In the early 1970s, I was a teenager completely caught up in the zeitgeist. I admired the long-haired rebels and radicals who were engaged in protesting the establishment and developing the counter-culture. I didn’t really know what any of that meant, but to me it was all about empowering youth and declaring our independence from the adults, my parents in particular.

As with any normal teenager, I was trying to grow up as fast as I could. Because it annoyed my parents, wearing my hair long was its perfect expression. That, and it was de rigueur among all the teenagers who wanted to be cool. So, the longer the better.

It drove my parents completely crazy. They could not understand why any male would want to wear long hair. We fought about it all the time.

Meanwhile, I was in my first year of high school and the transition to a new school was causing my grades to drop dramatically. My parents saw an advantage, and they laid the law down: keep my grades above a certain minimum or cut my hair. It worked. I brought home a dismal report card. Off to the barber shop. Not surprisingly, my next report card met the minimum.

The formula is simple: If you can find out what is valuable to someone, then you have the key to motivating them. For me, at age 13, the length of my hair became the coin of the realm.

A year later, I accidentally made the Honor Roll. It was an accident because I was only trying to meet the minimum grades required by my parents and I somehow exceeded that. When I received the engraved certificate with the embossed gold seal, the feeling it gave me surprised me. I felt important—especially when my teachers praised me. I liked that feeling, and I wanted to experience it again.

Suddenly, the coin of the realm changed, and it was no longer the length of my hair that was motivating me. It was high grades and the sense of pride they gave me. Oh, my hair continued to grow, but my grades were all about achievement. From that point forward until I graduated, I never failed to make the Honor Roll.

Find out what is valuable to the person you want to motivate. What hobbies do they have? What are they passionate about? How do they spend their spare time? Then, when you learn what rocks their world, find a way to tie your goals to it.

If you’re not sure what is valuable to someone, you can always make them feel important with an award or some other public acknowledgment. Everyone likes to hear their name announced in recognition at company or association meetings. Everyone likes to read their name in print in the organizational newsletter or website. Many business newspapers have a section where you can post your employees’ promotions and accomplishments. These low-cost to no-cost incentives truly have the power to motivate.

—Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is a motivational speaker and humorist. For more information on his programs visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.