The Art and Business of Motivational Speaking
I am sitting in an Anaheim, California, hotel room with three motivational speakers, thinking for the first time in my life that coffee is superfluous. Kantis Simmons is practicing the close of his speech, and he is so in the moment that the air around him seems to vibrate. He feigns sobbing. He claps. He smacks his fist into his palm. Watching him from 4 feet away is like sharing a pup tent with a faith healer.
Simmons is relating the story of his birth. CliffsNotes version: Dad rushes to the hospital after learning that his new son has arrived in the world with just seven fingers. His mother is crying, "happy tears and sad tears..." -- here Simmons slides into a throaty falsetto as he mimics his mother delivering the devastating news. Now he is his father, voice deep and solicitous: " 'Sweetheart. Honey Lump. Calm down. Even though our baby boy is missing some of his fingers, he will still [beat] be [beat] great.' And, young people, whatever you are going through, I want you to remember the words of my father. You will still [beat] be [beat] great."
From the sofa, Josh Shipp -- the motivational sensei who is host of this mentoring session -- nods approvingly. At 29, Shipp could pass for 18: his face dusted with pale freckles, his hair like that of a classroom guinea pig whose fur kids keep ruffling. That youthfulness, coupled with a noncloying inspirational message and ADD scattershot humor, accounts for his appeal to the high school and young-adult audiences who have made him a $5,000-a-booking act. "Badass," says Shipp, to Simmons's evident gratification.
"For that greatness to grow, for me, I had to become my own personal cheerleader," Simmons continues. "I would look in the mirror and say, 'Kantis, you can be whatever you want to be...' "
"Oh, God, NO!" Shipp is yelling and laughing, halfway off the couch. "Why are you still talking? That was money! Wrap it up! Wrap it up! Get offstage!"
Even I could have advised Simmons to get while the getting was good. And until recently, I knew nothing about motivational speaking. A serial avoider of keynotes, I had assumed all motivational speakers were former astronauts, Olympians, or Everest scalers enjoying lucrative postcareers, distilling their capital-A achievements into model attitudes and behaviors. Or they were gurus like Anthony Robbins, with big smiles, bushy eyebrows, and best-selling programs for self-reinvention. Like many others, I took my cues from pop culture, which treats the profession with condescension-laced amusement. In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney played a motivational-speaker-as-emotional-cripple. In an episode of the British version of The Office, Ricky Gervais played a motivational-speaker-as-tin-eared-buffoon. ("If I've got one leg, at least I haven't got two legs missing. And if I've lost both legs and both arms, just go, at least I'm not dead. Though I would rather be dead in that situation.")
Who knew that motivational speaking could be a career choice -- let alone a profitable business? Turns out, it is both. Close to half of the 3,400 members of the National Speakers Association -- all of whom book at least 20 paid gigs a year -- earn their livelihoods from presentations that are at least partly motivational. (Many mix inspiration with educational and industry-specific material.) Slightly more than half have at least one employee. Aspiring speakers are entering the field earlier than ever, no longer treating the profession as a third or fourth act after years spent amassing expertise and life experiences. "Today, Generation Y is coming right out of college saying, 'I want to be a professional speaker,' " says Stacy Tetschner, CEO of the NSA.
For successful speakers, the financial rewards can be significant. In a 2007 survey, NSA members reported average gross revenue of $177,000 for speaking and product sales -- chiefly books and CDs. That statistic does not include star turns by the likes of Donald Trump and Ellen DeGeneres, who command upward of $200,000 for a single appearance.
Shipp's $5,000 fee is typical of speakers who have achieved keynote status. But speaking and things related account for just 60 percent of his earnings. The rest derive from a book (The Teen's Guide to World Domination) and educational materials for high schools. He lost his magazine column, Hey Josh, when Cosmo Girl stopped printing in late 2008, but starting in January, he will have a TV show, Jump Shipp, on Halogen. Presiding over this mini empire is something of a cushy job. With employees to handle chores such as media production and copywriting, Shipp works just two or three hours a day when he is not traveling and generally takes off all of December and January. "I can't believe I do this for a living," he says. "I have to lie about it to people on planes, because they don't believe me. Or they do believe me and want me to spend the whole flight motivating them."
