How to Be a Motivational Speaker


I recently met with a guy who’s trying to become a motivational speaker. He’s a good guy with good things to say.

But the thing is … how should I put it … the whole motivational speaker branding doesn’t give a good first impression. It’s old-school at the best of times, and just plain awkward the rest of the time.

And yet, we all enjoy motivation and inspiration. I read Runner’s World every month not because I need any help running (nothing much changes in the world of running from month to month) but because of the inspiring profiles they print. You’ve got the woman who lost 300 pounds by jogging three times a week, the blind guy who ran a marathon with his son, and so on. I’m a sucker for an inspiring story.

So motivation is good—it’s just the branding of motivation that’s awkward. What’s to be done? My friend Colleen, AKA The Great Communicatrix, explained it best one day while we were hanging out in Austin a while back:

“You can’t just BE A MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER. No one likes that shit. What you should do is BE PASSIONATE ABOUT SOMETHING. Show up and talk about something you give a damn about. Your passion will be motivational in itself.”

I think Colleen’s right. If you want to be a speaker, you can go to Toastmasters meetings and learn how you are supposed to hold your hands, the right way to make eye contact with the audience, and so on. But I think it’s better to live an active life and figure out what you’re really passionate about. Then, talk about that.

You’ll get better as you go along. If you give a talk and forget something, if you say um or you know too much, if you break some kind of “rule” of speaking protocol, people will get over it.

It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to improve on the technical things. It just means that the message is more important than the presentation. Between passion and presentation, passion wins every time.

“Motivational speakers” try to manufacture motivation, and this doesn’t usually work. Colleen’s way (the better way) is to introduce your passion to the world around you instead. The right kind of passion is both infectious and contagious. Motivation made easy!

How do you want to change the world? Why not take that thing with you everywhere you go?

Get that right first. Then, even if you’re only talking to one person, you just might be a motivational speaker.


Image: Adam

Subscribe now and you’ll get the best posts of all time.


  • Peter Shallard says:

    I agree Chris – big time.

    When ever I met another motivational speaker my first response (in my head!) is to say:

    “Motivation to do WHAT?

    It’s the “what” that counts.

  • Jason says:

    This article touched on something I’ve been pondering for a long while now. I too am always up for an inspirational story or a healthy dose of motivation, but no matter how often people try to argue the contrary, “motivation” and “self-improvement” are considered by many to be lame.

    I even have my own blog about making life more fun etc… but the minute you label something “motivational” or for “personal development”, it starts to give off a bad vibe.

    I like the idea of simply going with what you’re passionate about.

  • Alex William says:

    Great article Chris.

  • Betsy Talbot says:

    Every time I hear the term “motivational speaker” I think of the SNL skit with Chris Farley where he lives in a van down by the river.

  • Jeffrey Tang says:

    I think part of the issue is that we’re naturally skeptical of anyone who makes a career out of motivating other people – in the “Speaker, Motivate Thyself” kind of way. Having good things to say is important – but so is the person saying them. In the back of their heads, people are always asking, “If he/she is so knowledgeable about success and motivation, why doesn’t he/she go out and put it to the test?”

    In an earlier comment, Jason pointed out that motivational speaking and self-development are similar in this respect. “This guy can talk the talk,” we think. “But can he walk the walk?”

    The best motivational speakers are motivated people – i.e., people who actually go out and make things happen.

    “Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when working to another aim.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Sachit Gupta says:

    Totally agree – It’s like Tony Hsieh writes in Delivering Happiness (@dhh), there’s three basic rules he follows for public speaking: 1) Be passionate 2) Tell personal stories 3) Be real. Everything else falls into place.

    Chris, I’m curious though, how do you (and the AONC community) feel about the motivational speakers like Tony Robbins? Is there a need for them?

  • Sachit Gupta says:

    Totally agree – It’s like Tony Hsieh writes in Delivering Happiness (@dhbook), there’s three basic rules he follows for public speaking: 1) Be passionate 2) Tell personal stories 3) Be real. Everything else falls into place.

