The Magic of Motivation Done Well

As a motivational speaker, I get all kinds of assignments that challenge me and take me out of my comfort zone. Case in point – yesterday – when I spoke to the staff of a hospital – for FOUR HOURS. Yes, that’s a lot of Kelly Swanson. And it was particularly challenging for me because I’m not a trainer, and this event was not set up to be a training session. This four-hour time slot was devoted to motivation. They didn’t want PowerPoint. They didn’t want handouts. They didn’t want lectures. Yes, they wanted to learn – but they wanted their messages to be deep and broad and spoken to the heart. But even more, they wanted to be motivated. They have enough information. They wanted to feel appreciated. They sit through enough lectures and tips on communication skills. They wanted to revive morale and get a second wind. And have fun doing it.  A very challenging task for a four-hour time frame. Even Broadway shows know to quit earlier than that. I had to create a four-hour PERFORMANCE that would keep their attention from moment 1 to moment 240 – and didn’t involve walking over hot coals, despite the fact that we were in a hospital and they were equipped to handle burns.

But if you know me, I love a challenge. And I love to push myself out of my comfort zone, even if I hate it while I’m in it. It teaches me so much. I’m happy to report that yesterday I knocked it out of the park. How did I know? They didn’t move. Well, they did move when I had them dance and sing and act out stuff. But all the other times – they didn’t move. They didn’t text. They didn’t talk to their neighbor. They didn’t take out paper and make up a grocery list. They watched. And didn’t move. Wow. The day was simply magical. And here’s how I did it:

  1. See it as a performance. No matter what content you are delivering, you MUST deliver it in the form of a show. Period. From the first moment to the last. The moment you step into the role of a lecturer simply spitting out information, they start to check out. Don’t think for one moment that all I did was entertain. THAT would have been easy.
  2. Make it about them. There is no way that same program could have been delivered the next day to a different industry. It was too much about THEM. And that’s the point. I had a funny tribute to their industry – pointing out the frustrations in their profession. I got them up to act out scenes in front of each other, and they loved seeing their buddies on stage. I told a story about walking back into your spotlight, and brought up someone from the audience to sing. We didn’t plan that – we let the magic happen in the moment – and magic it was. I did a serious tribute that thanked them for what they do in their community to heal bodies and heal hearts. And we had a forgiveness moment – where we forgave those in the workplace who had hurt us – where we let go of grudges – and it was powerful and healing. (And I would never have experienced that unless I had four hours to work with.)
  3. Find you a Josh. Josh is a concert pianist who wandered into Prides Hollow and never left. Now he helps me bring the town to life with music. Music was just the added magic I needed. I don’t know how I would have made it four hours without him. It was worth every moment of fear and anxiety it took to take me out of my comfort zone. It might not be a piano for you – or even music – but does your program need a “Josh”?
  4. I came off script. If you know me, you know I’m a heavily scripted person. I plan every moment. I like every word to have as much power and punch as I can give it. And I will keep doing this. But I also allowed myself the freedom to come off script – to react to the audience – to tell a story I didn’t plan – to simply let the moment guide me.
  5. I aimed for different. While I would love to try and be better than any speaker you’ve ever seen – that’s just too hard. And too many definitions of better to prove that there is no best way. So I aim for different. Maybe my message isn’t new – but I will strive to deliver it in a way you haven’t seen before – wrapped in a new story – a new joke – or a stupid silly song. I’ve learned that it’s not better that gets your attention – it’s something different. And oddly enough, that ends up looking like better in your book.
  6. Every ten minutes the energy changed. One man told me that he never had time to get bored because something new was happening at every turn. That doesn’t happen by accident. I plan it that way. I make sure that I never go more than ten minutes in the same direction – and by direction I mean mood, tempo, energy, funny, sad, standing on this side, standing on that side, coming up to the audience, yelling, whispering, telling a story, telling a joke, dancing – you get the picture.
  7. I left the thinking at home. They say that when a football player hits the field on game day, the time for thinking is over. And I agree. When I hit that stage, the time for thinking is over. It’s time to get out of my head and fly. I was up at 3 am the night before, thinking of everything that could go wrong – addressing last minute script changes – wondering what if. I had spent countless hours, days, and weeks writing and rehearsing and writing again. Adding this and taking away that. Josh had spent countless hours moving notes, banging out cords, switching phrases. We were there the day before checking sound equipment. Last minute shifts and changes. Going over and over our plan. The morning of the event we were greeting and taking inventory of our audience. Getting to know them and making changes up to the last minute to make the right choices for our new friends. But once we hit that stage for game day. The thinking stopped. And we just played. You have to get out of your head on game day.
  8. I stayed true to me. While I did a lot of new things I wasn’t used to, I still stayed true to my style. I didn’t let a new setting, a new audience, or a new time frame freak me out. I did what brung me. And I trusted my cape. I decided a long time ago that I couldn’t be a good fit for everybody. Some people will hate it. Some will sleep. Some won’t get it. Some will think it’s too deep. Some will think it’s too basic. So I’ll let some go. And stick to what I do. Because if I change for everybody then I create this water-downed version of every other speaker you see. And if you know me, you know that I DON’T BLEND.
  9. I was honest. No, I’m not calling you a liar. I’m saying that one thing that really works with my audience is getting real. It’s my secret weapon. I don’t go in claiming to be the expert. I don’t breeze in acting like a diva. I don’t claim to have all the answers – or any of them really. I go in front of them broken. Hilariously broken. I go in as one of them. I go in as, well, me. The REAL me. And that is scary – admitting that you draw on your eyebrows, or dancing on stage when it takes thirty minutes for your butt to stop dancing when you’re through. It’s scary showing my weaknesses. But when I do, we connect. Somebody came up to me yesterday and said, “You know what I love most about you? Your honesty. We need that. Especially women. We need someone to encourage us to just get honest with each other and with ourselves. Thank you for having the courage to be honest.” There is a difference between getting up on stage and admitting your faults, and actually getting up on stage and admitting your faults. If you polish it up, they will know. Don’t be scared to be real. It works. And it should be easy – after all, it is you.
  10. I didn’t listen to what you told me to do. I’ve been listening to you for a while. Thinking I needed to be like you – do what you do – read your list and follow it. And while I respect you, I am not you. And at some point I had to decide what works for me, despite the fact that it might not work for most of you. I’ve been told that more information will add credibility. I’ve been told you need statistics. I’ve been told that the audience must participate. I’ve been told that PowerPoint is where it’s at.  I’ve been told that I should wear pantyhose and a suit. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t wear too many accessories. I’ve been told to dress the part. I’ve been told that an audience doesn’t want a performance. I’ve been told not to call myself a motivational speaker – that it’s a thing of the past. I’ve been told that it insults my audience to work off a script. I’ve been told many things I should do when speaking to a corporate healthcare group. Yesterday, I broke every rule I’ve ever heard. Standing ovation. Case in point.