Minting new talent is another revenue source. Shipp's twice-annual 12-person seminars on the art of uplift sell out at $3,000 a head. More recently, he has adopted Simmons, 36, and another disciple, Brooks Gibbs, 30, as the first in a stable of aspiring motivators he plans to personally advise and promote. The arrangement is meant to last eight years; during that time, Shipp will take 30 percent of his students' speaking fees in return for assistance with business strategy, marketing, branding, product-line extensions, and -- of course -- the content and delivery of their presentations. That sounds like a lot of money, but it covers payments to speakers' bureaus (bureaus typically receive 10 percent to 40 percent for any speeches they book), literary agents, and other organisms in the professional speakers' ecosystem. Gibbs, a former pastor who talks to young audiences about bullying and life choices, says Shipp's opening doors for him has produced 90 percent of the 40-plus engagements he has booked so far this year. "When I got the e-mail that Josh was going to work with me, the first words out of my mouth were I have been kissed by destiny," says Gibbs.
Surprisingly, no reality program chronicles the life of a motivational speaker. (Jump Shipp is about 20-year-olds making drastic life changes.) So to give aspiring inspirers an idea of what it takes to make it on the speaker circuit, I spoke to some experts and spent two days in the fittingly surreal environs of Disneyland, observing Shipp as he advised his protégés and prepared to deliver an opening-night address before the annual conference of the Business Professionals of America. Here, then, is how motivational speakers live their dreams by urging others to shoot for the stars.
"What does not kill me makes me stronger."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
A tiny Josh Shipp paces the stage at the Anaheim Arena, flanked by two enormous Josh Shipps projected on screens to the right and left. The 6,000 audience members -- some waving flags, some decked out in flashing red-white-and-blue headbands -- are gratifyingly Pavlovian. They laugh at the jokes, applaud at the carefully curated pop-culture references, and hush when things turn poignant.
At the heart of the motivational speech is the story: of achievement or endurance or, ideally, of both. As a child, Shipp didn't just start a lemonade stand: He started a chain of lemonade stands, hiring other kids to run them and bartering product for raw materials with an elderly neighbor who had a lemon tree. He is still a virtuoso maker of lemonade. Only now his raw materials are the lemons handed him by life.
Segueing from banter into the meat of his talk, Shipp sounds matter-of-fact, almost detached. He no longer feels the pain of his past and won't pander to the audience by pretending he does.
"By the time I was 8, I had lived in a bunch of different homes, foster homes. One home, 15 kids lived there. Ages 5 to 21. I was 8. At that particular home, for many, many weeks, I was beaten up, physically abused. Abused, abused, abused, abused. It sucked. It also made me feel very depressed. Very embarrassed. Very discouraged. Very defeated."
I have already heard a version of this story in a two-hour conversation over Skype. Onstage, Shipp doles out the biographical details in concentrated chunks, leavening the drama with jokes about the Nintendo Wii and the repeated exhortation, "Don't be average." It is a tale of abandonment (Shipp was left at the hospital by his 17-year-old unwed mother), of belonging nowhere and to no one. After years of rebellion and suicide attempts, and an arrest, Shipp was ultimately saved by a set of foster parents who refused to give up on him (not to mention by a providential introduction to the world of motivational speaking).
Occasionally in conversation, Shipp drops a line you can tell he has used in front of audiences a million times. (His foster parents' reaction upon learning he has been offered $75 to speak at a graduation ceremony: "Someone wants to pay you to talk? We'll pay you to shut up!") But he makes most of it feel fresh -- remarkably so, given that to him, it's anything but. "You've got your life, with experiences good and bad," says Shipp. "You've got lessons you learned from those experiences. And you've got your personality. That's your speech."
Endurance tales like Shipp's are a mainstay of noncelebrity speakers. Tag Goulet, author of FabJob Guide to Become a Motivational Speaker, says she gets e-mails every week from people -- many of them disabled -- who believe their lives will inspire others. "It's the human condition to want to help people with stories of our struggles and also to hear stories about people who've overcome the odds," she says.