    Chris, I’m curious though, how do you (and the AONC community) feel about the motivational speakers like Tony Robbins? Is there a need for them?

  • Etsuko says:

    All of my favorite people I watch speak are not calling themselves as such. They talk about something they do and that’s inspirational. You could have helped that guy you mentioned by asking your two most important questions in the universe 🙂

  • rey says:

    That’s all good.

    But how do you motivate without ‘bragging’?

  • Ian says:

    I can’t hear “motivational speaker” without picturing Chris Farley falling onto a coffee table.

  • Sean M Kelly says:

    What does the word motivate mean? One definition said to “give an incentive to action”. This is pretty good. Now if what we’re trying to motivate people to do is something we’re not passionate about and really don’t believe in ourselves it will be very difficult to get them to take any action. So yes passion is required. Where does passion come from? From having a great purpose. A purpose that is far bigger then our individual lives. After all what do you think Obama sees his purpose as or Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa or my fellow country mate Bono. In all these cases their purpose reaches out to create a better world for a great number of people and sometimes far into future generations. Once we tune into such a purpose for our own lives it’s amazing how motivational we can be!

    Carpe Diem!

  • Chris says:

    Thanks, guys.

    @Sachit – I like Tony Robbins. He did a Ted talk where he said he’s not really trying to motivate people but rather to help them figure out what they are motivated by.

    @Rey – See what Sachit said about Tony Hsieh – tell stories and be passionate. That’s not bragging but it’s very powerful.

  • Devin says:

    It’s the difference between the a canned laugh track or genuine laughter. One creates an illusion of humor and one is really funny.

    If it is authentic, I will listen.

    Thanks for a nice article.

  • Robbin says:

    Thank you…this is perfect. It’s funny, because I feel like over the last few years, I’ve been becoming a really good public speaker. I hear it all the time from people…how much they love to hear me speak, and that I have a way of touching their heart. And so I often think…Am I supposed to be a motivational speaker? But that doesn’t feel quite right. But what I am noticing, in my life, is that I am finding more and more opportunities to speak about things that I am passionate about, and that is feeling awesome. Colleen’s got it right. Express your passion, and you will automatically motivate and inspire people.

  • Gip @ So Much More says:

    Motivational speakers seem like circular arguments. They’re like those business gurus who write get-rich-quick books. How do you get rich? First, you write a book about getting rich…

    I can’t imagine making my goal in life to talk about making goals in life. I want to BE something, not just talk about being something.

    In other words, you’ve got it right. Live a life that’s motivational, then talk about it if someone will listen.

  • matt says:

    I totally agree, if you watch some of the video’s on they are truly amazing, Jeremy Jackson the Marine Biologist who talks about the state of the ocean isn’t necessarily inspiring in his persona but his knowledge and love for his chosen field is what’s inspirational and makes you think twice about your own impact on today’s world. Check it out, and the part about the fish is scary to say the least.

  • Karen says:

    It’s the passion someone brings to the table that motivates me. Calling yourself a motivational speaker is fine and all, but yes, it’s a tired term – being an expert with passion for something, that’s going to take you farther.

  • soultravelers3 says:

    You are so right! Being passionate and “living the example” is what motivates people.

    Our blog is nothing about motivation, yet we have motivated so many people and the stories are always so touching to hear. It’s the passion that is transferable. People “get it” and then make it their own in so many ways.

    Just like others’ passion helped motivate us to choose a world traveling lifestyle. But it doesn’t have to be travel, it can be anything. Each unique “exampleship” can open up someone’s eyes to the possibilities and lift up many.

    Passion and positive focus are contagious and perhaps the best thing in the world to spread to one another. 😉

    Thanks Chris, for doing both!

  • Sachit Gupta says:

    @Chris, I don’t have a problem with Tony Robbins per say, I actually love his TED Talk. But its sort of similar to how I feel about the whole genre of self-help books, a lot of them just have inspiration but no real content.

    The way I see it, most people who read them already have the motivation, what they need is help with figuring out the next step instead of another pep talk. On the other hand, the people who do need a shift in perspective probably aren’t even aware of those books or realize they have a problem.

