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Why a Funny, Motivational Speaker?



And How to Avoid Booking Matt Foley

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, "Are you a motivational speaker?” I talk for a living and somehow that question always makes me stammer because, although coming from me it may seem funny, motivational speaker is a term with which I’ve always been uncomfortable. Part of the reason is because it conjures comparisons to those motivational giants whose arena-filling public seminars and flashy infomercials make what I do seem kind of puny in contrast.


But the biggest reason isn’t the comparison to the most successful motivators but to the worst. And the best of the worst had to be the late Chris Farley’s character, Matt Foley, a spectacular failure and wholly unintentionally funny motivational speaker whose residence, as everyone knows, was “a van down by the river.” Like all great satire, it was a creation that cut close enough to the bone to make real life professional speakers wince a little at the same time it made anyone who has ever had to sit through a terrible and not very funny motivational speaker laugh out loud in recognition. They may never have heard anyone as bad at it as Matt Foley, but at the time it probably felt that bad.


To avoid booking your own Matt Foley, you should understand four elements that made Farley’s fictitious motivational speaker funny but real-life speakers awful. Call them the Foley Factors:


  1. Foley-focused. Matt Foley talks only about himself. Effective speakers put the focus on their audience, not themselves. They learn about their challenges, their terminology, and their goals and then prepare a program to effect positive change.

  2. Canned content. One of my favorite Foley moments was when the character polls audience members about their goals and as each one answers he tells them that they’ll likely end up just like him, “living in a van down by the river!” Finally, he directs his question to a young man who sarcastically sneers that his goal is to live in a van down by the river. Foley responds, “Well good luck living in a van down by the river when you’re living in a van down by the river!” No matter what, he sticks to his script. What conference and meeting program directors hope for isn’t a scripted speech, but a dynamic audience experience that is responsive and relevant to the current needs of the group, the industry and the purpose of the event.

  3. All feel and no do. Although the shared emotional experience of a live presentation is the main motivation for booking a speaker (as opposed to showing a video or giving everyone a copy of their book), when it’s only an emotional experience, the value begins and ends in that moment. The measure of a great audience experience begins after the speaker leaves the stage. Whether the topic is improving work culture, employee engagement, customer service, managing change or achieving life balance, effective speakers motivate and provide tools and takeaways that move their audience from where they were when they arrived, to where they want to be.

  4. No audience interaction. Farley’s character would physically throw himself into his work, but the impact was all on the furniture and not the people. Let’s face it. If your audience isn’t involved, what’s the point? A great live program is one where the attendees aren’t just listening, they’re doing. When my audience is moving, touching and responding, the experience is more powerful, more personal, more memorable and more motivational. And the feedback reflects not just their experience in that moment, but the value they describe when they’ve taken those actions into the conference hallways and into the workplace where it strengthened relationships between themselves and their colleagues, their customers, their patients or their students.

  5. Funny (for the right reasons) Ok, Matt Foley was a funny motivational speaker, but what made him funny was that his character was working so hard to be taken seriously. The rule in the speaking industry is this: Do you have to be funny? No. Unless of course you want to be booked. Shared laughter is so powerful an experience that it’s absolutely critical to a speaker’s success. When people laugh, they’re emotionally engaged with both the speaker and with one another. When they’re funny, motivational speakers fully connect with their audience and the result is a satisfying mix of positive emotion used to deliver real world solutions that can drive personal and team success and provide the kind of value that far exceeds the investment in booking a great speaker for your conference or event.

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