Are You Hiring a Leader, or “Just” a Motivational Speaker?

One of the big pitfalls of hiring a motivational speaker is the danger of hiring someone who will “pump up” your audience in the short-term…without really empowering them to make lasting changes in the long run. In fact, this pitfall is behind a lot of the skepticism and satire that surrounds motivational speaking. There is a reason why many people believe hiring motivational speakers is a waste of time and money, and there’s a reason why people often make fun of the profession.

We’ve all been to presentations that were mostly full of “rah rah” fluff. We’ve all felt extremely excited and energized while sitting in the audience, only to find, later, that we hadn’t walked away with any concrete ideas on how to create meaningful change. In fact, these sorts of presentations have grown even more ubiquitous after the release of The Secret. Rehashes of “the power of positive thinking” and Think and Grow Rich abound.

Here’s a secret. If you want to hire a motivational speaker who is worth the investment, you need to stop looking for a “motivational speaker.” There simply isn’t really such thing as a “motivational speaker” per se.

“Speaking” is just what the person is going to do once you get him or her to your event. “Speaking” is a vehicle for helping participants at your function receive information. Often, these participants could get the same information, insights, or ideas by reading the speaker’s book or blog. But you’re not paying speaking fees only for the benefit of that person’s ideas, nor are you paying them simply because they’re delivering a good speech.

You’re paying to give your audience the benefit of this person’s leadership. Thus, you need to set out to hire a leader with public speaking skills, rather than setting out to hire a speaker. 

How can you snag the leader you’re looking for? What can you do to separate the wheat from the chaff so you don’t waste your time, or your audience’s time?


Examine the speaker’s leadership track record.

Often, the people responsible for hiring keynote speeches look for “speaking experience.” But speaking experience isn’t enough. While it’s nice to know your speaker won’t bore your audience to tears, it’s even more important to know what the speaker has accomplished when he or she isn’t standing in front of a podium.

For example, did he or she form a business or organization? If so, is it accomplishing its goals? Are the employees and volunteers at that organization happy and productive? Do these ventures display a high degree of ethics and integrity? How impressed are you by the things the speaker has done?

Can the speaker describe other people he or she has personally mentored or helped succeed? Can he or she share stories of other people who have used the techniques or ideas the speaker wants the audience to implement? Do those stories contain concrete evidence of real, significant change?

You also want to avoid speakers with a “me, me, me” mentality, or with a message that boils down to: “if you start publishing books and speaking like me, you can live the high life, too!” Often, these individuals have not really accomplished anything that didn’t have something to do with their careers on the public speaking circuit.

Remember to verify these things independently. Speakers have the gift of gab by their very nature. If they can “pump up” an audience they can get you temporarily excited about themselves, too. Spend some time reading, digging, and asking around before approaching the speaker. Speaking fees are expensive, and due diligence matters.


What is the vision?

What kind of vision will your speaker bring to the table? Vision is vital. Vision is the cornerstone of leadership.

Forbes contributor Carmine Gallo notes that vision is a fundamental characteristic of inspiring leaders. The vision has to be something your audience can get behind. Gallo writes:

“For a vision to really grab the imagination of the team, it has to incorporate the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of those you are attempting to lead. ‘If employees can’t see themselves in the picture, then they can’t imagine it’s a possibility for them.’ In other words, the vision cannot belong to the leader alone.”

When you discuss the engagement with your motivational speaker, ask him or her to describe his or her vision for everyone in the audience. Ask how he will make that vision accessible and do-able for them. If the answers or vague—or the speaker can’t answer at all—move on. You should also keep shopping if the vision doesn’t really align with your own goals for the event, or for the organization or group of people you’re trying to influence. All motivational speakers are not right for all audiences at all times.

Your audience deserves someone who will work to bring them to new and better places, and who can show them, viscerally, the reasons why their lives will be better for doing the things the speaker is going to suggest they do.



When you hire a motivational or keynote speaker you’re not just trying to be entertaining, and you’re not just trying to fill a hole in an event agenda. You’re trying to change lives, build teams, or produce better results. Focusing on leadership gives you the power to accomplish these things, and allows you to demonstrate a true return on investment well after the speaker’s fees have been paid and the event has drawn to a close.



