How to Give a Pep Talk

Posted 03.24.2010

Whether you’re for or against the health care bill, it’s pretty clear that the passage of the bill by the House will be one of the bigger stories of 2010.  In all of the coverage of the debate, one clip I saw made a broader impression on me.  It was President Obama’s speech to the congressional Democratic caucus on the day before the vote.  I’ve been on West Coast time this week and when I got back to my hotel room on Saturday night, I watched the speech on C-SPAN.  (That probably says a lot about what a wild and crazy time I have on business trips.)  Anyway, the speech struck me as an interesting example of how to give a pep talk.

Sooner or later, every leader is faced with the challenge of rousing the troops to go out and do something hard.  One of my favorite examples is the “Band of Brothers” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V.  For  a highlight of that speech, check out this clip of Kenneth Branagh as Henry V psyching up the troops at Agincourt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the President’s health care speech with Henry V sending troops into battle.  Still, no matter which side of the health care reform bill you come down on, I think there are some fairly salient pep talk learning points to be gleaned from the structure of the President’s remarks.  You can watch the speech here.  What follows are some of my takeaways that might be food for thought in preparing your next “fire them up” pep talk.

Start with an inspirational quote:  The President opened with a quote from Lincoln, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.”  He used that line and the reference to Lincoln to connect his audience with a sense of higher purpose.  He closed his speech with the same quote thereby bringing balance and symmetry to his message.

Acknowledge the difficulties:  In his talk, Obama recognized and thanked the Democratic team for the time and effort they had put in in the midst of a long process and a lot of opposition.  People like to be recognized and thanked for their efforts. That’s especially true when they’re being asked to do something risky or hard.

Clearly define the stakes:  Good pep talks include stories  that illustrate the stakes of the conflict.  Those stories are what make it real for the troops that what they’re about to do matters. Obama’s health care pep talk was laced with such stories.

Define the opposition:  Just about every pep talk deals with overcoming an opposing force whether it’s a condition or one or more opponents. There’s a lot of emotional power in an us against them argument. In my opinion, we have far too much of that dynamic in our public discourse. It’s not always inappropriate; it’s just easy to go there. Still, when you can link that dynamic with an appeal to a higher purpose, you’ve got the makings of a powerful pep talk. The President did that.

Single out the moment as historic:  The desire to be part of something that lasts is a big motivator.  Henry V said that future generations would consider themselves accursed that they did not fight in the Battle of Agincourt. Obama told his audience that the health care vote was one of those rare opportunities to go back to the reasons that they got into politics in the first place. As a leader, you can’t go to the “we’re making history” well too often because it loses its impact. Use it at the appropriate times, however, and you can motivate your team to do some difficult things.

What’s the best pep talk you’ve ever heard? What made it great? As a leader, is there something you need to give a pep talk about? What do you need to say and how do you need to say it?