The biographies of Gibbs and Simmons fall squarely in this category. In his speeches, Gibbs, a pastor until he became disillusioned with church politics, evokes his teenage years of drugs, petty crime, and a family environment in which his father repeatedly threatened to kill himself. Simmons, in the early days of his speaking career, anchored his talks about academic success to his own achievements, which include two advanced engineering degrees and a stint at NASA. Then one day, when asked to fill in for another speaker at the last minute, he decided on the spur of the moment to talk about his handicap. "When I was onstage, I'd always see people noticing my fingers and poking their friends and saying, 'Look at that,' " Simmons says. "So I started telling finger stories and using it as a way to talk about the things that hold us back in life. That was the best speech I ever gave. It became my brand, my hook, my story."
Even those who have dodged life's slings and arrows can inspire audiences with acts of chutzpah or quirky individualism. Stacy Tetschner cites as an example Scott Ginsberg, who has given more than 400 speeches to 250,000 people around the world about how he meets people by wearing a nametag 24/7. Judson Laipply launched his speaking career with stories and lessons drawn from his eclectic work history, including stints on a cruise ship, at a summer camp, and as a housepainter. But Laipply's speaking career took off when his YouTube video "The Evolution of Dance" went massively viral. "This is a normal guy who did something cool," says Chris Fisher, owner of The Fisher Agency, a speakers' bureau that represents Laipply, as well as Shipp and -- now, thanks to Shipp -- Simmons and Gibbs. "After that, his booking requests went off the charts.
"What you want to avoid are the general motivational stories like you hear at summer camp," says Fisher. "There was an old man on a beach picking up sand dollars and throwing them back in the ocean. Some kid comes up to him and says, 'Mister, there's thousands of sand dollars out here. Why are you throwing them back in? It's not worth it.' And the old man holds up a sand dollar and says, 'It's worth it to this one.' Don't do sand-dollar stories."
"You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great."
-- Zig Ziglar
There are several paths to becoming a motivational speaker. Some people begin as experts in their fields -- most commonly sales -- then jump the corporate ship to educate others in their techniques and inspire them to comparable success. Many combine education with motivation and target specific industries. Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame directed his early presentations at fellow chiropractors. Soup co-creator Mark Victor Hansen addressed the insurance industry. Others start out as authors of self-help books. The books attract speaking gigs; speaking gigs sell more books.
Then there are those "who just have a story within them, and they go out there and start testing it," says Tetschner. "They go to a Kiwanis Club, and someone in the audience may come up and say, 'How much would you charge to come deliver that speech to this association or this group?' That's how it starts to catch fire."
But don't expect that Kiwanis gig to pay out in anything more than pancakes. "At first, you can expect to do freebies, like a standup comic at open-mike nights," says Goulet. "There's a ton of organizations in every city that have after-breakfast speakers where you can volunteer. You give out evaluation forms or just listen to feedback afterward. You take baby steps."
Goulet and Tetschner both recommend targeting specific groups, such as business professionals, technologists, or doctors. (Shipp, Gibbs, and Simmons specialize in young audiences, although Shipp -- father of a 1-year-old -- anticipates switching to parents and teachers when he grays out of the cool-big-brother persona.) "One of the biggest mistakes new speakers make is to try to be all things to all people," says Goulet. Excluding celebrities and best-selling authors, "people usually aren't interested in generalists," she says.
Shipp is unusual in that motivational speaking is all he has ever done. (Unless you count waiting tables while a student at University of Central Oklahoma, where he studied marketing and psychology -- an awesome double major for aspiring speakers.) As a high school senior, Shipp got involved with a student leadership and marketing organization that sent him to schools around Oklahoma. There he promoted the group and, in an effort to be entertaining, delivered short speeches comparing success to coleslaw. Word of mouth earned him paid engagements before he graduated, including a Safe Schools Summit in which he shared a stage with Bill Cosby in front of 25,000 people. "I asked him, 'Do you have any advice for me, getting started in this?' " recalls Shipp. "He said, 'When people are starting, they're often afraid of the pause. The audience's silence is them talking back to you.' I thought it was so cool. I got speaking advice from Bill Cosby. It was this rock star of a day." After that, Shipp knew he would be a podium monkey for life.
