The Science of Pep Talks and Understanding the Successful Three-Part Formula

Research suggests leaders can more skillfully fire up teams by mastering three elements – direction-giving, empathy and meaning-making – and learning when to use them. 

Erica Galos Alioto stands in front of 650 sales reps in the New York office of Yelp, the online review company, wearing a pair of shiny gold pants that she calls her lucky LDOM pants. LDOM is Yelp’s acronym for “last day of the month,” and for Alioto, at the time Yelp’s senior vice president for local sales, it means giving a speech that will motivate her sales force to cold-call 70 potential customers each and close deals before the accountants finalize that month’s books.

She speaks for 20 minutes, extolling the group for being Yelp’s top sales producer. She namechecks the best performers on the team and suggests ways for everyone else to adopt the same mentality. She tells stories. She asks questions.

“This office is currently $1.5 million away from target this month. ... have an action plan here. Are we going to execute?” There’s moderate applause. She asks again, in a louder voice: “Are we going to execute?” Big applause.

Alioto has worked hard to perfect these speeches because she knows her success depends on them. Indeed, the ability to deliver an energizing pep talk that spurs employees to better performance is a prerequisite for any business leader. And yet few managers receive formal training in how to do it. Instead, they learn mostly from mimicry — emulating inspirational bosses, coaches they had in school, or even characters from films such as Glengarry Glen Ross and The Wolf of Wall Street. Some people lean on executive coaches for help, but often the advice rests on the coaches’ personal experience, not research.

There is, however, a science to motivating people in this way. To better understand the various tools that help people get psyched up in the moments before important performances, I talked extensively with academics and practitioners in business and a variety of other fields. I discovered that while every individual has his or her own tips and tricks, according to the science, most winning formulas include three key elements: direction-giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning- making. The most extensive research in this field — dubbed motivating language theory, or MLT — comes from Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, a husband-and-wife team at Texas A&M International University who have studied its applications in the corporate world for nearly three decades. Their findings are backed by studies from sports psychologists and military historians. And all the evidence suggests that once leaders understand these three elements, they can learn to use them more skillfully.

THREE ELEMENTS, CAREFULLY BALANCED

The Mayfields describe direction-giving as the use of “uncertainty-reducing language.” This is when leaders provide information about precisely how to do the task at hand by, for example, giving easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated.

“Empathetic language” shows concern for the performer as a human being. It 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.

 “Meaning-making language” explains why a task is important. This 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 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. Followers who are already 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.

 For example, the Mayfields studied the CEO of a California pharmaceutical start-up focused on drugs to alleviate heart disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Many of the company’s employees have lost loved ones to these ailments, so they bring an unusual sense of purpose to their work. As a result, at all-hands meetings, the CEO can easily make statements like this: “I know everybody here wants to help save lives and make people’s lives better. That’s what our work is all about.”

 In contrast, the supervisor of a fast-food restaurant speaking to part-time teenage employees will need to work harder to incorporate all three elements of motivating language theory into his chats with staff, but he can’t rely solely on direction-giving. Milton Mayfield suggests empathetic lines: “I know this work is difficult; you go home every night smelling of grease, and you’re working so late that you’re up until midnight finishing your homework.” Or, to creatively link labor to purpose, the supervisor might say: “Our goal as a company isn’t just to provide people with fast, satisfying meals; it’s also to provide good, stable jobs so that employees like you have money to help your families, to save for college or to enjoy yourselves when you’re not at work. The more you help this restaurant meet its goals, the better we’ll be able to continue doing that.” According to the Mayfields’ research, meaning-making is almost always the most difficult of the three elements to deliver.

Research from other fields offers additional insight into what gives the best pep talks their power. Tiffanye Vargas, a sports psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach, has published a half-dozen lab and field studies exploring which types of speeches best motivate athletes in different situations, some of which may also be applicable to business contexts. Her research suggests that across a variety of sports, coaches’ pregame remarks do matter: 90 percent of players say they enjoy listening, and 65 percent say the speeches affect the way they play.

She’s found that people prefer an information-rich (uncertainty-reducing) speech if they’re playing an unknown opponent or a team to which they’ve narrowly lost in the past. (For example: “We’re going to beat this team with tough man-to-man coverage. Joe, your job is to neutralize that shooting guard; Jimmy, you box out that star rebounder on every play.”)

