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The Four Elements of Inspiration

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Last February, I found myself in Atlanta, sitting next to three other authors. We were scheduled to speak to a large gathering of university folks who were looking for interesting and inspiring books to give to their first year students. I was slated to speak second.

I didn't think much of the speaking order until the woman who went first started talking about the time she rowed a boat across the Atlantic Ocean.

Did you hear that? She rowed a boat across the ocean.

I, and the rest of the audience, listened with rapt attention. (She also mentioned -- in the same way you might mention that you're heading to the vending machine -- that she once skied to the South Pole. Huh!)

How do you follow that? Well, if you're me, you quickly put down your powdered donut, wipe your mouth, and try to appear more muscular than you really are as you walk to the podium.

As phenomenal as her story was -- and it really was -- I realized I was not so much inspired as I was awe-inspired. Meaning that I was amazed, but I didn't feel compelled to make a change in my own life.

In the past year, I've given a lot of talks on this topic. Here's the most important thing I've discovered:

The ability to inspire is not a skill in itself. Rather, it is a collection of skills, or elements, that you put together in the right combination. Or to be more precise, four skills, used in the right combination.

I call these the Four Elements of Inspiration. They are Communication, Relatability, Value Proposition, and Road Map. Let me tell you what I mean.

Communication. Communication comes first. If you can't communicate your message -- through speaking, through writing, through art -- then you're not going to reach anyone. Without the power to communicate, you're done before you even get started. (I wrote earlier on how to be a great public speaker -- it involves digging ditches.)

Relatablility. I love this word, Relatability. It's not even in the dictionary. (My spell checker insists on underlining it with that squiggly red line.) But it is a deeply powerful force. Consider that in 2004, in a tight race between George Bush and John Kerry for the U.S. presidency, Bush crushed Kerry in poll after poll asking the question "Who would you rather have a beer with?" We want to know that we are understood by our leaders. We want to be able to see ourselves in them.

Most importantly, we want to know that what they are asking us to do is attainable, precisely because they were able to do it. You must be able to relate to those you hope to inspire.

Value Proposition. People are busy. If you want to change people's behavior, if you want to inspire them to act, then you better have a pretty awesome reason for it. Tony Robbins promises to help you overcome your fears and limitations. Suzy Ormond will show you how to get your personal finances in order. Lance Armstrong wants to cure cancer. Each one of these is an important enough reason to get me to leave my comfort zone and act.

Your value proposition could be personal or altruistic. What matters is that it is deeply worthwhile, and that people want to learn how to do this too. Which brings us to our last Element.

Road Map. You've given a phenomenal speech. You've proven yourself to be a regular person, somebody that people can relate to -- they can see themselves in your shoes. Your value proposition is going to change the world. Now you have all these people -- or even just a couple of people -- energized and ready to change. So what now?

Without offering a Road Map, you're spending all your energy blowing up this balloon only to let it go and watch it race around in random directions until it runs out of steam. You've got to harness it. You've got to give people a plan for that first step -- let them know where it will take them. If you can, take that first step with them. You'll see how far they go.

The Four Elements of Inspiration are all skills you can acquire; none of them are "gifts" that you either have or you don't. But they do take work. Changing behavior always does. But when you get there, you're not just changing your own life -- you're changing others too.

And that feeling is a little bit like rowing a boat across the Atlantic. (Not that I'd know.)