What is truly inspirational?


Discover your true self. Get your success mantra. Dream big. These are a few lines that have been reduced to empty cliches ever since motivational speaking became another million-dollar industry with countless "motivators" competing for a chance to "inspire" you. We aren't saying there are no pearls of wisdom to be gathered from an inspiring, insightful talk. But surely, before we shell out hard-earned money to hear someone talk, we could do a little bit of homework.

An old BBC page pins down the basics to a five-point list of advice to the speakers:

  1. Have a clear message to pass on to your audience
  2. Aim to move your audience
  3. Don't speak too often
  4. Use positive language
  5. Consider the context of your message

Unfortunately, few speakers seem to remember the fundamentals and go on to drain the pockets of the audience, mock their intelligence with empty speech and leave them hanging.

Allow me to illustrate this with an example. Recently, I attended a big-ticket event called the Thrillionaire workshop by Nik Halik. The organisers had roped in an efficient publicity firm to spread the word far and wide, and almost every newspaper carried pre-event interviews and announcements. Instead, for my newspaper, I decided to attend the talk and then do a detailed report.

The workshop invites had said: "Nik Halik, one of the world’s most recognized and widely-read authors, will help the attendee shift from where they are now to where they need to be in order to excel in these challenging times." Whoa! Who wouldn't like to learn that even if it costs thousands of rupees for a few hours' talk? It promised to act as a lighthouse for many "who feel lost and for anyone who has not defined their 'WHY' factor or divine purpose in life."

Well, much to my disappointment, nothing remotely close to that happened. Besides expanding on the publicity material already available, which extolled Halik's achievements as having lunched on the bow of the Titanic underwater, travelled to outer space, slept in the King's chamber of the Great pyramid of Egypt and so on, he gave away no clues on how he made his millions. But what about the promise of revealing "how you can make the world your playground by shaping your own financial destiny and creating a magical life," to the eager audience in a packed hall? All of us had braved pouring rain, peak-hour traffic and set aside work to attend the talk.

He peppered the hard-to-believe story of his life with slick slide shows and videos to illustrate the millions he blew on a wish-list he drew up from Tintin comics when eight. He also cited his principle, which he called The Nik Halik formula: (P + T) * A2) + F = S; where P is for passion, T for talent, A for action and association, F for faith and S for success. He also didn't forget to throw in lines like: Dare to dream. Hold on to your inner-child. Have goals. Live with passion. Challenge the system. Find a mentor. Do what you love and do it often. Don't focus on money; focus on your goals, however childish it may be, and money will come automatically. But really, didn't we all hear these in school?

How is it remotely motivating to swallow cliches?

At the end of it, most of us were left feeling quite foolish instead of fired up -- for buying into the hype or clever marketing.

Of course, not everyone is a Deepak Chopra or even a close cousin. And this post is not to rubbish all motivational talk. But what is not immediately evident is that most self-help gurus are just the creation of a good PR and branding machinery.

Instead, our contention is a talk would motivate only if there is a clear context to the speech, with the speaker illustrating every point with examples, even citing real life experiences. That is how sometimes, with hardly any dramatics, books or even short articles inspire readers. For instance, during a recent interview with YourStory, Ann Rosenberg, head of SAP Global University Alliances, said: "Never give up. Everything is possible. You will always have people who will make things difficult for you, but you just have to find another way around it, and you can do it." (http://her.yourstory.com/ann-rosenberg-head-sap-global-university-alliances-1109) She was not doling out cliches here. Her words were motivational because she had walked the talk, and had more than enough to show us where it came from when she told us how her determination and passion shaped her professional journey from traditional Denmark -- "where men have high aspirations and women stay back at home and take care of the children" -- to the top of the technology space.

Such is the power of speech, it has driven people to commit mass murders (Charles Manson is an example) start cults (eg. Osho) or simply startup. It was a speech by David Heinemeier Hansson at Stanford Startup School in 2008 that urged Sriram V Iyer to start Umobile, a mobile, broadband and wireless technology company that makes connection managers, mobility managers, device management and data sync solutions with special focus on LTE and 4G technologies. "In fact, it was a series of talks that tipped the balance for me. It was 2008 and entrepreneurship was still new in India. I dreamt of starting up but didn't know how to. At the Startup School, I heard David Hansson, Paul Graham, Jeff Bezos, Peter Norvig and Greg McAdoo of Sequoia Capital. That was like a crash course in how do you startup in the new age. My friend, Arun Samudrala, and I made up our minds, quit our jobs and started up," Sriram says.

Well, that's the power of motivational speech. The speakers Sriram and Arun heard were true motivators and not some snake oil salesmen who have jumped on to the motivational bandwagon.

So, next time you get tempted to spend your precious time and money for a motivational speech, do a litmus test on the speakers. Do they have real stories to tell? Hopefully, there will be plenty of that at YourStory's MobileSparks 2013 coming up in Bangalore on December 14.


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