By Rhymer Rigby
When it comes to motivational speakers, Allianz Insurance always looks out for a good story, says Stephen Flynn, corporate events manager: “The ones that work the best are those that are unusual enough to grab the imagination but generic enough that you can relate to them.” Mr Flynn says notable hits have been business coach and author Geoff Burch and rugby player Brian Moore – the latter’s tales of grit and determination even had some of the audience “in tears by the end”.
The use of speakers to fire staff up, especially at corporate events, is common. But anyone who has sat through a motivational speech that failed to motivate may agree that finding a speaker with the best combination of attributes so that they genuinely move staff and provide lasting value appears difficult to pull off.
Attributes that experienced organisers look for vary from fame to relevance, to the person’s ability to tell a good tale.
Mike Mair, head of training in product and supply chain at Cambridge-based Napp Pharmaceuticals, says the company has used speakers ranging from business author Paul McGee to the Olympic gold medal rower James Cracknell to motivate staff. “As long as the story is relevant and they are good enough, a variety of people can work. We have had seven external speakers in and not everyone is going to love all of them. That is why you need a range.”
The UK’s Federation of Small Businesses has invited speakers such as General Sir Mike Jackson and Jamie Murray Wells, founder of Glasses Direct. “We find the best are people with real experience of an industry or sector,” says Stephen Alambritis, head of public affairs. It has also heard a former pilot from the Red Arrows, the RAF aerobatics display team, “who was very good on teamwork and trust”, sports people, and people who have been through trauma, such as Beirut hostage John McCarthy. Good motivators, Mr Alambritis says, can come from any walk of life, although he generally finds that those from a sales background or politicians work less well.
Jeremy Lee, founder of Jeremy Lee Associates, a London-based speakers’ bureau, says: “A lot of motivational speakers give a bit of show and produce a good response. The next day you forget a bit and there is not much of a lasting return. But many others produce a more lasting effect.” While some of this is down to the presentation, the key to a message sinking in lies in follow-up by the company.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Lee says the effectiveness of a speaker has little to do with their fame. “There are reasons to pay the considerable premium for a celebrity – but these are mainly to put bums on seats and create a ‘wow factor’. Many of the most motivational speakers we use are not household names at all.”
Ben Williams, a business psychologist, agrees it is important to know what a company wants to get out of the speaker. “I was asked to do a speech for an oil company that said it thought it would be good to get a psychologist rather than a hypnotist,” he says. When someone tells you that you realise you may be there to provide a fig leaf of business value to what is essentially boozy staff entertainment, he says. As the speaker, you know that on this occasion a serious motivation session is probably not required.
Not knowing an audience can be a problem in other ways too, he adds. “I once saw an Everest mountaineer crash and burn very badly in front of a police audience. Many of them were mountaineers and he exposed himself as lazy and sloppy in thinking his audience would not know what he was talking about.”
Martyn Sloman, adviser on learning, training and development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK, is dubious about the genuine transfer of knowledge in many cases, in that very few people who work in offices are going to be climbing 8,000m mountains or competing for Olympic gold medals. “I’m not that impressed by those who knowingly put their lives at risk. It is difficult to see how that sort of thing relates to dealing with chippy subordinates all day and then going home an hour late and missing the school play,” he says.
Mr Mair has a solution to the question of can-you-really-relate-to-this? “For our next speaker we are using someone who is climbing a mountain [in the Himalayas]. But he is not external, he is a member of staff. If it is someone you work next to, then it does become real and relevant – you are not going to sit there thinking ‘How does this relate to me?’,” he says.