How to get the most motivation from your motivational speaker

Recently I saw an invitation to an event where a panel of industry experts were going to talk about mental toughness, something that I would normally rush to see.

Then I saw the format – it wasn’t going to be a presentation, it was going to be exclusively a question and answer session. Oh dear, that seldom works. You’ve seen them yourself. Most Q&A sessions (with some exceptions – see below) can be variable to say the least.

But that did raise an interesting question – how do you get the most motivation from a motivational speaker? How do you get alignment between what your organisation needs and what the speaker deliver? How can you shape the event and guide the speaker to ensure that you get the best return on your investment?

This is a process that I’ve been through a few hundred times so here are my thoughts about some good questions and not so good questions that you might try asking or avoiding when briefing your next speaker.

“Here’s, ideally, what we want you to achieve.”

This is sweet music to the ears of most speakers. Most speakers, and all the good ones, are very keen to bring the most value to you as a client. We don’t want to ask you ‘How did it go?’ afterwards, we want to know that it went well beforehand.

So it’s very important to be clear as possible about what you would like the audience to be thinking, feeling and doing after the presentation. The other place to start is …

“Here’s what the problem is. Here’s the history of actions we’ve been taken.”

A good speaker is more like a consultant. They should be able to assess the situation and use their tools (anecdotes, observations, facts and activities) to help bring about change.
It’s very important to know what else has been done so that the presenter’s materical can best fit into the solution. They should also be able to tell you about the results that you can expect.

Not every speech starts with a problem!If the purpose of the event is just to for example, reward clients – that’s absolutely fine. But that’s quite different from an event intended to improve teamwork. They both should be entertaining but one will have message.

Which brings us to which messages and how many.

“Here’s the 15 points we would like you to make.”

Can you remember the last time you heard a motivational speaker? How many points can you remember? Probably not many. A speaker can fire about six idea bullets, you want them all to hit a target.

If you have any ideas for what those bullets should be, ie how you would like it addressed that’s great, the speaker will have some as well. If you’ve been to the speaker’s website and seen the range of speeches advertised then don’t be concerned about mixing and matching different elements. Speeches are put together as ‘modules’ and most of the time the relevant chunks can be swapped between.

One of my clients recently got very specific. Here is what they asked me to cover.
–    The importance of goal setting
–    How do they get excited about their goal?
–    How should they plan to achieve it?
–    How should they reward themselves?
–    Something about resilience

Done and done!

“What do you talk about? What points do you make? And how do you make them?”

It might seem obvious but this is a good question.

There are broadly two types of speakers – ‘Event based speakers’ and ‘Subject matter experts’. Event-based speakers (like me!) talk about something that they did, like being an All Black, or becoming NZer of the year, or trekking to the South Pole. To provide a satisfying story experience they will necessarily have a beginning, the call to take on the quest, some obstacles, and a resolution. From this narrative ‘spine’ they can jump off and focus on different points. You might be expecting just a patty, but you’re going to get a bun and some special sauce as well.

It’s a good idea, and quite fun, at the briefing to hear the speaker’s early ideas about how they are going to meet your aims, and hear the anecdotes they use to make their points.

You will also hear what the speaker typically talks about. When I describe how I shape my presentations and topics that are received particularly well, clients often decide that they would like those elements to be part of the solution too.

“You have 60 minutes.”

Duration and objective go hand and hand. In general the longer the presenter talks for the more value you get. Up to a point – the brain can only take in what the bum can handle. You know your audience and what their concentration span is. For some audiences an hour is a long time to be sitting, for others, up to 2 hours is fine (provided there is a brief stand up break in the middle). After dinner concentration spans are usually shorter.

Knowing the finish time is as important as the duration. Conferences almost always run late. If the speaker’s session starts late it’s essential to be clear whether sticking to the agreed duration is more important than finishing at the agreed time – for example, to let people catch flights.

“Tell them that they have to do X.”

This is tricky.