I don’t say any of this to brag. That is not my intent. My intent is to encourage you – and to show you that you can do this too  – and to entice you to trust your gut and your gifts. So yesterday was a good day. Now I’ve got something new coming next week. Yikes. Time to stretch. A new jump is coming my way. How about you? Are you ready to jump?


Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson - called one of North Carolina's funniest women by Our State Magazine. Kelly lifts the spirits of audiences from coast-to-coast using humor, storytelling, and lives of the characters from Prides Hollow - Kelly's make believe small town. This unique approach to motivational speaking allows Kelly to break through communications barriers and connect directly to the audience's imagination.
Her powerful stories and wacky wit will make you laugh, remind you that you matter, show you how to see beyond your obstacles, and teach you how to stand up and stick out in a crowded market.
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  1. Hey Kelly – nice job – really nice, incredible, gifted job!  As a motivational speaker who literally wrote the book on getting out of your comfort zone (I know it’s not all about me), I fully support every single thing you said and I congratulate you!  After all, life is lived outside of your comfort zone.  Wish I was there to witness your magic in person!

  2. Thanks Marilyn!!!! I’ll be sharing the video soon. We had it all taped. And you’ll be able to watch the clips and say, “That wasn’t so great. Kelly exaggerated.”

    • Kelly – you totally crack me up!  Now, of course I’m thinking of the commentators at the Olympics saying that our US woman was a sure thing to win gold in the vault, everyone knows it, wonder who will get silver and bronze, who cares, we’re getting gold, all she has to do is stay on her feet – walk in the park…..then she lands on her patoogie!  Wow – they were a bit too much.  But you?  Never!!!  I’m sure you weren’t exaggerating at all!

  3. Kelly I so wanted to be in your audience as you described your day. You take my breath away with your ability to put me in the moment, so I can only imagine what the attendees experienced. You make me want to be brave, even more real and JUMP! You are a motivational speaker, you’re also a performer, gifted artist, talented writer, creative soul, amazing friend and the list goes on and on. You are also in a category of one to quote Joe Calloway. So happy our paths crossed when they did so I can be a part of this incredible ride you’re taking to the top! By being you.

  4. I feel like you have shared the most valuable advice for all of us motivational speakers, Kelly.  I am printing this out and hanging it eye level as I write, edit and direct my next presentation.  Wow, I can’t WAIT to see the clips!  Make them long and indulgent!!  Fantastic girl!!!!!!

  5. Brilliantly said, Ms. Kelly.  I think you just wrote the “White Paper” on motivational speaking.  My only wish is that I could have been in that audience to witness it.  And oh what a gift you give people when you present from THAT place in your heart and soul.  Bravo, Kelly.  Bravo.

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