As professionals with targets, projects to manage and bills to pay, we must perform, whether it’s the beginning of the week or the exhausting end of a long, hard one. And it’s precisely when times get tough that a good motivational speech is most beneficial, inspiring us to clear any psychological and physical hurdles that are keeping us from our goals.
What’s amazing about people is, despite the external forces at play on our constitution, we can always be influenced by attitude. If your coworkers or managers can motivate you, suddenly that hidden resource is tapped, and you’re ready to get up and go again with renewed energy and focus.
Leaders can motivate and inspire through communications. Great leaders are charismatic and articulate, and they use these attributes to rally the troops. You’ve probably heard or read some of those famous speeches that have helped people at their lowest reach for the highest aspirations.
The following is a collection of some of our favorite motivational speeches, chock-full of inspirational words, sure to motivate you when you need it most.
Barack Obama, DNC Speech, 2004
Before Barack Obama became the first African-American President of the United States, when he was little known outside the grassroots activist community in Chicago, he was given a national platform as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He acknowledged what everyone was likely thinking how surprising it was for him to be addressing the audience at the convention. But he started by stating his roots, which were not dissimilar from other Americans, who constitute, after all, a nation of immigrants. He infused the audience, nation and even the world with a sense of hope for the future. After this speech, he continued to connect with people and motivate them to elect him four years later to the highest office in the land.
Jim Carrey, Commencement Address, Maharishi University, 2014
From the sublime to the ridiculous, even comic actors like Jim Carrey can find inspirational words to motivate. At this point in his successful career, Carrey moved from celluloid buffoon to philosophic guru. That change was first on display at this speech for the graduates of Maharishi University in 2014. He told these future managers that they should never settle for less than what they want. He illustrated this by talking about his father, who could have been a comedian but chose the safe route of accounting—a job he eventually lost. That life lesson wasn’t lost of Carrey, who saved the world from one more accountant.
Steve Jobs, Commencement Speech, Stanford, 2005
Commencements tend to bring out the motivational speeches, and who would expect any less than the best from Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The man who inspired a company to become one of the most successful in world history, and who motivated people to want his products with a zealousness almost unheard of, was the go-to guy for rich insights. At this speech at Stanford he tells three stories: the first is about dropping out of Reed College, which he said was the best decision of his life. That lead to the creation of a company he loved and built up, only to later get fired from. But that dismissal lead to Apple. Finally, he spoke of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. These challenges, any of which could have sent another spiraling to the depths of despair, taught him to become more resilient and fight harder for what he wanted.
Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday
Speeches are fictions of a sort, so it’s not surprising that some of the most inspirational speeches can be found in the arts. The football film, Any Given Sunday, is a perfect example. What’s more cliché than the coach inspiring the team to get back on the field and win after being humiliated? But not every coach is as motivating as Al Pacino. When he delivers what has become the “The Little Things You Do Daily Matter” speech on the importance of working together, the actor and script combine to create something bigger than both.
Bill Gates, Commencement Speech, Harvard, 2007
Surprisingly funny and insightful, Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ Harvard commencement address shows a side of the successful entrepreneur that might not have been visible though the glare of fame and fortune. He is probably Harvard’s most famous dropout, but he acknowledged that the university’s environment of energy and intelligence was inspiring. He noted that education is important but so is knowing the wider world.
J.K. Rowling, Commencement Speech, Harvard, 2008
Harvard has the pull to get Bill Gates, sure, but J.K. Rowling, too? Yes! The Harry Potter author uses inspiring words to offer lessons she learned late and wished others had told her earlier. Rowling was a poor, single mother before her writing shot her into the financial stratosphere, but she doesn’t romanticize poverty. Beyond the humiliation and depression of being poor, she feared failure, and yet it was failure that gave her the lessons she needed to succeed. That might be unexpected, but it’s also motivating. Who doesn’t have experience with failure? And we can all succeed.
David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech, Kenyon College, 2005
Regardless of whether you ever finished his famous tome Infinite Jest, the writer David Foster Wallace was smart, troubled and often densely convoluted. But he could be plainspoken and was at his best in this commencement speech, published as This Is Water. He opens young minds in this speech to the fact that as educated as they might be, they can still hold a closed mind. Such narrow thinking puts us out of perspective and falsely tells us we’re the center of the universe. We’re not, and worse, by thinking this way we lose sight to the interconnectedness of the world. We’re all in it together. How’s that for motivating you to do good?
Brené Brown, the Power of Vulnerability, 2014
Brown is a researcher whose speech on the power of vulnerability is excerpted in this animated video. Vulnerability is not often a topic that inspires and motivates people. We’re all too familiar with being vulnerable. But Brown notes that it’s the fear of failure or of not being good enough that makes us put up walls. These boundaries make it hard to connect with others. But it is by connecting with a larger whole that we can achieve our greatest good and see our own worth reflected in the product of our collaborative process. Empathy is a choice. Make it.
Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School Class Day, 2012
In this famous speech that launched the Lean In movement, Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg deconstructs the idea of the career ladder. She is more interested in opportunities that can make an impact rather than titles. The linear path as a plan might work for some, but it can become too rigid and leave people on the sidelines, missing the real exciting stuff that doesn’t follow a set plan. She also throws away the traditional wisdom that says successful people are not emotional. She’s all about passion and sometimes that emotion is going to come out strongly. You don’t want to become an automaton.
Oprah Winfrey, Commencement Address, Stanford, 2008
Oprah motivates daily. If you’ve ever seen her TV show, then you’ve seen how she can whip up an audience. She does that and more with these inspiring words for the Stanford class of 2008. She knows that the personal touch is the most impactful and shares moving incidents from her life, including her feelings, failures and happiness. The bottom line is that even a success as massive as Oprah’s came with its share of heartaches. You must persevere.
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