The experiences of Simmons and Gibbs are more typical. Both long believed they had a vocation and a message but wedged their speaking work into evenings and weekends while holding down conventional jobs. Simmons was working as a scientist for a contact-lens manufacturer in Atlanta, cramming talks at local schools into his lunch breaks and using his vacation days to range farther afield. At first, the engagements were a way to sell his self-published book, Playing Your "A" Game. But after researching the motivational industry, Simmons realized he could make more money speaking and using the book to establish expertise. "I started seeing my speaking job, which I was very passionate about, as my full-time job," says Simmons.
Speaking became Simmons's full-time job for real in August 2008, when he was laid off. Rather than pursue corporate work, he began booking whatever speeches he could get. At first, the fees were puny: $100 here, $500 there. Now that he has a track record and client testimonials, he charges around $1,500 to $2,000, and he hopes to raise that. "A school will say, 'Well, Kantis, we don't have the budget now to bring you in,' " says Simmons. "At one time, I would say, 'OK. What do you have? I will do it for that. Or I'll do it for free.' Now that this is my source of income, I can't do that anymore."
Like all entrepreneurs, Simmons is taking a gamble. But he has a working wife and no children, so the downside is arguably manageable. Gibbs's dream comes with higher personal stakes: He is the sole breadwinner in a family of four. His wife is paraplegic, having broken her neck as a gymnast when she was 14, and they have two small children. "When we decided to do this, we moved to Dallas, where we could live cheaper and have support from friends," says Gibbs, who was a youth speaker before entering the ministry and squeezed in presentations during his nine years as a pastor. "My wife and I agreed we would do what it takes to make this into a career. It's our leap of faith."
Simmons and Gibbs knew Shipp by reputation -- Gibbs struck up an e-mail exchange with him six years ago -- and both took his course. They are now counting on him to raise their businesses to the next level: 100 or more paid speaking engagements a year. "I have the gift," says Gibbs. "I have the message. My speech is off the hook. But I didn't know how to make a living doing it. That's where Josh comes in."
"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else."
-- Judy Garland
Shipp is gazing intently at a laptop computer, while Gibbs hovers anxiously beside him. Onscreen, a miniature Gibbs, wearing black jeans and Elvis Costello geek glasses, is emoting before a whiteboard in a high school auditorium. "OK, write these things down," commands Shipp. "There's a couple of shots early on where some of the kids in the audience look bored. That's a little distracting, because the voiceover is going, 'Brooks Gibbs captivates audiences.' "
"Got it," says Gibbs, taking notes. "And there's, like, no humor. Part of my thing is hilarious jokes, and the videographer didn't include any of that. Is that OK?"
"No. Because if you're funny, that does help," says Shipp. "For the first 30 seconds, I wouldn't be afraid of quick cuts. Funny-serious-funny-serious. Then slow down the pace."
For professional speakers, the single most important skill after speaking is marketing. And the single most important element of marketing is the demo video. "If these guys had nothing else -- not even a website -- I would say the first thing you do is go out and make a great video and slap it on YouTube," says Shipp. "Because what clients are buying is you standing up on a stage for 45 minutes. The video is the trailer to your movie." Shipp recommends that videos be no longer than three or four minutes -- "and don't save your money shots for the end," he counsels his protégés, "because most people may not watch that long. Assume you've just got two minutes to convince them you're the right guy."
In other respects, motivational-speaker marketing differs little from marketing any small business. In college, Shipp began harvesting names and e-mail addresses of school principals from Google and sending out introductory e-mails with links to his website. He soon shifted from schools to associations and organizations. "The ideal strategy is to get in front of a lot of different people who can book you," says Shipp. "I'd talk to a group in Tennessee, and there are 59 kids in the audience who all go to different high schools. Some of them hit me up. I would speak in Texas, and there's 100 people in the audience representing different organizations. They hit me up. It's all word of mouth."
Ten years later, Shipp's presentation before the Business Professionals of America -- an organization for students pursuing careers in business and technology -- places him before representatives of 2,000 schools. In the days following the Anaheim engagement, approximately 75 percent of the students typed into their browsers the vanity URL andagoat.com (don't ask) that he routinely pops into his speech. That took them to a special website replete with videos, e-books, a "newsletter of awesomeness," and other goodies. In October, Shipp addressed the youth speaker's equivalent of Woodstock: the annual convention of the Future Farmers of America, with an audience of 50,000. If the FFs respond in numbers typical of Shipp's listeners, more than 30,000 will eventually sign on at andagoat.com to establish a continuing relationship with the speaker -- and create the potential for untold future bookings. "I get 10 requests a day for Josh," says Fisher. "He likes to keep his bookings at around 65 or 70 a year. But I could book him 150, easy."
