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The Science of Pep Talks

by | Sep 12, 2017

Were you fan of the television series “Friday Night Lights” or the movie “Rudy”? The moment when the coach talks to the team (right before the most important game of the season of course!) most of us enjoy a vicarious adrenalin rush. The coach gets the team (and viewers) pumped by acknowledging the challenges ahead but telling the players in the most convincing way possible that they can overcome them. Sometimes the coach gives some practical tips on how the team can work together to crush the other side. Maybe he reminds them of their past heroic moments. But no matter how daunting the odds, once the coach is finished speaking there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that his team will emerge victorious.

Turns out, there’s bona fide science behind the art of the pep talk. Click To Tweet

Some might consider those “give ‘em hell” locker room speeches cheesy entertainment, but I disagree. Turns out, there’s bona fide science behind the art of the pep talk. Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, professors at Texas A&M, have studied motivational language theory (MLT) and its use in the corporate world for the past three decades. Their findings correspond with studies from sports psychologists and military historians.


The Research

A fascinating article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) describes the Mayfield’s research. If you give formal motivational speeches, or just occasional informal talks with your employees, take note.

“According to the science, most winning formulas include three elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making. . . A good pep talk—whether delivered to one person or many—should include all three elements, but the right mix will depend on the context and the audience. Experienced workers who are doing a familiar task may not require much direction. Those who already are tightly bonded with a leader may require less empathetic language. Meaning making is useful in most situations, but may need less emphasis if the end goals of the work are obvious.”

If you’re like me, you’ve probably used some combination of these elements without realizing the power of carefully blending them to spur employees to better performance.


A closer look at the three elements, as described in HBR:


Direction giving

The point here is to provide information about precisely how to do something and, most importantly, details about how performance will be evaluated. Don’t worry that this will be perceived as patronizing. Most employees perceive direction giving as “uncertainty-reducing language.” Bottom line: people want to know what’s expected of them.


Empathetic language

Show concern for the performer as a human being. This can include praise, encouragement, gratitude and acknowledgment of a task’s difficulty. 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. And, I would add, be sincere. If you have a difficult time mustering empathy, try to remember that without your people you have nothing.


Meaning-making language

This is when you explain why a task is important and involves linking the organization’s purpose or mission to listeners’ goals. 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.


A retired four-star general, Stanley McChrystal—who oversaw special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—sums it up this way:

“Here’s what I’m asking you to do. . . Here’s why it’s important. . . Here’s why I know you can do it. . . Now let’s go and do it!”

What could be more inspiring—or simpler—than that?

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