  • Christopher Lowman says:

    Motivation is something you are not something you do.

  • Amanda Steinberg says:

    I agree in theory, however if you’re looking to be paid for public speaking, it’s still a category that’s recognized and marketable from a packaging stand point – as it – it’s a service to sell. So, the name is old school, but if you want to make money doing it, what’s another way to position it in a way that people know what they’re paying you for?

  • Gary Jordon says:

    I have often thought about being a “motivational speaker” to help bring awareness to the challenge and artistry of being disabled. But I now glad I waited so that I could get a better feel for what might be involved. I agree its the passionate preacher that people remember not the one who just reads from his notes.

  • ceil says:

    Right on. I do not want someone motovating me to do something they want me to do– like buy some product or adapt some life style. That is a real turn off for me. On the other hand I absolutly do want to hear about a subject I already connect to.

  • Teresa Young says:

    Unfortunately, every time I hear the words ‘motivational speaker’ I picture some sort of scam artist out for a quick buck that’s preying on gullible people…

    Maybe we need some new definitions in order to clear away some of the negative connotations for this type of lecturing…

  • Tree Heckler says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful article (or at least, it made me think.) I never thought about how someone becomes a motivational speaker, but in reading your comments, I suddenly realized that I am a motivational speaker. I work with homeless teens in Maine, and I “carry” them with me everywhere I go. I often find myself discussing homeless youth with total strangers in grocery lines, on sidewalks, everywhere, trying to get people involved. If I view what I do as “motivational speaking” I think I might try cleaning up my technique. Thanks!

  • Pam Hirsch says:

    Great article, Chris, thanks! “Motivational speaking” always smacks of manipulation to me. I’m not quite sure why – other than I usually end up feeling like I’m being strongly persuaded to have a similar viewpoint as the speaker.

    But when someone is passionate about their topic, it’s a whole different feeling. They are “real” for one thing, but there’s also no sense of manipulation. The passion is pure passion – and the listener can choose to do whatever they want with it.

    I’m also happy I don’t have to go to Toastmasters now. 🙂

  • linda esposito says:

    I think of Tony Robbins (sp?) when I hear ‘motivational speaker.’ I’m also reminded of super high energy skammers who prey on the vulnerable. You’re so right–the term is very old-school, and I agree with Colleen, nobody likes that shit.

    I believe possessing expertise and confidence in your message goes a long way.

    I love the fact that inspiring posts come on Mondays–I’m really passionate about the social skills groups about to start for middle-school boys-YAY!

  • communicatrix says:

    @Sachit — I think the reason we respond to Tony Robbins (or not) is because he’s speaking the language that speaks to *us* (or not). He is absolutely, 100% passionate about the ability of people to turn their own lives around, because he did it himself and that’s his path. And there’s just a reality that we’ll respond to certain types of delivery and not others, because of that language thing.

    Everyone loves to point out the Chris Farley van-by-the-river character, and it is a funny one. The paradigm to me is Greg Kinnear’s character in Little Miss Sunshine: someone just *deciding* to be a motivational speaker, rather than using personal passion and stories and true connection, and having motivation and inspiration be the by-product.

  • Nate St. Pierre says:

    Thanks for the confidence boost with this one, Chris. I’ve been invited to speak on “Changing the World in 15 Minutes a Week” at a conference in two weeks – my first one ever. I’m not a good or confident public speaker, but I’m passionate about what our team does, and I truly believe in the power we all have to do good in this world. I’m just gonna talk about that and give them some tangible ideas/examples of how they can do it too, and hopefully it goes well. 🙂

  • Kris says:

    Honestly, for what it’s worth, (and I realize this is focusing in on a small segment of the article), but I don’t care for the extra 4-letter words in Colleen’s definition of motivation. I know…for some people, they’ll love that. Not me. It actually made the difference in me checking out her site. Or not. No doubt those sorts of words could be good for shock-value, a little dramatic emphasis. But I think there are others that could be used with equal intensity of meaning, but appealing to a more general audience.

