Motive Triangle — How to achieve action with hope, fear, and reason

April 11, 2023
5 min read
Photo by Hoover Tung on Unsplash
“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”
— Elvis Presley

It was the best of plans; it was the worst of presentations.

It happens. A crushing bore of a meeting. A presentation that failed to move people. The dish for “dreary” is simple. Take your PowerPoint deck and re-christen it as a “narrative.” Tweak a couple of slides. Present.

What you have is a boring imposter. Walter Mitty dressed up as a dashing adventurer. A sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Maybe you heard of storytelling as a way to inspire, convince, and motivate. But your “narrative” trick didn’t work.

A simple re-badging won’t cut it. 

You wouldn’t expect to re-brand Facebook as Google+ and get overnight success, would you? Or think Tidal has a better “narrative” than Spotify? You would not.

There’s a gap to fill between your re-named “narrative” and a story.

What is the special secret ingredient?

One word: emotion.

Emotion fills the gap between dusty and delightful, between re-worked and re-invigorated, between  “narrative” and story.

A story is a persuasive device. A mechanism of influence. 

Inside your story is a piece of information wrapped in emotion. 

The mechanism of story has wondrous qualities. It’s a time machine—transporting audiences to different futures. It’s a camera—capturing moments, recalling memories and feelings. It’s a transformer—changing perspectives and opening up new vistas.

With story, beats of emotion mesh with a ticking gear of information.

That connection is missing in so-called business “narratives.” Yes, there is information—a relentless, well-articulated stream of logic—immortalized in PowerPoint. But emotion is a no-show.

If there is no emotion, there is no movement. 

Reason leads to judgment; emotion leads to action.​

This is the classic premise in neuroscience and psychology. 

It’s human 101. 

For example, we’re more likely to donate to charity when presented with a specific emotional need. Showing the charity’s impact with plain old statistics won’t cut it.
(Sarah McLachlan sings Angel, and you care more about puppies).

We buy products based on marketing that strikes an emotional chord, even when the “other product” is objectively superior.
(Hello, all you Apple fans 😏). 

We’re more likely to support aggressive responses—to terrorism, military encroachment, and political opposition—when we feel fearful or threatened.


This is the communication lesson we see over and over again in the big wide world, yet in the smaller confines of business; we miss it.

Business, despite being full of humans, ignores feelings.

But business has to move people.

Business needs people to make decisions and to take action. 

You want customers to pass on positive word of mouth. You want employees to execute or lead change. You want people to buy what you sell.

So why don’t they?

You made a well-reasoned case. You have an ROI, you’ve worked out a USP, and you have a business plan. 

But no dice. No movement.  

Somewhere along the line, we have made the mistake of assuming people are rational—that we act based on logic.

We won’t. People don’t. 

How often has a great idea moldered on the shelf inside your business? Or does an innovation stall with no path to market? Perhaps you are stymied. Your movement to simplify a product portfolio gains no traction? Or does your big transformation flames out?

Then, suddenly, the competition makes a move. 


Executives now pay attention. Your moldering idea is pulled from the shelf and quickly dusted off. It becomes the new bright, shiny object. The innovation is rushed to market. All hands are on deck to simplify and transform.

Why? Emotion. 

To move people, you need a holy grail and a burning platform.

Logic and good intentions will only get you so far. To the point of stillness, inertia, and immutable refusal. Employees simply “wait out” the latest push to transform. 

All recognizable reactions to anyone who has led change.

This apathy was the case for the CEO of a large US-based multinational. “We have a money printing machine in the basement.” He lamented. “People are too comfortable. They see what we want to do, and they understand it, but we keep getting dragged back into what we did yesterday.”

This wasn’t the fault of his plan. It was his articulation of the plan. 

It had no emotion. No burning platform. No holy grail.

Enter the Motive Triangle.

Your audience has a secret wish.

You will find the wish nestled in the triangulation of hope, fear, and reason

Hope is personal. 

Hope isn’t just eternal; it’s internal. It’s intensely personal. 

Hope comes in many forms: Hope for autonomy; to be self-directed, and to have control over your own work. Hope for mastery; to build skills, reputation, or competence. Hope as belonging—being part of a community or group or hope as recognition and appreciation for your work.

Hope motivates over the long haul.

Fear, on the other hand, is abrupt. 

Fear, with its conjoined twins of uncertainty and doubt, is the “mind-killer.” We avoid it at all costs. And avoidance spurs us to stand still or run fast.

When we stand still, wheels spin. We stick to the status quo. You see it in the form of the flashing neon sign of business bureaucracy, replete with semi-wise axioms of not “rocking the boat.” Or, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

Inertia is the inquisitor of progress.

But we can use fear in our favor to move people. Whole businesses are built on this. Think: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” Or Gartner’s hype cycles, which tap into a fear of obsolescence. The result? Conference attendance swells, and IT invests in the next new technology.

Fear on its own drives urgency, but it doesn’t last.

Reason is our public face.

At the bottom of the motive triangle is reason. 

Reason is the foundation of our rational arguments. It’s the justification we pass on to others. It’s required to rationalize the emotional decision we have made.

Reason may be the public face of the decision, but it’s never the trigger.

Your audience has a secret wish, but what is it? 

People don't make decisions based on reason; we make decisions based on emotion. The reason is how we justify the decision. When your argument stalls, you aren't looking for a rationale; you're looking for emotion. 

What do they hope for, what do they fear?

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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