‘’Who’s the most inspiring speaker you’ve ever heard?’’ – is a question I get asked a lot.
A critical part of my job is watching professional speakers share their story. So it comes to no surprise when clients, friends, family and even strangers throw this question at me.
The Oxford Dictionary defines inspiration as ‘the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something’. What causes that stimulation changes from person to person, making inspiration extremely subjective.
As the audience, we intensely critique the speaker’s content, tone, physiology, credibility and relevance. Our personal preferences determine whether we’re inspired, amused or paying for our parking ticket before the speech has concluded. So to answer the original question, there are three unforgettable occasions when a speech inspired me to a point that it influenced my future behaviour.
Denzel Washington: “Fall Forward”
Three years ago Denzel Washington delivered the commencement speech to the 2011 graduating class of University of Pennsylvania. The key point of Denzel’s speech to the new graduates before they headed out into life after study was ‘’fall forward’’. Denzel explained how, as a young actor pursuing his dream, people would encourage him to have something to fall back on, a plan b. Despite the high probability of failure that hangs over actor’s dreams, Denzel didn’t want something to fall back on. If he was going to fall, he would be falling forward pursuing his goals.
Sitting in the audience that day, my neck hairs began to rise as Denzel articulated how years of persistence and overcoming failure helped him eventually achieve success. He recalled failing audition after audition. He highlighted examples like Thomas Edison who conducted 1000 failed experiments. The 1001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Finally, he remembered one particular audition failure on Broadway, only to return to the same theatre 30 years later as the headliner.
The climax of the speech came when he voiced, ‘’Every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed. But do you have the guts to fail? If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. To get something you never had, you’ve got to do something you never did’’. Denzel’s words encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, to understand that failure is part of the journey and that persistence wins in the end.
John McGrath: “Ruthlessly eliminate excuses from your life”
John McGrath, founder of McGrath Partners Real Estate, is an Australian business success story. I saw John speak at an entrepreneur’s conference in Sydney a couple of years ago. Mr McGraths’ credibility from his success and reputation for integrity meant he had my full attention. Like Denzel’s speech, John’s words spoke directly to me as I had only just decided to establish my own business.
John’s delivery illustrated that he’s as passionate about working on his business today as he was when he started in his living room in 1989. His ambition from the outset was to create a business that was the best in the world in real estate – ‘’if you set up a business, set it up to be great, world best. You will make different decisions then if you set it up to survive.’’ Adopting this philosophy alone for my own business gives each day a completely different feel than the ‘survival mode’ mentality.
One of John’s key points was “ruthlessly eliminate excuses from your life”. This message hit me loud and clear. Since then, I’ve made sacrifices personally and professionally, but those sacrifices have reinforced the priority of my goals and created a compounding momentum and belief that screams ‘’I’m gonna do this!’’.
Ben Roberts-Smith, VC: “Courage and Gratitude”
Ben Roberts-Smith, VC, is this generation’s most decorated Australian soldier. Ben’s list of combat operations is impressive to say the least and he’s a member of the Australian SAS.
Speaking at a conference in Melbourne last year, Ben’s speech was centered on an operation to hunt down a Taliban commander in Afghanistan in 2006. In an assault against a Taliban fortification, Ben courageously drew fire away from members of his patrol. Fighting at close range, he stormed and silenced two enemy machine-gun posts. It was noted that his ‘selfless actions in circumstances of great peril served to enable his patrol to break into the enemy’s defense’s and to regain the initiative’.
Ben’ speech connected with the audience on a different level compared to most speakers I’ve seen. His vivid descriptions of the life or death situations he found himself in were riveting. He took the audience on an emotional roller-coaster and he had us in the palm of his hand from the moment he stepped on stage. Before I got off the roller-coaster, I had an admiration for the courage he had shown and a heightened awareness for how precious life is. I left the conference room with an intense feeling of gratitude for the life I have, a feeling that still lingers today.
So now my question is – what speech has made you feel inspired? Please share, whose words have motivated you to focus on your goals, altered your perspective on life or made you feel gratitude and thanks?
About the author: Keith Harwood is Director and founder of Inspire Speaker’, providing companies and organisations with inspiring keynote speakers, professional MC’s and world-class entertainment for their events and conferences.