  • Lynda Blaska says:

    I agree Chris. What you’re talking about is being authentic and coming from your heart versus “performing.” A week ago I took an amazing workshop called “Transformational Speaking” by Lee Glickstein.
    We learned to connect with individuals in the audience BEFORE saying anything. This connection changes what you say, when you say it and opens the door for them to really hear you. Shifted my fear of public speaking and changed how to “listen” and connect with my family and friends too!

  • Jane Graham says:

    You couldn’t be more right! …on that note, do you have any new leadership/motivational books that you could recommend? Looking for summer reading. Thanks!

  • Charlie Ahern says:

    The bread-and-butter audience for most motivational speakers are salespeople. From Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins they usually get hired by corporate sales executives to deliver RAH-RAH speeches to “motivate” the 80% of a sales force who aren’t the top producers. If your passion involves selling life insurance or condos, then you too could be a great _professional_ motivational speaker.

    I encourage people to develop their speaking skills with Toastmasters. For a small investment of time (a couple of hours per week) and money (probably less than $100 per year), you can learn how to effectively talk about your passion. Also, if you focus your Toastmaster speeches on the theme of your passion, you can use them as rehearsals to develop and refine your message for other audiences.

  • Laura Lee Bloor says:

    I love that your posts always come at the right time. “I’m a sucker for an inspiring story” too, that’s the reason I love Success magazine so much.

    I’ve been thinking about joining a Toastmasters ever since I heard about them last year. Sure, passion in the person’s speech counts for a lot, but if the person is articulate and confident in his/her speech, it comes across even better.

    And yes, the term motivational speaker is a total joke thanks to all the awesome Chris Farley skits.

  • Melissa Dinwiddie says:

    You’re so right, Chris. Rather than “becoming a motivational speaker,” I think the key is just to share what you’re passionate about.

    Every time I’ve taught anything — whether it’s calligraphy, dance, voice, yoga, how to build a WordPress website — I find myself naturally being a “motivational speaker” because I’m so excited about “turning light bulbs on” for my students.

    I do the same thing in the rest of my life, whenever I’m sharing something I’m passionate about, teaching someone something I know about. Whenever there’s a light bulb waiting to be switched on, if I can show someone where the switch is, I can’t help myself!

    Motivation made easy, indeed!

  • Brooke Thomas says:

    Fab post Chris! I love it- it’s exactly what’s been on my mind like crazy lately (are you sure you’re not reading my mind like, all the time??) I just finished a great book with the same message called Transformational Speaking by Gail Larsen in case you or any other readers want to dive into that a bit more. Good stuff.

  • Tracy Pattin says:

    So well put Chris! So often we try to label ourselves as a “motivational speaker”…it’s never felt right for me. It’s become such a cliche. We must live our motivation (our passion) and then the opportunity to share our message will appear. I could have used this article over past 15 years! It may have pointed me in the right direction much sooner! Now, I am on my adventure path!!! Thanks for the validation. LOVE your blog!
    (my favorite book as a kid was, “How To Be a Non-Conformist”…I still have it!).

  • el sheila says:

    I agree completely! That’s what I tell my students all the time. To find their passion in life. When you talk about things you are passionate about, your eyes shine!

  • Spark says:

    When you mention about speaker, it’s doesn’t click me until when you mention “You can’t just BE A MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER. No one likes that shit. What you should do is BE PASSIONATE ABOUT SOMETHING. Show up and talk about something you give a damn about. Your passion will be motivational in itself.”

    What i am planning to do in the next few months or my up-coming projects – Creating pictures to inspire my follows 3D artists [That’s right, Motivational speaker doesn’t mean you need to speak. As long as we can inspire someone to do something. It’s enough]

    Thanks for writing this wonderful article, perhaps i might not be good in marketing or create sales for the any business. [Frankly speaking, I start marketing a few month ago] But i still love design and i will change back to where i love and passion about and inspire others to think creativity and design with love.

    Thanks again!

