The Greatest Motivational Speech

Last Updated Jan 28, 2011 2:12 PM EST

I am much enjoying Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn's insider look for the Huffington Post on the happenings at the World Economic Forum in Davos, if for no other reason than her unscholarly accounts of her meals (cheese sandwich for lunch Thursday) and celebrity watching (a Bill Clinton spotting near the coffee bar.)

I've also learned not all the sessions are devoted to serious economic discussions such as the role of capitalism in creating social value. Koehn, a business historian, ferreted out a session on Shakespeare and leadership.

Shakespeare's St. Crispen's Day speech is one of the great passages on motivation in English literature. In it, King Henry V rallies his troops before the Battle of Agincourt, a fight that the English are expected to lose to the superior French forces. How to motivate men to fight in the face of certain death?

Here are some key takeaways, according to Koehn:

"Behind the power and unforgettable language are a number of lessons for those trying to motivate others in difficult situations: appealing to a worthy mission that is bigger than any one individual, instilling pride in colleagues and comrades, bringing the future into the present to help others understand the broader impact of what they are doing, offering one's team a choice about whether to invest in a particular undertaking, and fostering a sense of collective enterprise."

Here's my takeaway. The next time I'm inclined to pick up the latest business management tome, I think I'll buy Henry V or Hamlet instead.

What's your favorite motivational speech, be it fiction or fact? For starters, how about Chuchill's "We shall fight them on the beaches..." or Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you..."

Related Reading
Public Speaking: Tell 'Em What They Want to Hear (Not What You Want to Say)
How to Be a Great Storyteller and Win Over Any Audience
For Compelling Visions, Keep it Simple
(Shakespeare image by toneynetone, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.