Tutorial: how to write words that motivate for change

writing,motivation,change,tutorial,Welcome to the third in a series of HTWB tutorials to help you learn and use new skills brilliantly. This time we look at how to write words that motivate for change – and do it well, rather than merely try to sell ideas and even potentially unpopular notions.

In almost any kind of business, sometimes there is a need to motivate others. (NB: This is as distinct from “motivational programs” which are structured incentive schemes, usually aimed at sales staff to get them to sell more. This is a different area altogether and one which we can look at another time – let me know if you’re interested.)

For once it’s not about selling

The cynics amongst us would probably say that all you need to do to motivate people, is to use sales techniques on them. There might be a bit of truth in that from the point of view that in order to motivate people, you’ve got to show them “what’s in it for them.” However that’s probably where the resemblance ends.

I believe there is a difference between selling people an idea and motivating them to “buy into it.” With motivation you need to focus more on generating and activating desire. That’s not something you necessarily have to do with selling, because in that case you should be selling into a ready-prepared market opportunity. (But that’s straying into marketing issues which we’re not discussing now.)

Motivation to overcome problems or facilitate change

To be brutally frank, the times when you are likely to have to motivate people are more likely to occur in the light of something negative … a product recall … a service failure … redundancies … plant/factory closures … poor business performance … and so-on. Alternatively, it often occurs when some kind of major change is required, where you may well be dealing with resistance or inertia. All this makes it more difficult to start with.

Motivation and motivational writing are less likely to be needed for external customers. They’re far more likely to become an issue that needs addressing within other “stakeholder” groups like colleagues, affiliates, staff, suppliers, retailers, shareholders/stockholders, etc.

Three key cornerstones: truth, honesty, and positivity

So how do we tackle this particularly challenging need for good business writing? With truth, honesty and positivity. And that applies equally whatever media you’re writing for: email, letter, website or blog post, audio/video streaming, SMS/text message, etc., etc.


If something has gone wrong, people will know. Nothing travels faster than bad news. It’s vitally important that you write the truth of the issue and share it as far as possible with the group you need to motivate. Nothing will make you look worse than if someone catches you telling even “white” lies.

Bear in mind, too, that in some circumstances you – and the truth – will be fighting a battle against cynicism and wild rumors, which makes your job even harder. Depending on the circumstances you may need to point out the rumors and issues about which people may be cynical. Once it’s out in the open that you know what people are thinking and feeling you can provide confidence-boosting information about each issue in turn.


Don’t, however, let telling the truth flow over into making excuses. In this case your audience want to know the truth, yes, but only as it affects them. Too much honesty about what may have gone wrong or why renewed motivation is required or why change is necessary, etc., will lose a) their interest and b) their sympathy.

As soon as you’ve told them the truth and established the background, then, you need to get on to how things will be from now on … the “today is the first day of the rest of your life” approach. To dwell for too long on anything negative – and even good, healthy change in business can be perceived as negative by some stakeholders – will increase any existing pessimistic feelings.

Now you’re in a position to motivate

Once you have shared enough information for your audience to have a fair and reasonable grasp of the issue in hand, you need to move smartly on to why they can be confident in putting their faith in you/the business/the change program, etc.


John Butman,writing,motivation,change,tutorial,

John Butman

This is where you need to think about cups being “half-full,” not “half-empty.” To illustrate this point I have adapted an example written by John Butman, my co-author in our book “Writing Words That Sell” which was published at least 100 years ago… John wrote this structure in the context of a plan for a speech, but as a structure it works for almost any kind of written or spoken communication that needs to focus on the positive elements within an otherwise indeterminately agreeable subject.

In John’s example, the speaker tackles the rather challenging topic of the company relocating to Iceland, and motivating staff to do so as well. Much as it’s intended as an extreme example, it certainly teaches us how to find positivity in almost any circumstances.

  • We’re going to talk today about some exciting new prospects for our company
  • We know that business today is changing rapidly
  • We know that the growth of electronics, in particular, has had a major effect on the nature of Component Module Units
  • This has led us to develop the new ZX90-E CMU which incorporates a special system element for electronic connections
  • We are so excited about the potential of the ZX90-E that we have decided to expand into new markets
  • The most exciting market for the new electronic style Flange Covers happens to be in Iceland
  • We believe that, by concentrating on the Iceland market, we shall double our growth in the next three years
  • If we can achieve this goal, we will be in an excellent position to expand, raise salaries and offer profit-sharing opportunities to all employees
  • That is why we have decided to relocate our corporate headquarters and all manufacturing operations to Iceland
  • I know there have been some rumors flying around, and because you are so important to us, we wanted you to be the first to be officially told the facts about this change – today, before anyone else
  • This change of operations does not mean that there will be mandatory redundancies. We would be delighted to move the entire staff to Iceland
  • Although Iceland is a quite different from what you’re used to it offers a surprisingly temperate climate plus very good residential, social, medical and educational amenities
  • Naturally, for those of you who do not wish to relocate we have a generous redundancy scheme
  • For those of you who can make the move with us, we look forward to a great new period of prosperity and growth
  • We believe that, in this changing business world, we are making the right move at the right time
  • Thank you very much

In this example we’ve seen how the positive elements of the story have been stressed, so people can view the negative elements in proper context, then make up their own minds. Of course this is an exaggerated case, but even so you can see that the speaker is not hiding the negative elements.

Lead from the front

There are several different clichés I could use to express this, but probably the most appropriate is “put your money where your mouth is!” What you (or “the management” or “the client” or whatever body you represent) are seen to do, not just say, will go a long way towards convincing your audience that there’s something really good to believe in here.

blog,writing,news,blogging,businessWhatever you say you will do in order to correct a problem or improve circumstances, you need to be sure you can and do deliver it. Unfulfilled promises are probably the most demotivating factor of all, but an audience who knows they can trust that what you say WILL happen, is likely to be a motivated one.

So when you’re writing your motivational material always stick only to certainties – not hopes, however strong.

Show how the results will be delivered – and measured

Lastly, always ensure that your motivational document or presentation contains a structured means of measuring improvements and other changes, answerable to your audience as well as you. Include some sort of timetable, and set goals for everyone, including you or whoever you represent.

Once again this is a way of proving to your audience that you have faith and confidence in what you’re doing. And if you don’t, why should they?

To help structure your next motivational piece of writing, here are some bullet points in roughly the correct order:

  1. Reality – what?
  2. The facts – why?
  3. Our choices – which way now?
  4. The way forward – follow “me”
  5. Expectations – what will be delivered
  6. Measurement – how we’ll know it’s working
  7. Commitment – we’re sure it’s the right way

Good luck! And please share with us your own experiences in writing or speaking about motivational issues especially where change is concerned.




  1. Two things … I’ve the book you refer to “Writing Words That Sell” for years and years and … well you get the point. It’s brilliant and I refer to it a lot.

    Second, I read the book that Daniel Pink wrote called To Sell is Human and he would probably agree with you that motivation is different from formal selling. But he says we all sell or persuade every day – we persuade our kids to eat and our staff to “buy” what we’ve presented. Some of us are better at motivating than others and you explain how to motivate with words.

    • Goodness me, Trudy – that book (“Writing Words That Sell”) has been around for 20 years … some time before we even knew each other! What a small world.

      And yes, motivating is not dissimilar to selling. It just needs to be a lot more gentle, I guess.

      What does everyone else think?