Roughly 80 percent of speakers derive some revenue from such goods as DVDs and books, according to the NSA. Shipp offers both. He also sells T-shirts and recently produced a set of classroom materials on self-esteem that he sells to high schools for $197. Simmons and Gibbs have self-published books -- on success and bullying, respectively -- and Gibbs is champing at the bit to generate more. "Do you think I should do an e-book on life choices that I could link to from my website?" he asks eagerly as Shipp closes his computer. Shipp gently reins him in. "It's important to do that eventually, but right now, I don't think it will get you gigs," he says. "You know what I want you to concentrate on."
"The video," says Gibbs.
"Until it makes you crazy," says Shipp.
"I've got a theory that if you give 100 percent all of the time, somehow things will work out in the end."
-- Larry Bird
Shipp's speech to the Business Professionals of America ended more than an hour ago, and still they keep coming: phalanx after phalanx of teenagers and twentysomethings, waving $20 bills and stretching cell-phone cameras above the sea of heads. The arena just closed, and Shipp and his entourage have been ejected to the plaza outside. Shipp's wife, Sarah, pulls fistfuls of promotional T-shirts from a cardboard carton and shoves them at Gibbs, who is on his knees on a table. Gibbs hands out the shirts and passes the money back to Sarah. Simmons roams the scene with a video camera, recording the events.
Audience members are thrusting their programs under Shipp's nose for autographs and snuggling up beside him for photos. I corral a couple dozen and ask them what about the presentation they found compelling. I'm expecting praise for the humor (even I, who aged out of Shipp's target audience in the Reagan administration, find him funny). And many do mention the jokes. But every one of them, without exception, talks earnestly about his message: of rejecting mediocrity, of overcoming setbacks, of listening to and appreciating adults who try to help them.
Despite the adoring crowds, motivational speaking can be a lonely existence -- one reason it suited George Clooney's Up in the Air character, whose stump speech was about unloading people from your life. And in the early days, when adoring crowds are scarce, the drop-in-pump-'em-up-get-out routine can be, ironically, demoralizing for the speaker. "It's fun giving the speech, but then you're in a random city all by yourself," says Shipp. "I don't like to be alone. It's not good for me."
With income from speeches and other projects approaching $2 million, Shipp can now afford to have friends accompany him on long trips, often paying them to film his presentations or for other tasks. After their marriage, Sarah Shipp gave up her job as a Pilates instructor, and the pair traveled together for a year, staying in cheap hotels, pulling in late at night to small towns where the only food to be found was at the gas station–bowling alley. "When Brooks and Kantis started working with Josh, I told them it's a great thing if your spouses can travel with you to a couple of events," says Sarah, who has started her own Pilates business so she can accompany her husband when she wants. "A lot of times, people don't grasp how tiring it is and how tired you are afterward."
Shipp looks exhausted as the last of his fans fade into the Anaheim night. From the frenzied response, it's obvious that he killed, but I ask him anyway how he thinks it went. "The first 60 seconds into it, I thought it was going pretty well," he says. "Five minutes into it, I thought it was going really well. I made fun of [the popular computer game] FarmVille onstage tonight, which I had never done before. Anything that is untested, there's that split second of Oh, God, please work. I always put that stuff in the middle, because if there's silence, it doesn't matter so much. But they laughed, so that was good. I still want to sharpen it a little."
He appears to do a quick mental calculation. "I'd give it an 8.5 out of 10," he says.
I mention some of the fans I spoke to that night and ask if he thinks they will follow through and change their lives as a result of his speech. Shipp hunches his narrow shoulders in his leather jacket, looking thoughtful. "I'm glad if I connected with them, if I helped them see something in a different light," he says. "It's fantastic if I made a difference. Maybe they will make changes." He grins. "But really, the only way I can change someone's life would be to live with them for several years. That's not part of the job." And with that, Shipp and his wife head off to find someplace near The Happiest Place on Earth that serves dinner after midnight.