Web Analytics

How to Give a Winning Pep Talk

leadership storytelling
Leader giving a pep talk to his business team

By John Millen

As a leader, a major part of your responsibility is to influence the thinking and behavior of other people.
And sooner or later you’ll be standing in front of a group who need to hear a “pep” talk to motivate them to achieve something special, something beyond their self-limiting beliefs.

We all have vague ideas, mostly from sports movies, about how to give a motivating talk, as in these memorable scenes:

Hoosiers: Where Gene Hackman as Coach Dales tells his team they are winners to him no matter what the scoreboard says: “Forget about the crowds, the size of the school, their fancy uniforms, and remember what got you here...”
Remember the Titans: Denzel Washington as Coach Boone, who took his players to visit the battlefield at Gettysburg to heal the racial rift that divided the team: “Take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together, right now, on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed—just like they were.”
The drama of these movies might make it seem that only in movies or sports can we motivate people with a talk.
We know there’s an art to giving a motivational pep talk. But is there a formula, perhaps a science, to giving a winning motivational speech? It turns out there is.
For decades, researchers have been studying what makes for a successful pep talk. In fact, two researchers at Texas A&M International University have reviewed pep talks and considered how they might be most effectively applied to the corporate world.
For 30 years, Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, a husband-and-wife research team, have done the most extensive study on what they call Motivating Language Theory (MLT) and found that the most successful speeches have three important elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy and meaning-making.
Let me break these down in plain English for your use:

1. Use clear language [“direction giving”]
The researchers call this “uncertainty-reducing language.” What they’re saying is, give your team clear and concise instructions on what you’re asking of them. What exactly do you want them to do?
2. Express support for them [“expressions of empathy”]
“Empathetic language” that might acknowledge how difficult the task will be, as well as offering them encouragement, praise and thanks. Basically, be real; be human.
3. Connect to them to purpose [“meaning making”]
“Meaning-making language” is helping them find meaning in what you are asking of them. How does this connect to the purpose of your organization or their own personal purpose?
The researchers concluded that a winning pep talk should include all three elements, but to be effective you’ll need to mix them to fit the audience.
If your team is experienced, it may not need as much direction as a new team; some teams will need more empathy than others; but purpose, in my view, should always be strongly emphasized because it’s ultimately the key to motivation.
So mix and match these three elements — clear direction, empathy and purpose — to give your team a winning pep talk.
For example, if you’re speaking at a sale kickoff in, let’s say, January, you might:

Give clear direction: Talk about the specific sales goals that must be met and any new strategies or tactics you will employ this year.

Be empathetic: Describe their heroic efforts in the past year, the obstacles they overcame and your deep gratitude for their work.

Provide meaning: Connect with the purpose of your work: Do you protect people’s lives? Do you help small business owners and their communities thrive? Do you sell a product that saves peoples’ lives? By linking to purpose, you give them direct access to the energy and commitment we all draw from meaningful work.

As you speak to purpose, telling a story that relates this meaning can have a powerful effect.
And don’t forget that how you say something is as important, and sometimes more important for motivation, than what you say. Use confident body language, vivid words and all of your passion.

To motivate people as a leader it's critical to speak from your heart.
Here’s to your winning pep talks and the success of your team!

Sign up for John's Sunday Coffee newsletter for the idea of the week to make you a great communicator.

I love listening to

audio booksĀ 


I've written hundreds of articles on this site. My secret weapon for learning is listening to books while I'm driving, walking or working out.

By clicking the green button below you'll get a 30-day free trial of Audible to kickstart your own learning.

Happy listening!

John Millen

* We may earn a commissionĀ from links on our site. We only offer products and services we know and trust.

Career Advice for New College Graduates

May 25, 2024

Vin Scully, a Storytelling Role Model

May 18, 2024

4 Keys to Power Up Your Voice

May 11, 2024