mean. Fine tune that thing until it is worth the money you are charging. The speaker who scripts his speech will win EVERY TIME over the speaker who decides to just “wing it.”  There is too much competition in the speaking business for you to just get up there and talk. Do that, and you won’t last long.

Give Them Just The Facts Ma’am Just The Facts – You are not here to entertain. They are not here to have a good time. You are a professional. Your knowledge is to be respected.  They should sit down, be quiet, and shut up so you can tell them everything you know in sixty minutes accompanied by a slide show that is more painful than water boarding.  WRONG.  There is one thing that every client who has ever called me has been looking for in their speaker:  FUN.  Yes, you heard me right.  Audiences want a fun experience. Yes, they want to learn. Yes, they want to be challenged. Yes, they want to be taught. But they want to be entertained. Highly entertained.  There will be thousands of other speakers who will be speaking on your same topic. It’s the speaker who looks fun that will be chosen.

This is a Performance, Pretend That They Aren’t Here. You are a performer. You are the star. The stage is yours. This is your time to shine. The audience is secondary. Pretend they aren’t even there. This is about you baby.  WRONG. This is the difference between an entertainer/performer and a speaker. The entertainer is performing for the audience – the speaker is talking with the audience. And in some cases, the audience even gets to answer, which is not something you will find on Broadway. But here’s the thing, they still want to be entertained. So your job is to perform, entertain, and make it about them – bring them into the action – take them into the story. Gone are the days of one speech fits all. Audiences can smell a canned speech from miles away. Do everything you can to make this about them and not about you. This takes knowing your audience and having the humility to stop bragging so much.  You would think this is basic advice, but I see a lot of seasoned speakers whose speech is nothing more than an autobiography.

Start Slow And Ease Into The Speech.  Spend a good ten minutes at the beginning greeting everyone and telling them how happy you are to be there. Then thank them a couple of times and spend five more minutes talking about why you wrote this speech, and then another five minutes explaining the story you are about to tell. Remember, you’re the star. Every word you say is golden. Your voice sounds like melted butter.  WRONG.  Okay, so maybe it does sound like melted butter – but even the best voice can not trump a weak opening.  The opening of your speech is CRUCIAL.  Here is where you get their attention or lose it. And if you lose them, you’re going to have a heck of a time getting them back unless you bring nudity into it. And, take it from me, that doesn’t always work. Start with a bang. Find a powerful moment in your speech and start there. Jump right into the action. Go right into an act out. Your audience will get it. And if they don’t, they sure will appreciate that you have done something different even if they don’t understand what it was.

Spend Hours Working On Your Content And Ten Minutes On The Stories.
They are paying you for your wisdom. You need to give them as much information as they can possibly take in a short amount of time. Forget three points, go for fifteen. And add twenty-seven more points to the handout, along with a PowerPoint presentation that gives them some more things to think about. Oh, yeah, and throw in a story when you can. They love those.  WRONG. WRONG. WRONG.  Being a professional storyteller before I was a professional speaker (and, no, they AREN’T the same thing – look up the art form) taught me the value in stories. The stories will do all the work for you. They will entertain, make it personal, teach, and be remembered for YEARS. The audience will forget you, they won’t forget your stories. If you tell them well. You don’t have to be Shakespeare. In fact, we would rather you didn’t. Just be you. Tell stories that are interesting, mean something, and are short. Tighten them up – power up the words you use – and give them some humor and you’re all set.  It’s not the information that sets you apart – it’s how you wrap it – the story.

Just Write The Speech, Don’t Bother With An Outline. Who needs order? Just start talking and the points will come, and if you’re lucky you’ll make ten other points that you never thought of before. If you don’t get to everything you needed to cover, that’s okay, they have the handout. Keep them on their toes by confusing them with your message. Tell them you’re going to talk about one thing, and then talk about another. Just to shake things up.  WRONG.  Audiences are big on you delivering what you say you’re going to deliver. If your title says you’ll give them ten marketing tips, they won’t think it’s funny that you spend fifty minutes of the hour talking about your kid’s soccer game. Even if it did make them laugh and you even included pictures in the PowerPoint. It baffles me how many speakers out there come to me for help on their keynote and they can’t tell me the purpose of the thing and what points they want to make.  This should be the easiest part of the process.  What is the problem and why are you the one here to fix it? What is the message you want to give to this group – the overall message? And what are three points you want to make to tell them how to do it? How will you encourage them and call them to action?  These are basic structural issues that should begin any speech writing process. Know where you want to go before you start.

