Sunday 26 February 2017

How to give an inspiring team talk worthy of Paul O'Connell

Rugby captain Paul O'Connell's pre-match speech inspired his team's victory over France. How did he do it? Our reporter finds out

Ed Power

Ed Power

Fighting talk: Paul O'Connell gave a stirring speech
Fighting talk: Paul O'Connell gave a stirring speech

Ireland's historic rugby World Cup triumph over France has been credited, in part, to an inspirational pre-match speech by captain Paul O'Connell. In the dressing room before kick-off, the veteran is said to have reduced his team-mates to tear-streaked silence as he set out just how important the game was - and what Ireland had to do in order to carry the day.

It's probably overstating the case to assert that words alone lifted the Irish side as they romped to a 24-9 win on Sunday, but, as they took to the field in Cardiff, the spring in the team's step contrasted visibly with the slouching body-language exhibited in the undercooked tussle with Italy a week earlier.

"A really good motivational speech raises our performance by helping us to really focus on what is really most important at that moment in time and also focussing on what we can control rather than what was outside our control," says motivational speaker and coach Mick Rock.

"There was so much happening in that game... and the players could have spent half-time dwelling on the injuries, which we could do nothing about, rather than focussing on what we could still do to beat the French."

"It appeals to the emotions - pride in a country, jersey or organisation, duty to teammates, customers, supporters, personal responsibility or anger," adds motivational speaker Paul McNeive.

"It ignites a passion which causes us to bring extra effort to the task."

Words matter, but body language is even more crucial. It isn't enough for a speaker to set forth their vision in an articulate and logical fashion. They have to transmit self-belief with every centimetre of their being. If they don't look as if they buy into what they are saying 110pc, their audience probably won't either.

"The way a speech is delivered which includes the tone and body language accounts for over 90pc of the impact that a speech can make," says Mick Rock. "It is suggested that the words alone only account for 7pc. I am not saying the words are not important. However, they would only have a very small impact if they are not delivered with the right tone and body language."

Inspirational speeches are a beloved part of sporting folklore. Sixteen points down against a rampant Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup Final, Leinster came out cannons-ablaze in the second half following a do-or-die address by Johnny Sexton. Similarly, in this year's All Ireland hurling final veteran Kilkenny player Jackie Tyrrell is reported to have transformed his side's attitude via a stirring locker-room gee-up (the team was three points down to Galway and playing in a lackluster fashion).

"The speech he gave was absolutely amazing," said Kilkenny's Colin Fennelly. "Speeches like that, young lads hearing it, it's amazing. The speech at half time was absolutely unbelievable. He spoke to us all for about a minute or two, every word he said, he got the hair standing on the back of my spine."

"If a captain shows his team how passionate he is about the team and club, it helps lads to buy into what we are trying to do," says Ross McAuley, captain of Skerries RFC. "I'm part of a fantastic team where there are heaps of experienced players who jump in and hammer home some crucial points. I tend to stick to the emotional side of the speeches. You can really tell if you've struck a chord after them, because lads just go into the zone."

Of course, not everyone can step up in the fashion of Tyrrell or O'Connell. Some of us are leaders, others better suited to the role of followers. It is no coincidence that it was O'Connell, one of the big personalities in the Ireland dressing room, who raised his voice at the crunch moment. "Paul O'Connell is out there leading by example," says Mark Pollock, an athlete and motivational speaker who became the first blind person to race to the South Pole. "That gives him the gravitas and the position to stand up and give a talk."

"The speaker needs to have credibility in the eyes of the audience - there could be nobody with most credibility in the Irish camp than Paul O'Connell," says Mick Rock. "When you hear about a manager losing the dressing room then this becomes a huge hurdle when trying to motivate the team with pre-match talks or at half time.

"Natural leaders tend to share a number of attributes. They are often charismatic, they thrive under pressure and people automatically turn to them for inspiration.

"They are always looking for, rather than avoiding, challenges."

5 tips for an inspiring speech

1 Get their attention:

People tend to have short attention spans. To overcome this, you need to hook the audience immediately — perhaps with an anecdote or a joke. If the subject at hand is relatively dry or has a technical aspect, do not plunge in head-first as you’ll probably lose them by the time you pause to draw breath.

2 Communicate through body language:

There’s a reason for the cliche of the GAA coach banging his hurley on the table during a half-time pep talk. It’s not enough to have a good stump speech. You have to communicate belief and self-assurance through your body language.

3 Silence is your friend:

In the right circumstances, a dramatic pause can have a powerful impact. Know when to raise your voice — but understand that sometimes letting a hush falling over a room can be just as powerful.

4 Be self-deprecating:

Irish audiences prefer speakers to be grounded and not high on their own invective. If you’re pumped — too “American” — you may turn people off.

5 Be realistic:

Stirring language on its own is insufficient — you need to convince people that, by focusing on certain actions, they can achieve key goals. Underneath the soaring rhetoric, your presentation must have a core of cold, hard logic.

Irish Independent

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