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The power of the pep talk: How to deliver a message that moves


Pep talks and their big brother, the motivational speech  can drive people to do the seemingly impossible: win brutal battles, love old enemies, rethink deeply held beliefs. Occasionally, they help a scrappy team of underdogs pull off an upset on the football field.

Or, well, continue to dominate. Here's Buckeyes Coach Ryan Day attempting something tricky  amping up his Goliath of a team. (The Davids usually get the stirring speeches.)


Why are pep talks so powerful? Why do they move people to discover strength and understanding? Tonya Forsythe, a public speaking lecturer at Ohio State with two decades of experience teaching people to talk, explains — and offers tips to delivering your own.

Keep scrolling to the bottom to see her top all-time motivational speeches, which may offer a few surprises.

Why are motivational speeches important?

Folks are looking at their leader not just to tell them what to do they know what they’re supposed to do they just want that little added sense of urgency or that added sense of motivation to really go out and not just do a good job but a great job. And these speeches have to be well timed. They can’t happen every day.

Is a pep talk different from a motivational speech?

I don’t think so. It’s all about connecting with your audience where they are and what they’re tasked with for the future. How are you going to motivate them to get to the next level?

What does it take to give a speech that moves people?

In my opinion: authenticity. That’s something that I really preach to my students: if you are authentic, your audience can trust you and can believe you.

Second is, are you passionate about what you are speaking about? And are you showing that in your vocal inflection, your physical delivery? Some speakers are calmer, some tend to be a little more animated, but can your audience see your passion — and can they believe you?

Your word choice is key as well. In your authenticity, that’s where your word choice comes into play. Really good speakers think, “Is this a word that I would use? You don’t want to come across as somebody pretending to be something they’re not.

How do you choose words that motivate people?

By finding a rhetorical device that makes sense to use: a good simile, good metaphor, use of repetition. Find a key phrase that you can use at key times through your speech to really help land what you’re trying to say. Paint a picture with your words.

Practicing out loud is key. You can think you wrote the perfect words, and then you speak them out loud and think, “My mouth does not like these words.” President George W. Bush, for example, had a terrible time saying words such as “terror.”

Do you need to practice these speeches?

Yes, but you can over practice as well. My advice: Have your speech written a week prior. Write it out word for word. Make sure you’re hitting your time limits, and then run through that about three times. Then transfer your speech to bulleted speaking notes.

At that point, 20 years of teaching public speaking has taught me that you should practice once per day for seven days before your speech. Practice standing up, moving around, moving on your transitions. If you have three main points, start the middle, transition, move to the left, transition, move to the right. Not choreographing, but being intentional in your movements.

OK, what should I do with my hands?

What I tell my students is I want them to be intentional but not distracting. The problem most people have is they keep their hands in front of their body, and they have this mindset that they need to do something with them — so they will gesture more and more. Instead, drop them at your side. Great speakers will open their bodies to their audience. Gesture only when you’re trying to make a point, or do something to say, "This is a key thing I want you to listen to." Also, if you have to speak behind a podium, don’t touch the podium.

What are your top 4 all-time motivational speeches?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It literally is like poetry. Its word choice is gorgeous. It’s just absolute art. When he got into his “I have a dream” portion it was not in his script, but he was so passionate and devoted to racial equality that when he got up there to speak he was able to speak authentically from his heart. A key thing was his inclusive language — it was all “we.”


Barbara Bush when she was invited to speak at Wellesley College’s 1990 commencement. They had invited Alice Walker to speak, and she was unable to make it. Barbara Bush was invited, and the students lost it. They petitioned — they didn’t want her to speak. They were career-minded women and she was a wife and mother. She went into an audience that didn’t want her and owned it at such an amazing level because she was authentic. She went in and had this phenomenal grandmotherly chat about accepting each other for who you are.


President Ronald Reagan’s Challenger speech. I remember watching the Challenger explosion live when I was in eighth grade. Every teacher, every principal was like, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do with our kids?” A relatively unknown speech writer, Peggy Noonan, was tasked with writing Reagan’s speech in one day. It was an absolutely gorgeous speech and he delivered it with such sincerity. I remember sitting on my living room floor, listening to a Republican (my parents were Carter Democrats) like he was my grandfather saying, “It’s OK. Everything is going to be all right.”


The speech from the movie “Miracle,” where Kurt Russell (playing coach Herb Brooks) is speaking to the 1980 U.S. mens Olympic hockey team. He says, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” I love that line, because if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to communicate through speeches, we’re denying the world our ideas, our brilliance — because we’re too afraid to speak.