Should your speech persuade or inspire?

It all depends on the timing and what you want your audience to do. Here’s what you need to know.


Should you try to inspire your audience members or persuade them? Will you speak about why your audience should do something, or how they can pull it off?

New research suggests you should consider the timing of your message and what the audience has to do next to decide which approach is best.

A blog post by Bob Sutton discusses recent studies that gauged the effectiveness of political messages:

“The question tackled by these studies in paper by Hakkyun Kim and his colleagues in the Journal of Consumer Research was when ‘influencers’ are better off using vague, abstract high level messages—ones that are more about ‘why’—versus concrete, specific, implementation oriented messages—ones that are ‘how’ to get things done.”

The studies said audiences receive political messages differently depending on when they hear them. Abstract, inspiring language works fine when the election is far off, but as it gets closer, citizens prefer more concrete promises.

The researchers liken it to planning a vacation. Vague promises of sunsets may convince you to travel somewhere at first, but you will likely want to see an activity schedule or something more concrete the week before you depart.

While it’s not possible to extrapolate these findings to the workplace, they made me think of commencement speeches, which are traditionally long on high-minded abstractions and short on what graduates will actually experience. Most commencement speakers aim for high, inspiring and abstract ideas.

That’s why I enjoyed reading “10 things your commencement speaker won’t tell you“—a list as concrete as the sidewalk. Here’s an example from the article that urges graduates to worry less about doing something grand and positive, and more about not doing any harm:

“Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that ‘changing the world’ also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.”

That certainly explains the “how” for the audience. The article is from the book “10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said” by Charles Wheelan, whose first job out of college was as speechwriter to the governor of Maine. The job involved writing words of wisdom for graduations when he was just 23. Consider that, graduates!

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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