    P.S: Love reading your blogs and sometime it really get me to think about my lifestyl

  • Kevin says:

    Looking thru the comments, I thought I’d be the only one defending toastmasters, glad to see a couple of others. The ability to speak clearly only adds to the message, it is not the message. But if I mumble and stumble, I’ll be tuned out before I get very far. In one year my ability to speak in public has grown exponentially due to toastmasters. I’d recommend it to anyone.

    ps I’d love it if Chris Farley showed up and crashed thru the conference room table.

  • Kelly Watson says:

    A few friends and I were discussing this on Twitter. It struck us as strange that someone would become a speaker as their whole career. In my mind, speaking is a means to an end.

  • Annabel Candy says:

    Brilliant post and so true. Someone once called me a motivational writer which I thought was marvelous because when I write I hope I’ll motivate people to get off their butts and do whatever they want to do with their life! But you’ve got to have some concrete info to give people or a story to tell them like running a marathon even though you’re blind or losing 200lbs. I think we all have the power to motivate and inspire people. We all have a story to tell. We all have hidden passions. I wish everyone would use them like you and your friend to help other people. If we all motivate and support each other the world would surely be a better place:)

  • Kirk VandenBerghe says:

    Listening to a really good “motivational speaker” is often like taking a hot bath on a cold day. Cooking can be fun. The problem is you can’t pickle in the tub forever. Once you towel off, um…well, you know, you just kinda cool off.

  • MarkHJ says:

    I have worked with, and become close to 3 ‘motivational’ speaker types and met some others. Without exception none of them ‘walked the walk’ at all. One of them extolled the virtues of avoiding coffee, even decaff at all costs to reduce stress, it was banned in the office – spotted at home with a cafetiere in hand!! Another whose speciality was interpersonal relationships and learning at work – had a massive turnover of staff about 80% due her perosnality! And it was only the company I worked at where I never had any CPD. Another whose whole back story is fabricated to add gravitas and it isnt true! I like the messages but people are right in what they have said and have made me very wary of such people. Also there are many tricks of the trade that some use to win people over. Watch how many will ask the audience questions and then model the response they want – ie they raise there hand if they want the audience to. Passion wins through every time!!

  • Mark McGuinness says:

    I agree with Colleen. If you want to inspire people, do something inspiring. Their mirror neurons will pick up your enthusiasm and they’ll feel some of the same emotion.

  • ami | 40daystochange says:

    Great points. The wonderful thing about focusing on your passion, rather than on your technical speaking ability is that your passion will make you a good speaker. I’ve heard talented speakers give boring talks, and I’ve heard terribly shy and quiet people give talks that riveted their audience. Passion over ability.

  • Mike Ziarko musing says:

    Well said Chris.
    People always tell me that they can tell I’m passionate about something because of the way I talk about it, whether its my blog, my businesses, my work, gadgets, travel, the outdoors, whatever. When you talk about something your absolutely passionate about, you forget about the presentation and the mechanics of how your saying it, because the words seem to ebb and flow naturally. Of course if you get up to do a speech in front of 200 people you’ll feel nervous and you might want to be conscious of certain things, but theres no greater feeling than writing and talking about something you love. And if you can motivate and inspire others with your words, its infinitely rewarding.

  • Jean Burman says:

    Hi Chris. What a great post!

    When people speak with honesty and enthusiasm… it shows. That’s why YOU are doing what you are doing here [so well]. The “ums” and “ahhs” and all the other bloopers just make us human… and 100% of pretty much everyone on the planet can relate to that! I think it’s endearing to be so human. And so good to know that even the accomplished are not perfect [grin]

    Someone recently made a comment to me that had real impact. “Don’t change changing” they said. [I had to think about that one for a moment]… but then realised it was one of the best compliments I have ever received. Changing… growing… being… doing what you love… you simply can’t help but make a difference to the lives of the people around you [as well as your own] Passion and Enthusiasm are infectious. And so much fun to spread around!

    Thanks again for the reminder! 😀

  • Edward Paz says:

    Great post Chris.

    As an aspiring “motivational speaker” myself, I actually hate the label.

    Like you said, as long as I passionately communicate my message the hope is that in doing so, others would be motivated!

    I appreciate your work because it definitely has been a motivation for me! Keep up the great work and I look forward to your next post!

