January 4, 2010

Lessons from Pacino

Download audio here.

Speeches and presentations are not the same thing (see post here explaining the difference). For most of you, presentations are and will be your bread and butter, while scripted speeches might be something you give at the occasional wedding or office going-away party.

For that reason, you won't find me talking about speeches much on this blog, or analyzing them. However, this one caught my attention and I found it to be a good example of a speech given from the heart with passion, while delivering a powerful message and creating a bond between the speaker and listeners.

This speech is given by Al Pacino, playing New York City Mayor John Pappas in the movie "City Hall," speaking at the funeral of a six-year-old African-American boy who was caught in the crossfire in a shootout between police officer and drug dealer.

There is much tension in the community over the shooting and blame has been assigned to the drug dealer, but the drug dealer was only on the street because of a mistaken earlier prison release. While staffers search for the responsible party, the mayor gives this powerful and unexpected speech at the family's church.

(This is a great clip, because the transcript is embedded in the video.)

If you can't see it here, try it on YouTube.

Pappas starts off with a powerful opening: He addresses the the tension immediately. "I was warned not to come here. I was warned. They warned me..."

His handlers believed it would be a mistake, politically, to attend the funeral and especially, to speak. There isn't outright hostility in the room, but the audience is clearly wary and probably expecting clich├ęs and platitudes.

He immediately brings up the slain child. No beating around the bush here. And then he acknowledges his failure as a mayor to create a safe and stable climate for his community. Again, no false humility, no pretend tears, no drama. Just straightforward honesty and taking responsibility. This quickly makes him more accessible to the audience, who are now anticipating his next words.

Note the repetition of words and themes throughout the speech, which gives each subsequent word or phrase more power and reinforces each idea in the audience's minds. (Nick Morgan has a great post on repetition that also explains several rhetorical terms and here's a post by Andrew Dlugan that goes over some rhetorical devices.)

Some examples:

"...making a city livable? Just livable."

"...this city -- your city -- our city -- his city -- is a palace again! Is a palace again!"

"There was a palace that was a city. It was a palace! It was a palace and it can be a palace again! A palace in which there is no king or queen or dukes or earls or princes, but subjects all..."

You might have noticed the rule of three cropping up in this speech quite a bit. Here's a nice piece from Patricia Fripp on the rule of three, but in short, our brains seem to respond to and feel more satisfied with patterns of three, and many speakers use this tool for emphasis.

Some examples of the rule of three:

"I was warned not to come here. I was warned. They warned me..."

"Until we can walk abroad and recreate ourselves, until we can stroll along the streets like boulevards, congregate in parks free from fear...our families mingling, our children laughing, our hearts joined..." (Did you notice? That's a twofer!)

"Is that too much to ask? Are we asking too much for this? Is it beyond our reach?"

"I choose to fight back! I choose to rise, not fall! I choose to live, not die!"

You might also notice some rules of four and five here, too. It's a good idea to break up the repetition, so it doesn't become too... repetitious. There's a nice change in cadence when he adds different patterns before and after the threes.

And some repetition that doesn't come in numbers but in patterns of words and sound (again, I'll let Andrew Dlugan explain the rhetorical devices):

"They warned me, 'Don't stand behind that coffin.' But why should I heed such a warning when a heartbeat is silent and a child lies dead? 'Don't stand behind' this coffin."

"... until that day we have no city. You can label me a failure until that day."

"...rise up with me; rise up on the wings of this slain angel."

"... subjects all -- subjects beholden to each other."

You can see how each repetition, in this example, brings more to the story.

Also pay attention to the analogies and mental imagery that Pappas includes in the speech:

Hearts joined
Pure and innocent as the driven snow
Sheep being herded to the final slaughterhouse

An analogy takes a concept that might be obscure, complicated or lengthy, and helps the audience see it in the context of their own lives. Analogies are a kind of shorthand to say what you want to say in the fewest words that the most people will understand. We may all have slightly different pictures in our head when someone says "palace," but it generally means a grand, opulent, large, luxurious building that a wealthy head of state lives in. We get it without all of the description.

Pappas also plays into the audience's connection with this young boy. These are his relatives and friends in the community. To them he was a sweet angel and a pure, innocent child. Pappas gets this and uses these soothing and positive words to bond with the group.

Finally, after his speech builds to a fiery crescendo, he brings it back down from the general to the specific. From the larger picture to the moment at hand. He speaks directly to the dead child:

"I am with you, little James.

I am you."

He bends down and kisses the coffin.

These words and this gesture humanize the mayor. "We are all one," he is saying. He is implying, "We are all equally damaged by what has happened, including me."

This repeats the theme of "Subjects all," that was mentioned earlier in the speech, and brings the audience back from the boulevard, the palace, Athens... back to this church and the tiny coffin in the front of the room. The speech has come full circle, a powerful way to remind the audience of why they're there in the first place.

It's a loud, dramatic Pacino speech, no doubt. Whether or not you like Pacino, the speech has a lot to teach us about reaching out to an audience, especially in a time of distress.

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4 comments. Please add yours! :

Jim Cronin said...

Awesome speech. Awesome analysis.
Awesome learning.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Jim!

Training Connection said...

Great example and detailed comments on his delivery. I very much enjoyed this read! I'm going have to watch that again too;).

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I had never seen this movie before. It was a nice surprise!

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