If a team is an underdog or playing in a high-stakes game, a more emotional pep talk (with more empathetic and meaning-making language) is more effective. (For example: “We’ve exceeded all expectations in this tournament. No one expects us to win. But I expect you to win. I know you can win. You have to win. For your teammates, for the fans — because you deserve this victory.”)

Military speeches also tend to use the three elements of MLT in varying proportions, even if the terminology is different. When Keith Yellin, a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and the author of Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership, analyzed precombat speeches dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (including literary accounts, such as the “Once more unto the breach” oratory in Shakespeare’s Henry V), he found 23 “common topics” that generals call on.

These include language that qualifies as direction-giving (“Follow the plan”), but most of the themes appeal to soldiers’ reason (by comparing their superior army to opponents’ weaker forces) or emotions (by saying God is on their side or by highlighting the evilness of the enemy). Since the soldiers are about to risk their lives, it makes sense that a commander would focus on the larger purpose of the battle and why the risk is worthwhile.

At the same time, Yellin acknowledges that precombat oratory is less common today than in earlier wars, and its balance of elements has shifted. That’s partly because today’s armies are stealthy (limiting opportunities for speeches), but it’s also because they’re now more professionalized, made up mostly of career soldiers who voluntarily enlisted, rather than civilian soldiers or draftees. While new recruits might still benefit from rah-rah pep talks, seasoned soldiers already know their purpose and don’t need as much empathy.

Stanley McChrystal, the retired four-star general who oversaw special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, echoes this view. “If you went out with Delta Force or the Rangers or the SEALs in this last war, we were fighting every night,” he says. “Stuff is happening so fast, they’re all business.”

Earlier in his career, however, when he was leading younger soldiers, he relied more on emotion and meaning: “During the last 30 minutes or so [before a mission], it was more about building the confidence and the commitment to each other.” He says he tended to start with direction-giving (“Here’s what I’m asking you to do”) but quickly shifted to meaning-making (“Here’s why it’s important”) and empathy (“Here’s why I know you can do it” and “Think about what you’ve done together before”), and then ended with a recap (“Now let’s go and do it”).

The upshot of all this research and anecdotal evidence is that leaders in any context need to understand each element of motivating language theory and be conscious of emphasizing the right one at the right time.

PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE

Alioto, who recently left Yelp to become a freelance business adviser, had never studied the Mayfields’ work, but she seems to have adopted the framework on her own. She leads with empathy — on this day thanking the entire team for its hard work, singling out people or small teams who’ve been crushing it, and emphasizing that if one salesperson can put up spectacular numbers, all the reps are capable of it, since they have similar skills and training. 

After reading a transcript of her talk, the Mayfields point to this line in particular: “No matter what’s happened to you up to this point in the month, you can make it a successful day.” Then she shifts to direction-giving, offering insight on a basic informational concept — often dealing with having the right mindset or a commitment to act. For example, she tells the reps to write one goal for the day on a Post-it and stick it on their computer.

Alioto ends with meaning-making — an emotional rallying cry that connects LDOM to a bigger goal and leaves the group energized: “Every time you win the heart and mind of a business owner, you’re not only helping yourself — you’re helping your team, you’re helping your office, you’re helping your company, and you’re helping Yelp get where it wants to be.”

The Mayfields note that she could have gone a step further by connecting sales reps’ work to how Yelp improves end users’ lives by giving them access to recommendations and reviews of restaurants and other businesses. But on the whole, they give high marks to Alioto’s use of rhetoric to motivate a sales team.

It’s important to note, however, that Alioto’s instruction, empathy and meaning-making don’t stop when the salespeople file back to their desks. After her speech, she walks the sales floor, talking individually with more than a hundred reps and continuing to employ the different elements from motivating language theory. In one conversation, she talks to a rep about how to more forcefully close an ambivalent prospect. With a salesperson about to call an automobile mechanic, she talks about the specifics of that category. In other conversations, she tries to boost reps’ confidence or emphasize the team’s goals.

By day’s end, the New York Yelpers have sold $1.45 million in new ads, meeting their quota and falling just $50,000 short of that month’s stretch target. Many individual reps achieve their BME, Yelp-speak for “best month ever.”

Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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