We’ve all seen the films: before a crucial game for an underdog team, a battle where the army is outnumbered, the coach or general exhorts the players or soldiers to give their all to win. It’s not just a plea for victory: the speech places those individuals in the middle of the action, connecting them to the cause and helping them to understand why success is essential. In other words, it’s a pep talk.

The pep talk may seem like a cliche, a trope reserved for movies or high school football. However, research indicates that pep talks and other forms of mental preparation may increase performance and the chance of success for both teams and individual professionals.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlights research on this area, called motivating language theory, from Texas A&M International University. Research has distilled three features of successful pep talks:

  • Direction-giving: how to accomplish the job or project using specific parameters
  • Expressions of empathy: creating a personal connection with the audience
  • Meaning-making: why is it important? Moreover, why is it important to those individuals on the receiving end?

Leaders can use these elements but one key to success is that the leader must understand the audience and what they need to hear. If the project is clear-cut, employees may need to hear more about why it is important. If the task is viewed as undesirable, expressions of empathy may be more in order.

The above guidelines work well for a prepared talk. However, unpredictable situations will likely arise before a so-called “scripted” moment. Additionally, these may be more one-on-one conversations. In those instances, researchers at the University of Louisville emphasize emotional support, through empathetic listening and/or brainstorming a solution to the challenge or problem. In these circumstances, the leader takes a less proactive approach and allows the employee to lead. Nevertheless, it is still a pep talk from a different angle. The employee can still come away with feelings of motivation and encouragement.

So before you consign the pep talk to your daughter’s lacrosse team coach or Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, it might be worthwhile to consider it for the goals of your team and organization.

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