Motivating others is no easy feat. It comes in many forms, but often language is the most effective medium for getting other motivated and inspired. And what matters just as much as what you say is how you say it.
New research in psychology is suggesting that the way in which we alter our speech cues can influence how motivated another person feels. Netta Weinstein from Cardiff University, along with Konstantina Zougkou and Silke Paulmann from University of Essex conducted research examining a person’s ability to motivate others through speech cues. They found that things like volume, rate, and clarity matter a great deal when it comes to how your message gets received.
Watch your tone!
To motivate others in speech, the most important element is that what you say supports people’s personal autonomy. If you support their independence, it will make the people around you more engaged and interested in what you have to say. And they’re more likely to follow through on a desirable behavior or action.
Motivational language can be broken down into their core elements, or speech cues. When it comes to structuring this language for yourself, these are the features you need to be on the lookout for:
1. Volume. People whose speech is motivating don’t speak as loud as those who express controlling statements. However, concurrent research shows that having a high loudness level makes you more charismatic. The suggestion, then, is to find a happy middle – one that you’re comfortable with.
2. Clarity. Garbled speech is not your friend. Try to enunciate, especially when you’re emphasizing words. Reading out loud is helpful in this – you end up slowly sounding out unfamiliar words and become even more familiar with the words you already now. The clearer you are, the better you are at communicating. You can also try breathing from your diaphragm. To do this, simply inhale and let your stomach inflate, and exhale and let your stomach go down. For the majority of the speaking time, you can have short, shallow breaths, but every 10-15 seconds add in this big diaphragmatic breath. It brings greater control over your speech.
3. Speed. If you speak too fast, you come off as nervous and unprepared. Further, motivating speech is spoken slower than controlling ones. Here’s what you can do: try breaking your sentences up into relevant bits. Take a breath between each part. This way, you lower your speech rate as a whole, and you’re effectively pausing. You’re also improving your clarity of speech.
4. Energy. In several studies, scientists investigated the distribution of energy across frequency bands. Breathy voices had a higher concentration of energy in high-frequency regions. Relaxed voices showed a high proportions of low-frequency energy. The studies found that low-frequency voices, which are less forceful, were more motivational. As follows, to create a motivational environment, you need to be less forceful with your voice. Read a sentence from this article out loud in your best speaking voice. Now answer these questions: are you too breathy? Too rough? Your voice should be relaxed, rather than pressed. If you find yourself tense and it’s difficult to relax, try taking a few deep breaths.
5. Emphasis. Emphasize important information. This might seem tiresome if you’re using the same type of emphasis constantly. Don’t forget to change it up a little – here’s a list of different ways you can emphasize your words. These next few tips are derived from a study that focused on Steve Job’s charismatic style of speaking:
- Emphasize every syllable or word so that each one sounds prominent.
- Repeat words, specifically adjectives like “very”, or “really”.
- Stress the consonant of a stressed syllable, and let your pitch fall as you reach the next vowel. An example of this is saying, ‘RRRR-eally!’
- Do the opposite of what’s written directly above! Stress the vowel, and let your pitch fall as you reach the consonant. You would pronouncing amazing like, ‘am-AAA-zing.’
Further, if you are in a position where you can collect information from your colleagues, try putting together a survey and asking employees to fill it out after your presentation. You can even make it anonymous — that way, you’ll be able to receive honest feedback. Be sure to include these above speech cues in your feebdack.
And supplement these exercises with personal apps:
- Orai – Improve Public Speaking: This app uses your recordings measures how fast you speak, your energy level, and your vocal clarity. It also tracks filler words, such as ‘um, uh, you know’. It also lets you playback your recordings, so you can listen to yourself again – and it’s all transcribed for you, as well. There are also short, quick exercises that increase in difficulty as you progress.
- VirtualSpeech: If you really need to be in a realistic environment to practice, this course simulates a virtual reality for you, so you need a VR headset for this. It tracks hesitation, speech rate, and even eye contact. The audience even has distractions to make the app as realistic as possible.
- Ummo: A simple app that analyzes recordings of your speech. It tracks your pace, volume, clarity percentage, and how many filler words you’ve used. You can also input specific phrases you’d like to watch out for and Ummo will count how many times you’ve said them.
The science behind motivational speech
A recent research paper unpacked these motivational speech cues. In one study, the researchers looked at pitch, volume, speed, and energy. Actors were with situations. They were told, “You have a school-aged daughter. On parents’ night the teacher tells you that your daughter is doing poorly and doesn’t seem involved in the work. You…”
Then, they were presented with controlling and motivational ways to respond to the prompt. They could either talk it over with their daughter to understand her issues or scold her and hope she does better. They were then recorded as they imagined themselves in these scenarios. Actors started by saying 28 motivational sentences, then took a break, and said 28 controlling sentences. They found that neutral responses didn’t differ from motivational responses, meaning that the actors ended up sounding more motivational when neutral.
Students rated these recordings, by reporting how pressuring controlling statements were, while reporting the extent to which motivational statements supported choice. This was done to validate sentences recorded by the actors.
There were predictable patterns of speech patterns that came through in the different responses. Autonomy-supportive, motivational sentences were spoken quieter, less forcefully, and slower than controlling sentences.
A second study tested if listeners could identify motivational content. They also looked at how this content was linked to support and pressure. They presented listeners with neutral, motivational, and controlling sentences — all randomized. They then asked the listeners how pressuring the speaker sounded, and if the speaker supported the listener’s sense of choice.
For this study, they found that participants found sentences spoken in a controlling way as more pressuring and less supportive of choice. The results from the previous study also came into play, as volume and speed were linked to motivational sentences.
A last study tested whether neutral words spoken in a motivational style could change levels of pressure and support in the listener. They also tested to see if these speech elements would influence a person’s well-being. To do this, they asked students from ages 18 to 45 to listen to neutrally-worded sentences that were either spoken in motivational or controlling way. They listened carefully to several of these statements and answered questions about support, well-being, anxiety, and self-esteem.
At the heart of these findings is that motivational speech is a learned ability. It’s not an inherent skill that you’re either born with or not. Instead it’s something that gets developed over time with practice and a little bit of effort. But whereas before it was blind trial-and-error, here we at least have a starting point, a guide of which features are the most important to target.
So what are you waiting for? Stop reading and start speaking.