The most subtle and powerful rule you’ll ever learn for motivating people is to tell them who they are rather than telling them what to do.

Example: You’re at the DMV, and you approach the clerk with an exasperated expression. You sigh and say, “This form is confusing; I can’t figure it out.” The clerk looks at you disdainfully and advises you to read the instructions on the reverse of the form, looks past you, and says, “Next.”

Now imagine approaching the same clerk with the same problem. This time, however, you approach her with a smile and say, “You look like the person who can answer a couple of questions for me about this form.”

The clerk smiles back and says, “Let’s see what you’ve got here,” and quickly answers your questions.

In the first example it’s all about you and your problem. In the second example it’s all about the clerk. You began your request by telling her who she is by acknowledging her as an expert with the knowledge that can help you. She immediately wants to prove you right and she does.

The same approach works equally well with employees and vendors.

Example: You call an employee into your office and say, “I need you to get this report finalized. I need it by next Friday.”

The employee sighs and resignedly says, “Okay.”

If, however, you were to say, “Jeanette, you came to mind immediately as the perfect person to get this report finalized.”

Jeanette smiles and says, “I’ll do my best.”

Just as in the first example, your initial statement was again all about you and your needs. In the second, you acknowledged Jeanette’s competence and professionalism and expressed confidence in her abilities. She will work hard to prove you right.

An extreme example: A few years back, I hired a young woman to do research for the company. She was well qualified and had specific experience in the area of marketing research for which she was hired. Although she was painfully shy, her shyness did not affect her work. Things changed when her duties expanded, and she was required to talk with vendors and affiliates. Her shyness was a big impediment to one -on- one communication, and she told me so. She seemed ready to resign when we spoke.

While thinking about the problem, I reviewed her résumé and noted in the “personal interests” section that she participated in local theater. The next day, I asked her to drop by my office. I asked her how a person as shy as she was able to go on stage before a live audience. She told me that it was different because she was simply playing a character on stage. Once she was on stage, she told me, her shyness disappeared.

I decided to try an experiment. That evening, I rewrote her résumé. Her new résumé gave her a new personality and number of attributes that she did not possess.

Her résumé now identified her as a motivational speaker and personal coach. I even changed her name and gave her a slightly different age, as well as a different place of birth. She was now a Southern girl from the tony hamlet of Biltmore Forest, North Carolina.

The next day, I called her into the office, and asked her if she would be willing to participate in an experiment. I asked her if she would take a new name and play a role whenever she was at the office. She looked at me quizzically.

I handed her the résumé and asked if she could play the person described in the résumé and consider the office her stage. As she read it, she slowly smiled and then looked up and said, “I can do this.”

The following day, there was a noticeable difference. Her shyness seemed to be replaced by a quiet confidence. In the coming week, I noticed changes in the way she dressed and carried herself. Although she never became really outgoing, she had no problem talking with our business partners. She played her role well.

This is obviously an extreme example and requires a special personality type. I don’t suggest you try it, but it does illustrate the point.

Don’t tell people what to do; tell them who they are.

Michael Dalton Johnson is an award-winning trade book and magazine publisher and a successful entrepreneur with over 30 years of business leadership. He is the founder of, an educational and marketing website for sales professionals, marketers, and business owners. He has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, many major television network news shows, and has been a guest on over 200 radio shows. Johnson has also been featured in leading publications, including U.S. News and World Report, Time, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.