4 Things to Consider Before Hiring Your Next Motivational Speaker

4 Things to Consider Before Hiring Your Next Motivational Speaker

Hiring a motivational speaker is a big investment. It pays to be thoughtful and deliberate about your choice. After all, the success or failure of your event will be determined by the efficacy of the motivational speaker you choose.

Speakers are, by nature, warm, charismatic, and convincing. Don’t rely on the speaker’s ability to sell you on his services. Instead, use these four criteria to provide your audience with a speaker who is truly capable of serving them.

Criteria #1: Do the motivational speaker’s methods and key topic takeaways match both the event and the audience? 

Ask yourself who will be listening to the speech. Where are they in their lives and careers?

Author and entrepreneur Michael L.F. Slavin’s One Million in the Bank speech is aimed at:

  • Ordinary people with an ordinary income
  • People who have yet to start a business, but who want to
  • People who have had trouble thinking of themselves as potential millionaires, but who need a boost in the right direction
  • People who have been holding back on starting a business because they believe they have to come up with some new, world-changing, innovative idea in order to be successful

While highly effective for its intended target audience, this speech would likely not be the best fit for veteran entrepreneurs who need ideas on how to increase their profit margins. Find out if the speaker of your choice is able to address a variety of topics for a flexible audience. Most speakers have lists of their most common topics available on their websites. Good, ethical speakers will also tell you if the event isn’t a good fit for their focus area.

Criteria #2: The Motivational Speaker Should be Ready and Willing to Customize His Presentation

Forbes public speaking expert named Nick Morgan suggested that every speaking event is really a collaboration between the organizers, the speaker, and the audience.

Obviously, there can be very little collaboration if the speaker is only able to deliver a rigid list of pre-created topics. While every good speaker should have a solid list of “go-to” topics to work from, it’s always better to work with one who will get invested in the success of your event, even if that means tweaking a speech to better relate to the audience.

Criteria #3: Has the speaker accomplished anything that’s relevant or noteworthy?

This goes back to ensuring the speaker has the experience and credentials to address the topics and issues your audience needs to hear about.

Motivational speaking is an unregulated profession. Anyone can hang out their shingle and call themselves a “leadership expert” if they want to. It’s up to you to do your due diligence. Where and when has your candidate exercised true leadership? What kinds of accomplishments has he achieved for the organizations he’s worked for? If he’s launched businesses, did they thrive? Has he written any books or won any awards? If you brought this leader on to a project at your own company would you feel reasonably confident that the project would be successful?

Don’t just take the motivational speaker’s word for it. Read his recommendations on LinkedIn. Do a bit of research on Google.

Criteria #4: Will the speaker focus on practical solutions?

Too many motivational speakers focus on rah-rah rehashes of The Secret. It’s all about “vision boards” and the “power of positive thinking.”

In fact, getting too focused on positive thinking can actually increase stress and decrease productivity. Psychologists have found people get overly focused on fixing their thoughts instead of focusing on fixing the real, physical problem that’s before them. And thoughts aren’t easy to change (have you ever tried not thinking about a thing)?

Sure, it’s hard to solve problems from a position of negativity. However, “positive thinking” on its own is utterly incapable of solving problems. Sooner or later the thinker is going to have to stop daydreaming, affirming, and visualizing in favor of taking some concrete steps toward his or her goal.

Sometimes, in fact, you really just need to know what to do. A nail doesn’t really care if you are happy or sad, so long as you drive it home with the proper hammer and do so in the right place and in the right way. A motivational speaker that arms an audience with practical know-how empowers those audience members to move forward.

Besides, increasing a person’s understanding and competence by making the right actions appear accessible will naturally increase a person’s positive outlook by showing them that real solutions are within our grasp. We tend to feel negative when we feel helpless. A great motivational speaker becomes the enemy of helplessness by drawing good road maps to destinations audience members need and want to visit. Look for someone who can do that while meeting all of the other criteria, and your next event is sure to be an incredible success.




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