Saturday, February 28, 2009

To Inspire, Be Inspired

How do you inspire someone? How do you get your employee, or your friend, or your child excited to put in the hours, sweat it out, and do what it takes to accomplish something memorable?

I think a lot of people have this question. A google search for 'how to inspire' turns up 18,100,000 results, with the top one being a Business Week post on 'How to Inspire People like Obama'. It talks about rhetorical devices, body language, and vocal delivery. What this and so many other management articles about inspiration seem to miss is that in order to be inspiring, you must be inspired.

Obama is not inspiring to people because he phrases things in a particular way, or says things with the right tone of voice. Sure, those can help, but the reason Obama is so inspiring is because his message rings with belief and honesty. He is inspired by his vision, and so by sharing it, we become inspired.

There are other effects as well. When you are inspired by the message you are trying to convey, you become more eloquent and passionate in how you talk about that message. I have never written better than during the late days of the 2008 primary campaign, trying to bring myself and others across the finish line to make Obama the Democratic nominee. I was inspired by Obama, and by the heroic efforts of all of the other volunteers who were trying to get him elected, and due to that inspiration I was able to inspire others.

So if you want to succeed in inspiring people, believe in your message! Find a vision of the future that inspires you, that makes you hopeful, and start telling the story of that vision. And if you're not doing something you believe in, perhaps its time to start doing something else.


  1. This is a nice idea. I'd like to highlight two dimensions of inspiration that I think don't always go together: excitement and personal involvement.

    To excite someone about something, it definitely helps to be excited yourself. But for me, the kind of inspiration a good teacher can create has another dimension that connects more closely with how people think of themselves and the possibilities for their lives. This doesn't have to be in a grand "career" oriented sense. It could be as simple as a cooking show inspiring me to think of myself as someone who could learn to cook. Yes, it got me excited about food and cooking, but in a way that changed how I think of myself, and let me imagine new things I could do. To be inspired in this sense, then, is to be able to see yourself as more involved or engaged somehow.

    I think Obama's speeches exemplify both dimensions--they not only excite, but have a very inclusive element that invites people to re-imagine themselves as part of something greater. An example where this latter dimension is missing might be an inspiring popular science lecture for a general audience. The speaker may succeed in generating excitement, but will also likely frame the audience as outsiders to the process, making it difficult for them to feel personally inspired in the same way.

    Coming back to rhetorical technique, devices of body language and vocal technique can be learned, but, as you point out, will be more authentic and convincing if they reflect genuine excitement. Similarly, I think there are rhetorical devices one could use to invite an audience to see themselves as more personally connected. These will also be more natural and effective if they reflect an underlying belief that everyone can be involved.

  2. Hi ddobie, thanks for reading and responding! I think you're on to something really key here... its not just about being excited about what you can do, but being excited about what the people you're trying to inspire could do.