Getting Under Their Skin: Motivational Appeals

In almost every message, you need to give the audience a reason to accept what you say. That reason may be logical, but there is also a psycho-logical reason that you will often use to get leverage for your message.

Here you’ll find a list of the possible motivational appeals and some tips and cautions for using them.

This material is largely taken from Ehninger, Douglas, et al. Principles and Types of Speech Communication. 9th Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman and Co., 1986.



A. Definition of Motivational Appeal

B. Types and Examples

C. How to choose appeals

See appeals in a sample speech.


A.    A motivational appeal is either

1.     a visualization of some desire and a method for satisfying it

2.     an assertion that some entity, idea, or course of action can be or ought to be linked with an impulse-to-human-action-that is, a motive.

B.    Some Types and Examples of Motivational Appeals

1.     Achievement and Display.

a.      “The successful businessperson knows. . . .   

b.     “To make maximum use of your talents, act today to. . . . “

2.     Acquisition and Saving.   

a.      materialistic (“Earn money easily”)

b.     social (“Become one of the select few who . . . “)

c.      spiritual (“Many are called, few are chosen”)

d.     personal (“This is your chance of a lifetime!”)

3.     Adventure and Change.

a.      “Taste the High Country!”

b.     “Join the Army and see the world!”

4.     Companionship and Affiliation.

a.      “We care about you . . .          

b.     “Join our group and find fellowship with kindred souls,”

c.      “Thousands of people like you have found solutions to their problems by joining. . . .”

5.     Creativity.

a.      “Draw Me” so as to get a “scholarship” to a correspondence school art course

b.     and the cookbooks which insist you become a “gourmet” by following step-by-step recipes

c.      Often combined with other motivational appeals (often, as in the “Draw Me” ads, with promises of material reward and personal enjoyment).

6.     Curiosity. 

a.      Appeals to curiosity probably work best in speeches delivered to educated audiences, to people whose basic survival needs are satisfied and who thus can afford the time and risk to be curious.

7.     Defense.

a.      A socially acceptable way to raise a fighting spirit in people publicly, however, is to appeal to common or mutual defense—a motivational appeal so acceptable that it was written into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

b.     to protect our own interests”

c.      to save the lives of our children and our children’s children.”

8.     Deference.

a.      As Einstein says . . .

b.     I saw this book on Oprah!

9.     Endurance.

a.      “You only go around once, so live life to its fullest now”

b.     “We shall overcome”

c.      “Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . that . . . a new generation . . . ,” as JFK, 1961.

10.  Fear.

a.      “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everyone did?”

b.     “Ring around the collar! Ring around the collar!”

c.      Make sure that

i.       you don’t transgress the bounds of ethics and good taste, and, more practically,
ii.     you don’t make your fear appeals so strong that they actually have an opposite effect (called the “boomerang effect” by social scientists)

11.  Fighting and Aggression.

a.      get ahead of the crowd”

b.     beat your competition to the punch,”

c.      “Does your consultant quote ‘The Art of War’ without every going into battle?” Andersen Consulting Ad

12.  Imitation and Conformity.

a.      serious jogger runs in,”

b.     all true Americans believe”

13.  Independence and Autonomy.

a.      “Be your own person; don’t follow the crowd.”

b.     “Be yourself”

14.  Loyalty.

a.      In times of crisis, speakers often call for “tests of loyalty,” for extraordinary actions which visibly demonstrate individuals’ adherence to group standards for belief and action.

15.  Personal Enjoyment.

a.      personal comfort and luxury, aesthetic enjoyment, recreation and rest, relief from home and work constraint, just plain fun

16.  Power, Authority, and Dominance.

a.      When President Jimmy Carter called his energy policy “the moral equivalent of war,” he was urging us to control our energy appetites;

b.     When the public service announcement says that “Cancer can be beaten in our lifetime,” it is asking you to act from a sense of domination.

17.  Pride.

a.      “Be proud of America

b.     “Be all that you can be in the Army”

18.  Reverence or Worship.

a.      Beyond deference, a sense of reverence or worship leads to submission.

b.     Such reverent submission can take three forms: hero worship, reverence for institutions, and divine worship, conceived of either religiously or philosophically

19.  Revulsion.

a.      You can attract people by depicting verbally the aesthetic pleasures they’ll enjoy in acquiring or doing something, or by visualizing in strong images objects of disgust or loathing.

b.     Pictures of Abortions

c.      Beware that you don’t make such descriptions so gruesome that your appeal to revulsion turns them away in disgust; here, too, watch for the boomerang effect.

20.  Sexual Attraction.

a.      The core of the appeals lies not so much in bodily functions per se as in a more general idea of personal attractiveness and, in some cases, secret yearning and adventure.

b.     Noxema could advertise its shaving cream with “Take it off . . . Take it all off . . .” are gone.

c.      In most ads these days, the appeal to sexual attraction is approached verbally only in indirect ways

i.       “When you want to look your best, use . . . ‘        
ii.     “For the executive who wants to be noticed . . . “

21.  Sympathy and Generosity.

a.      “Reach out and touch someone,”

b.     “Give that others might live,”

c.      “When you care enough to send the very best”

22.  Tradition.

a.      Democrats talk about “Democratic traditions” and Republicans list “Republican principles” which, when you think of yourself as either a Democrat or a Republican, tell you rather precisely what to think, what to do, whom to like, whom to dislike.

b.     Leaders of parties, organizations, and various other institutions punctuate almost every speech to their followers with such appeals, in hopes that the followers’ sense of public identity and group commitment will keep them identified with the group.