Every audience loves it when it feels like the speaker has tailored the content to them, recognises the event, the location, special things about the day, uses the conference theme, weaves in the company values and specific challenges and goals and adjusts the examples and anecdotes so that it best works the audience and organisation. This is all good.

On the other hand, it is possible to overbrief the speaker so that they start using the same words and phrases that management has been using to get a desired behaviour out of the staff. When this happens the speaker can lose credibility with the audience.

A speaker’s message should reinforce what the client wants, but do it in a way that appears happily coincidental. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say a client has a problem with teamwork and that different parts of the organisation are working in silos, with sales being the worst culprits. In this case it would be unwise for the speaker to say anything like ‘Sales – you’ve got to buck your ideas up and stop over-promising you’re stressing out the other teams.’

Instead, the speaker can relate a story about their own experience. I can weave in an anecdote about how Jamie and I faced this problem of conflicting priorities out in the Atlantic or in the South Pole trek, and how we resolved it. I can talk about a technique we used that was really useful for us. People will get the idea.

I’ve had feedback from the client where they’ve said, ‘My staff are finally saying to me things I’ve been trying to tell them for months!’ That’s a perfect outcome.

“Shall we have a 45min Q&A at the end?”

Absolutely, but we need to set it up so we dodge some potholes as Q&A’s can be awkward and unproductive.

In theory a Q&A with the speaker should allow the audience to probe deeper on the topics that interested them, and get clarity on how to apply the tools and techniques.

The Q&A should be where the rubber hits the road. Where the audience gets to throw a few stones at what’s been said, satisfy themselves it’s useful and get some specific help putting their plans in place to implement.

In theory.

Unfortunately, what happens in practice is when put on the spot people’s minds go blank and they are squeamish about talking in front of their peers. So they tend to go for safe questions. I nearly always get asked ‘What are you going to do next?’ Which is a nice non-threatening conversation starter, but talking about my plans doesn’t really help move them forward. (I should really respond ‘What are YOU going to do next?’!)

The audience can also get sidetracked. I was at a Q&A with the All Black coach Steve Hansen recently. The facilitator opened with something like ‘Now we aren’t here to ask Steve about rugby, we here to find out how he runs a high performance organisation.’
So the questions were mostly about rugby.

The last problem with Q&A sessions is that they get hijacked by people who have a certain niche issue that doesn’t apply to the majority.

Here’s a surefire way to improve the Q&A – submit the questions electronically during the presentation. There are some great solutions out there like ‘Slido’ that allow the audience to tap in questions from their phone. This can be done in real time during the presentation so the questions reflect the whole content, not just what was said just before the Q&A started. The app also allows audience members to vote questions up or down and so the presenter gets a bit of a poll on the question’s relevance.

The Q&A session should not be the whole session, there needs to be some content beforehand. It comes down to how adults learn best. The best way to learn is when you get tested to find out what you need to know, then get some structured content from a credible source, punched home with some powerful anecdotes.

Most of the time we miss the diagnosis part at the start (except if you get my ‘Breakthrough Workshop’!) but if the content is strong then it still works. A much more haphazard way of learning is to get the laundry lists of ideas, or random anecdotes that can come out of unstructured, uncensored Q&A’s.

‘Don’t mention the war!’ – dealing with sensitivities

A client was recently telling me about a speaker they had had who had made some good points, but had so offended the audience in the first five minutes that for the rest of the hour all of his wisdom fell on stony ground.

Companies have wildly different cultures. In some companies I’ve spoken too you could drop F-bombs all day and they would have thought you’re a vicar. In other organisations you can start a riot by using the wrong pronoun. Your company is probably somewhere in the middle. But if you have any sensitivities it’s really important for the speaker to know.

There may be some words in your industry that are real hot buttons. For example, sometimes franchisees like to be referred to as ‘branches’, other times that would be exactly the wrong word to use!

In one company I spoke to, I talked about ‘revenue’ – suddenly it felt like I had broken wind in front of the pope. It turns out that the correct term was something like ‘ledger value’.

Follow these tips and you’ll get the most motivation from your motivational speaker!


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