    Edward Paz

  • Shannon - SKS Designs says:

    Yes! Exactly! You summed up the entire learning point in one statement:

    “Between passion and presentation, passion wins every time.”

    Passion is the driving force in all that we do and the level of passion will determine the level of success. If a business is started without a passion for the product or services you are selling, you will fail. However, if you bring yourself and your passion into your products and services, you not only succeed but have the most fruitful and happiest life one can imagine.

    Be passionate in all that you do and motivate without even trying!

  • Ryan Martin says:

    I believe passion is so inspiring because it’s rare when we meet someone who is comfortable expressing their passion.

    There is a bit of a stigma that says if you are obsessed about something it’s unhealthy. We all know of stories of parents who discourage a child’s passion because they see it as “unhealthy” and/or “not piratical”.

    I love meeting people who express their passion; it’s rare to meet people who are truly alive.

  • Kiki Ramsey says:

    This post was very…..timely. I had just been taking to my husband about not wanting to call myself a motivational speaker. I am pasionate about helping women Take Charge of Their Lives and I do speak about it and coach. But it is really hard as a branding aspect of how to package what you do if you are a speaker. I do agree that the term is out dated and is sound dull. However instead of saying I’m a speaker I say I help women take charge of their lives and overcome their challenges. Then most people if they are interested will ask you how do you do that. Then that is my opportunity to tell them that I speak about the topic. This might be a help for others out there who are speakers but don’t want to call themselves motivational speakers. But I say if you can motivate others don’t quit because the world does need motivators.

  • WeAreAvant says:

    Most motivational speakers I’ve met have a bit of an aura about them. Whether they’re faking it, learned it or were born with it, they have a unique ability to both speak directly to audience members and an entire room, while sharing an important message that will positively affect the listeners’ lives.

    No matter how persuasive you are, if you don’t have a message to share, forget about it.

  • Sabrina says:

    The secret behind each motivational speaker is the passion which they strong up within them…So passion is the key role for success.

  • Art says:

    Thank you for this Article.

    It’s made me really think because I have been looking into speaking as a career. I really am passionate about people living their lives on purpose, following their hearts, and consciouly growing and expanding. What fuels this passion is that I’ve spent 13 years of my adult life inside of a religious cult. Additionally, I’ve overcome self esteem issues that have been life long that manifested in bullying, lack of social skills, and singled out for verbal abuse. Now for the first time in my life, I am living for me and prioritizing my desires. I love myself fully and unconditionally. I’m ready to get on the highest mountaintop and share the message of self love, healing, and spiritual growth. That’s what gets my juices going.

    Now this article has made me reconsider this approach. It’s a good thing becasue it’s making me think about what I can really offer to the world.

  • Chukwuma Austin says:

    This is exactly what I was looking for. Previously I felt there may be some thing that makes an individual a motivational extrinsic from the passion that drives the speaker from inside. I’m already a public speaker in a small scale owing to my peculiar situation. Ready to widen the scope of my operation and committed to achieving the desired goal. You’ve told me my PASSION is what is important.

  • venkatesh says:

    great stuff after long time i find this its absolueltly true

  • Bill Alpert says:

    Reminds me of all the times I’ve been pumped at at a motivational event, and by the time I got home, it’s as if nothing ever happened. Junk food for the mind. The soul wasn’t nourished. But I guess that’s how you sell tapes and books.

  • Akinsola says:

    Food for change, this post in itself a message of some sort for me.

  • Sam Adeyinka says:

    Hey Chris, it’s good to be here on your blog and
    to have stumbled on this great topic you shared
    so well. Thanks so much boss and I will be sure to
    work on myself in the coming days. 🙂


  • โรงงานเสื้อ says:

    Why viewers still use to read news papers when in this technological globe
    all is available on web?

  • Kim says:

    Very informative and I love the topic! To know more about public speaking, you can check this blog Engage – What NOT To Do When Presenting .Verity can help you be a great public speaker

Your comments are welcome! Please be nice and use your real name.

If you have a website, include it in the website field (not in the text of the comment).

Want to see your photo in the comments? Visit to get one.