These appeals may contradict each other because human motivation is complex and often contradictory. All of these appeals are resources from which the message-maker can draw.

C.    Things to consider when choosing appeals

1.     Type of Speech.

a.      Sometimes the type of speech you are delivering helps you select appeals.

b.     The various appeals to individuality—adventure, creativity, personal enjoyment, and so on—often appear in attitude-change and even actuative speeches whose goals are to break a person free from previous group associations.

c.      In contrast, speeches which reinforce existing beliefs and values tend to work on collective rather than individualized appeals, collective appeals such as those to companionship and affiliation, mutual defense, deference to others, imitation and conformity, loyalty, and power.

2.     Demographic Analysis.

a.      Educated, upper middle and upper-class listeners can “afford” to respond to appeals to creativity, independence, the pleasure principle inherent to personal enjoyment, and generosity.

b.     Young people are notoriously prone to appeals to sexual attraction and to testimony from cultural celebrities.

c.      Appeals to endurance are potent with older listeners, as, in general, are appeals to loyalty and reverence.

d.     Appeals to one’s ethnic traditions and sense of belongingness within familial circles work well with homogeneous audiences who gather, say, to celebrate “Chicano Pride Week” or “Martin Luther King Day.”

e.      Concerns for companionship, affiliation, and power typically punctuate speeches given to audiences gathered at a women’s political caucus.

3.     Personal Predilections.

a.      “Am I willing to ask people to act from fear, or do I think my calls for changes in behavior should be grounded on such ‘higher’ motives as sympathy and generosity?”

b.     “Do I actually believe in the importance of loyalty and reverence?”

E.     Using Appeals in Your Speeches: Strategic Choices

1.     Avoid blatant, objectionably obvious, or overly aggressive motivational appeals.

a.      Do not say, as extreme examples, “Mr. Harlow Jones, the successful banker, has just contributed handsomely to our cause. Come on, now. Imitate this generous and community-spirited man!” Or, “If you give to this cause we will print your name in the paper so that your reputation as a generous person will be known by everyone. “

b.     Instead, in making an appeal of this sort, respect the intelligence and—more important—the public sensitivities of your audience. Suggest, through the use of what we earlier described as visualization, that contributors will not only be associated with others in a worthwhile and successful venture, but will also have the appreciation of many who are less fortunate than they.

c.      In other words, let listeners “think” about “selfish” motives themselves so they don’t feel insulted by your blatancy and aggression.

d.     An insulted audience is unlikely to act favorably as a result of your appeal.

2.     Use motivational appeals in combination, especially when some of them are socially suspect.

a.      Appealing to self-centered interests—private fears, monetary gain or acquisition, and self-pride—can represent an excellent persuasive strategy; however, people, especially in groups, are often reluctant to acknowledge that they are acting for selfish reasons.

b.     Examples

i.       At the end of the year many people contribute to charitable causes to increase their income tax deductions, but a speaker can hardly tell a group of people that the main reason they should give to a fund drive is to make some personal financial gains.
ii.     Many people who are persuaded to join an exercise group because they have deep-seated fears of heart attacks, when asked why they exercise, are likely to say, “Oh, because it makes me feel so good.” The response conceals their specific fears.

c.      Allow the audience to describe “privately acquisitive motives in publicly sacrificial terms,” as Burke said.

3.     Use motivational appeals in combination when you face a heterogeneous audience.

a.      Suppose you were speaking to an Optimist Club on the need for a trauma center at the local hospital. In an Optimist Club you are likely to find doctors, storekeepers, old people, young persons, members of social service agencies, minority businesspeople, and the like.

b.     This suggests that you will want to appeal:

i.       to the financial interests of the business community (as more people will be brought to town, the number of consumers will increase);
ii.     to the self-pride of doctors (who presumably will be able to treat severely injured patients more successfully);
iii.   to the fears of older citizens (who now will have greatly improved chances of surviving heart attacks);
iv.   to the innovativeness of younger persons (who usually value progress highly);
v.     to the humanitarian orientation of the social service agents (who always approve of ways to increase care for others);
vi.   to the medical plight of low-income minorities (who as a group often are denied quick treatment of the type offered by trauma centers).

4.     Consider the need to appeal to lower-level needs first if higher level needs are not met.

a.      Suppose you were giving a speech in favor of an urban renewal project to members of a ghetto. Appeals to higher-level needs (esteem needs such as achievement, prestige, or status) are likely to fall on deaf ears, for you would be addressing folks primarily concerned with such basic physiological needs as food and shelter and such safety needs as security, protection, and freedom from harassment.

b.     A speech on that topic to that audience probably ought not spend much time discussing beautification; instead it could emphasize increased access to goods and services, improved housing, better street lighting, controlled traffic, and better opportunities for community-centered law enforcement.

5.     Consider using the Motivated Sequence to arrange your appeals.

6.     Use motivational appeals in ethically sound ways.

a.      Urging an audience to take a course of action because it will make them rich at the expense of others who have less power or knowledge, for example, is an ethically suspect motivational appeal;

b.     So is an intense, sustained fear appeal that finds hidden conspiracies to destroy the world under every rock and bush.

c.      Think carefully about your own ethical limits, and about what kinds of appeals outrage you when you are a member of an audience. The social penalties for overstepping moral boundaries in your appeals can be relatively severe, and you must decide to what degree you are willing to risk social censure for what you advocate and how you advocate it.

See how some of these appeals appear in a sample speech.

This page was last modified on Wednesday, August 15, 2001.
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