How to give the perfect pep talk

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American football team pep talk

Energising a team with a pep talk may come naturally to sports coaches, but what about business leaders? Daniel McGinn, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, offers five tips from across the Pond for rallying your troops with some rousing rhetoric

Daniel McGinn

Daniel McGinn

Bill Campbell never forgot the most effective pep talk he was ever given. Campbell was a high-school American football player from Homestead, an old steel town in Pennsylvania. He and his team were on the bus, travelling to play their arch-rivals, Mount Lebanon High School. Instead of going directly to the field, their coach had the bus tour the adjoining neighbourhood of ritzy homes.

“You see those Cadillacs?” he yelled, gesturing at the expensive cars in their driveways. “Your fathers make the steel that goes into them. Are you going to let those candy-asses beat you?”

Campbell recalls walking off the bus so energised that he wanted to strangle somebody. “That was the kind of motivation he used – we were the poor kids from the steelworks; they were the rich kids on the hill. We’d be damned if we were going to let them win,” he says. “Of all the pep talks I’ve had in my life, I’ll always remember that one.”

Campbell went on to play gridiron at Columbia University and spent a few years in coaching. Then he joined Apple as a marketing executive. He had no IT skills, but in a series of high-profile Silicon Valley jobs – including that of CEO at Intuit – Campbell became famous for mentoring technology whizz-kids with limited people skills, including Steve Jobs and the founders of Google. One of the skills he worked hardest to instil was how to give a motivational speech. This is something that many people learn young when playing team sports, but which tech titans tend to miss out on because they spend most of their adolescence coding.

Giving a pep talk doesn’t come naturally to many people – and Campbell is sadly no longer here to offer his wisdom (he died last year). But here are five tips that can help anyone to do it better…

Get the mix right

Most pep talks offer a mix of strategy or direction and emotional appeal. In sport, if you’re giving specific instructions on how to defend against certain styles of attack or how to cover individual players, that’s strategic guidance. In business, if a sales manager is asking reps to highlight specific product attributes when making calls or to push a certain set of options, or offering them techniques for closing a deal, that’s direction too. If you’re trying to energise people, encourage them to collaborate or ask them to surpass their normal efforts, that’s an emotional appeal. Various scenarios require a different combination of these two elements. For instance, highly experienced team members are unlikely to need much instruction, so emotional appeals may work better for them. For the person delivering the talk, the key is to determine the right mix for the situation.

Offer empathy

People need to know that their leader cares. Empathetic language conveys this. Say thank you, either to the group or to specific individuals. Acknowledge that you’re asking a lot of them and that it’s hard. Even if this situation calls for a talk that’s mostly about strategy, take a moment to try to build a personal connection with the team. One way to do this is to describe a story from earlier in your career when you were facing the same challenges they are today and describe how you overcame these.

Give meaning

According to an article in the July/August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review (“The science of pep talks”), Milton and Jacqueline Mayfield of Texas A&M International University have done the best research on the subject. They have found that a motivational speech should offer direction, empathy and meaning – and that the third element is often the hardest. For instance, the CEO of a pharmaceutical start-up may have an easy time connecting their workers’ daily tasks with a higher meaning, such as finding a cure for cancer, but the manager of fast-food restaurant may struggle to do that in a team of part-timers working for the minimum wage. (The researchers suggest focusing on how their work, and the firm’s success, provides jobs to support families.) Whatever the situation, before you start your talk, try to find a link between what you’re asking the team to do today and a larger goal that’s more recognisably important.

Find a formula

When you speak to people who give pep talks routinely, as I did while doing the research for my book, you find that many have learnt to apply a well-practised formula. For instance, Stanley McChrystal, the former US Army general who oversaw operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, tended to use the following five-step process: here’s what I’m asking you to do; here’s why it’s important; here’s why I know you can do it; think about what you’ve done together before; now go and do it. While McChrystal’s formula is simple enough to replicate, you needn’t follow it to the letter, of course – create one that works for you.

Don’t fake it

This form of rhetoric comes easier to some than it does to others (David Brent, from The Office, was a master of the toe-curlingly awkward pep talk). Even some recognised leaders discount the effectiveness of a motivational speech. For example, American football coach Bill Belichick, whose motto is “do your job”, prefers to focus on strategy and doesn’t spend much time trying to appeal to players’ emotions before big games. In these situations, rather than skip a pep talk altogether or try to muddle through, consider bringing in a different voice. Perhaps another team member will be better than you at delivering this message. Maybe a former employee or even a customer can provide the right words to fire up your people. For leaders who find such things uncomfortable, outsourcing may sometimes make sense.

Our expectations about pep talks have been built up over the years by sport and war movies, where they often herald the climactic scene. As you prepare to rally the troops, try to manage your expectations. A good pep talk doesn’t have to be cinematic to lift people’s spirits and squeeze out that crucial extra ounce of performance.

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About author

Daniel McGinn

Daniel McGinn

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed

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