Stop explaining like a manager, start motivating like a leader

To paraphrase a familiar expression, if it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. And if your speech sounds like an explanation, it probably is an explanation. Not a motivating speech.

Over the years, I’ve helped many executives close the gap between what they intend to say and what their audience actually hears. Most of the time, their goal is to motivate and inspire the workforce. However, when we rehearse the speech in front of a test audience, typical feedback sounds much like this, “It seems the main goal of this speech is to explain, not to inspire or motivate.” Motivating speeches and strategy/explanatory presentations are two different genres; don’t confuse them.

A motivating speech helps share a vision, make sense of work, and connect and align the daily efforts of your workforce with the vision. On the other hand, an explanation helps your people understand and retain key concepts relating to broader organizational issues, such as current concerns, opportunities and threats, goals, timelines, the organizational matrix, and similar matters.

During and after a good inspiring speech, people feel engaged, uplifted, and aligned. With a good explanatory speech, they feel able to re-share the key information and use it to solve problems.

Motivating or explaining: consider audience perspective

​An inspiring speech answers questions your people may have, such as: As an organization, who do we help? What if we weren’t helping these people? What exciting and appealing future do we want to create? What are our main goals? What are the milestones that will make this happen? If we achieve our goals, do we fulfill our mission? Why do we believe we can achieve our goals? Is every step needed? Is my contribution valued? Are we going to achieve something each of us can be proud of? The goals look hard to achieve, so far from where we are right now. Are we going to achieve them? We have plenty of meetings and activities that look disconnected from our goals; how are they connected?

A speech presented to explain corporate strategy answers questions such as: Have we achieved our goals this year? What is the economic environment like today and in the near future? What do our clients want? How do we adjust our current business to become more futureproof? In practice, what are the main changes for this year? What are the goals and deadlines for each department?
​Of course, there are many similarities in the content, for example, talk of goals and milestones. It’s the wording that makes all the difference for the listener:

The inspiring speech


“We will achieve our goal by reaching milestones x, y and z.”
“Our mission is to help our clients access banking services when they need (mission). Our new digital platform (goal) will give them access to all their banking services 24/7. When the platform is released, our clients will access their services whenever they need. When you work on the platform, you contribute to our mission (assigning the goal to the mission).”

The explanatory speech


“Our goal is this. And we have planned three milestones; these are x, y and z.”
“We must push digitalization (strategy) because our clients want it (opportunity) and our competitors are doing it quickly (threat)” (assigning a causal relation between the strategy and market opportunities and threats).

Focusing on your organization’s purpose

​Organizations exist to build or produce something, as a group, that will help other people; people who value what the group has created. Your people are motivated by an appealing, achievable future that they can build together, where everyone in the group contributes and everyone’s contribution is valued.

Most of your workforce isn’t motivated by company economics and detailed roadmaps. They welcome some of that only after they have engaged with the vision—the organizational meaning and purpose—and have connected their role with the vision. Only after.

A practical way to ensure a motivational focus

​If you tend to explain when you want to inspire, write down your speech in full. Every word. For some clients, this is an unaccustomed process. But to show why it’s necessary, here’s a scenario I typically encounter in my coaching practice: Perhaps the client intends to say, “Achieving milestones x, y, and z will help us reach our goal,” but on the speech notecards writes down simply “Milestones x, y, and z.” Key words or bullet points, not the full sentence. A week later we rehearse with the video camera on, and under pressure the client glances at the notecards, improvises, and what emerges is: “There are 3 milestones: x, y, and z.” An explanation.

Keywords and bullet points prompt our natural tendency to explain, perhaps even more so under pressure, because they tell us ‘what to talk about’ but not what the message is. Change the wording and you change the meaning, and the perception of your audience.

Naturally, both types of speeches have their place. But if, like many of my clients, you are seeking to motivate or inspire, then your speech needs to be carefully crafted to do just that. It’s a matter of first changing your focus and perspective, and the results are powerful. In the words of my client Manoj, COO in a medical technology corporation, who was preparing a townhall communication, ”I realize now that I was making my speech like a manager. What I’m doing now is making my speech like a leader.” Similar ingredients, different wording and purpose. It’s transformational.

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