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The Science of Pep Talks

Source | : By Daniel McGinn

rica 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, 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…. We 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.

Most winning formulas include direction giving, empathy, and meaning making.

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.


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