Unless You’re A Comedian, Don’t Try For Laughs.  Leave jokes to the big guns. You aren’t funny – maybe funny looking, but not funny. You’re not qualified to punch up your keynote. Besides, it’s too hard. Takes too much work and time. Let the others be funny. You have a job to do.  WRONG.  Yes, I’ll admit that not everyone is funny. I’ll admit that some people couldn’t tell a joke if their life depended on it. But I still say that you can find ways to get people to laugh and to make your presentation fun. You just have to be creative – find what’s already working for you – study comedy – get help from people who are funny and can help you find the style that works for you. Why? Because FUNNY SELLS.  Nine times out of ten, the client will choose the funny speaker, or the one who looks like he is having the most fun.  Make your headshots fun. Make your website fun. Make your titles fun. Fun is as good as funny.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Try Anything New.   If it’s working for you, don’t change it. Better yet, see what everybody else is doing and make sure you’re doing it too.  Copy, copy, copy. Get on the bureaus’ websites and check out the thousands of speakers listed. Make sure your headshot looks just like theirs. Pick the same topics. Tell their stories. Pick a brand you like and copy it. You don’t want anybody to think you’re weird. If in doubt, play it safe.  WRONG.  The kiss of death in this business is looking like the others. Embrace what already makes you different – your own talents and perspectives and stories – the unique way in which you see the world.  Most audiences have seen A LOT of speakers, and they’re getting tired of the same-old-same-old. They want something fresh. They want something different. You don’t have to light yourself on fire or come down from the ceiling on a swing wearing a thong. Sometimes something as little as an act out can make all the difference. Keep trying new things. Keep raising the bar on yourself. Come out of your comfort zone. So what if your audience didn’t like it? You tried. And, like I said, many times your audience will appreciate your effort even if they think you looked stupid doing it. Dare to look stupid. It could make all the difference.

Come Up With A Stage Voice and Stage Gestures.  Maybe James Earl Jones or a Roseanne Barr would be nice.  Make sure that when you start speaking you sound like somebody else completely.  Plan all the pauses at the end of your sentences – timed with an arm raise or a slight head turn.  You’re on a stage, this is the place to do things big and dramatic. Use language you would never use in ordinary conversation. Bigger words make you sound smarter. Quote thirty-seven other motivational speakers and dead presidents. Conjure up tears if you can and nothing gets an audience like having a nervous breakdown when you tell the story of the time your dog ran away, that you always end with, “I don’t usually cry like that.”  WRONG.  Again, here is the difference in a performance and a speech. When you’re a speaker, it’s all about connecting with the audience – being real – who you are. It’s all about talking like you normally talk (minus the “uh’s” and “um’s” of course). Pretend they’re sitting across from you at the kitchen table when you tell them that you’ve been where they are. The more dramatic you make it, the more they will distance themselves because that’s not really you up there since chances are good you don’t kneel down on one knee at home. Of course you want to be in control of your movements and the inflection of your voice – and there are things to take into consideration. But the point is to look natural – not plastic – human – not wooden – like a person – not Macbeth

End With A Fizzle.  Nothing like an ending that trails off. End your speech by thanking everybody again and going over the points you just made. Say, “Oh, and one more thing,” about four times. This is the part where you need to talk about your book and your coaching services.  And it’s always a big hit to end with a question and answer session – especially if there are no questions. Nothing like a little good awkward silence. WRONG.  The ending of your speech is the MOST important part. This is the part they will most likely remember most. End with a bang!!! Don’t end with a bang, and then talk some more. Don’t end with a bang, and then ask if they have any questions. End with a bang and stop talking.

Okay, there you have it – top ten mistakes motivational speakers make in their speeches. And I will admit, I stepped on my own toes in writing this article. But these are easy things to fix. They just take time and your attention. Being good takes work. Being better takes even more work. You have to practice. When everyone has gone home from the game, and the lights are off, and the bleachers are empty – be the one still standing there practicing your shots.  I promise that every moment you spend on your speech adds one more unforgettable moment to your audience’s experience.  You have the talent, now go do the work.

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  1. Ahlumba06-14-13

    Thank you for the wisdom you imparted…for I totally was going to try that ‘winging it’ option out lol, but due to your advice I better get to writing or shall I say perfecting my speech…

  2. kelly06-15-13

    There are not any really fast and hard right or wrongs when it comes to delivering speeches. It’s about finding your own way that works. Some people have a talent for winging it. Most do not. The hard part, when writing a speech and memorizing, is then delivering it like it wasn’t memorized, and is coming off the top of your head. That too takes practice. Good luck!

  3. Daniel Ally09-07-13


    When I sat next to you at the NSA Roast, I had no idea how talented you are. The biggest suggestion that I learned from you is the “be yourself” and that is exactly what you exemplified. You are a splendiferous role model and positive leader. I really admire you. Beautiful article.

    Daniel A. Ally

  4. kelly09-12-13

    Wow, Daniel! What a kind comment! I have never regretted just being myself. Thank you for writing. My door is open should you ever need advice or encouragement.

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