Imagine the quintessential leader in action. No matter wrether you picture a general leading his troops into a battle, a sports coach before a big game, of a sales manager motivating her team before the close of the quarter, the leader you have in your mind is probably doing the exact same thing -- giving a pep talk.
Bucking up others when the going is tough or motivation is waning is an essential leadership skill. It's also an incredibly tricky one. When faced with a room of anxious followers in need of bucking up, it's hard to avoid cliches or empty platitudes. "You can do it!" is more likely to produce groans than genuine inspiration.
So how do you craft a pep talk that's actually motivating? A recent The Cut post highlighting a study on the subject sent me digging through the research to find out. As this handy HBR post boiling down the latest findings on the subject reveals, a great pep talk always boils down to the same three essential elements.
1. Direction giving
The Cut post makes it clear that the vaguer your attempts to inspire someone, the less effective your pep talk is likely to be. "'You've got this,' while dripping with pump-up optimism, is not a line that accomplishes [actual motivation]. Instead, try something like: 'Your talking point about that thing on your resume are so well-rehearsed!,'" suggests writer Cari Romm, citing a new study.
HBR's Daniel McGinn agrees. A good motivational speech must contain down-to-earth, concrete information on how to accomplish the task at hand. McGinn gives the examples of "easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated."
2. Expressions of empathy
Technical information, however, isn't enough. Leaders also need to convince their listeners that they understand their struggles.
This essential element of an effective pep talk is called "expressions of empathy" and "can include praise, encouragement, gratitude, and acknowledgment of a task's difficulty," explains McGinn. "Phrases like 'How are we all doing?' 'I know this is a challenge, but I trust you can do it,' and 'Your well-being is one of my top priorities' all fit into this category."
3. Meaning making
Finally, you can't just explain how to do something and assure your people they can accomplish the goal. You also have to highlight why they should actually want to tackle the challenge in front of them.
"This involves linking the organization's purpose or mission to listeners' goals," says McGinn. "Often, meaning-making language includes the use of stories--about people who've worked hard or succeeded in the company, or about how the work has made a real difference in the lives of customers or the community."
Craft your own recipe
It's a simple three-part recipe for a successful motivational speech, but as McGinn notes, the art of leadership lies in how you mix these elements to best suit your audience. Studies of sports coaches, for instance, have shown that the tougher the opponent, the more players appreciate empathetic and meaning-making language. Reviews of speeches to elite soldiers, on the other hand, show they're well aware of the importance of their work and appreciate more nuts and bolts direction giving.
So while every good motivational speech contains these three key elements, this is hardly a paint-by-numbers solution. There is room (and need) for artistry in finding just the right mix of ingredients and the perfect words to get your team fired up. But before you start worrying about proportions and phrasing, make sure you have these three essential bases covered.