Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Motivational speaking as instant enlightenment

Every year my School (a subdivision of the University) organises a ‘School Conference’ with various speakers, workshops etc as a piece of CPD. I make an effort to go and, despite the other things I could get done, it is generally worth it. This year’s started with a motivational speaker speaking to a title ‘Resilience’ but outlining – in a spirit influenced by the UK cycle team's aggregation of marginal gains – a number of small improvements for organisational performance. I say ‘organisational’ but they were aimed at individuals: ten or twelve plus a few other changes we might make to our own habits of thought and practice which would improve what we did not least by avoiding mental breakdown (hence resilience). As the speaker made explicit, they were mainly taken from a book on depressive illness by the psychiatrist Tim Cantopher and they had echoes of the Positive Psychology movement.

I should say that his comic timing was just right and many of the series of anecdotes he told, mainly encouraging of encouragement rather than negative criticism, were very funny. At the end, in the final five minutes, he quoted some pre-advertised bullet points from Cantopher’s book and so I guess it would be unfair to say that there wasn’t any content. But I am not sure that there was enough content for a 90 minute session. So that prompts the question: what was the relation supposed to be between the first 85 minutes and the end?

One thought is that the anecdotes illustrated or perhaps justified what was to come: only if we hear a story of a daughter who doesn’t dare ask questions in a maths class because of a bad experience five years before, will we be ready to hear that encouragement is better than criticism. The one justifies or exemplifies the generality of the other. But then, like Wittgenstein’s comment, it seems that invented examples would do as well as real ones and none of the stories were anything other than platitudinous.

My hunch is that the purpose was other: to make, causally rather than dialectically, the audience complicit in lowered expectations. After an enjoyable series of comic monologues, we embrace some brief suggestions, which could be jotted down, as an acceptable escape from complete vacuity. This Stockholm Syndrome reading of the situation was rather reinforced by the speaker’s insistence - and our compliance with this - that we gave him a standing ovation. This insistence might have been funny in a kind of meta, PoMo way but on the day seemed merely anxious and grubby.

But I think that all of this reflects a real difficulty with motivational speaking. If the aim is to change long standing habits and practices through a one off address, how could that be done? One thought is that this is what charismatic religion aims to do. By the end of the ceremony or service, we should all want to testify (or in this case applaud). But equally it reminds me of the 1970s hope that secular enlightenment might be merely one encounter group session away. Surely, however, that isn’t a sustainable model for good academic practice. I suspect that the only way to change ingrained habits is through practice and criticism and the only way a purely linguistic intervention could sustain that would be through the provision not of propaganda but standing reasons for aiming at that change. That, however, would require a more pedagogic rather than evangelical relation between speaker and audience. Perhaps as a university lecturer I would say that.

I am and I do.