Illustrated by Noah Smith
If I asked you to quote a line from one of the most inspirational speeches you know off the top of your head, there’s a chance you’d recite something by a political or Civil Rights leader, like John F. Kennedy Jr. or Martin Luther King Jr. But, it’s more likely you’d give me lines from movie speeches, like Dory from Finding Nemo’s “Just keep swimming!” or the legendary quote from Braveheart’s William Wallace “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
Movie speeches have a way of seeping into our collective consciousness as a society, and people often quote recognizable snippets from cinema in conversation in order to sum up their feelings or provide relatable wisdom in a variety of contexts. (“There’s no place like home!”)
When a screenwriter really nails inspiring monologue in movie speeches, it can be incredibly powerful—resulting in both a speech that makes an indelible mark on pop culture and a movie character that becomes the stuff of legends.
But what ultimately makes the difference between movie speeches that have a lasting impact, and ones that we forget as soon as we leave the movie theater? The answer is: persuasive presentation techniques.
When movie speeches rely on tried and true tools for persuasive public speaking, they are able to deliver rousing messages that inspire both the characters they’re speaking to onscreen and those of us watching offscreen.
Let’s take a look at three particularly powerful movie speeches to see how the persuasive presentation techniques their speakers use make them effective—and unforgettable.
John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, “Carpe Diem”
When Dead Poets Society was released in 1989, it was a box office success. The quintessential prep school movie landed so well because it tells a relatable story of friendship, it’s set at Welton Academy, a ‘50s romanticized boarding school, and it’s centered on a beloved, eloquent, hero-like English teacher: John Keating, played by Robin Williams.
Keating isn’t just adored by characters in the movie. He’s also a source of inspiration for hordes of real-life teachers. In fact, many teachers experienced serious grief over Keating when Williams passed away in 2014. Lucy Townsend of the BBC explains: “Keating enthuses his pupils about the power of English Literature and encourages them to follow their dreams. It’s Hollywood’s damp-eyed paean to the ability of teachers to inspire young people. Thus the response to Williams’s death from teachers.”
Keating is legendary because he represents an ideal mentor figure, who is equal parts fun and scholarly and nurturing and inspiring. But, he’s also iconic because of his ability to deliver a powerful speech—particularly the “Carpe Diem” lecture he gives on the first day of class.
During the lecture, Keating encourages the boys to take advantage of their time at Welton and seize all of the opportunities available to them. He shows them black and white photos of former students, reminding them that those students are now dead, “fertilizing daffodils,” and that their time here is also limited.
What makes Keating’s lecture so powerful is that he effectively creates common ground with the students to make his message feel relevant and meaningful. Creating common ground in a speech allows you to articulate common experience and, in turn, build credibility.
Keating himself is a Welton alum, so his description of being in school is inherently relatable for the boys. However, he is able to further strengthen his lesson by speaking from the perspective of the figures in the photos, who also went through an experience at Welton Academy, and, thus, whose wisdom is trustworthy.
Ultimately, when Keating delivers his famous closing lines:
“If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you…Listen, you hear it? ‘Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.’”
The students know that the advice is relevant and coming from a source that is credible.
Erin Brokovich in Erin Brokovich, “Lame Ass Offer”
Erin Brokovich is a fictionalized version of the real story of Erin Brokovich: an intrepid legal clerk and activist who fought the Pacific Gas and Electric Company after they contaminated the groundwater of Hinkley, CA with hexavalent chromium and made citizens sick.
In the movie, Brokovich completely dedicates herself to bringing justice to the people suffering in Hinkley, becoming tough and relentless in her pursuit of compensation for the little people that were made sick by a big corporation.
One of Erin Brokovich’s most powerful moments comes in a meeting between Brokovich and the utility company’s lawyers, when Brokovich delivers a wallop of a speech in response to the paltry amount the company initially offers victims as a settlement.
These people don’t dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying they’ll have to have a hysterectomy at the age of 20, like Rosa Diaz—a client of ours—or have their spine deteriorate like Stan Bloom. Another client of ours.
So before you come back here with another lame-ass offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker—or what you’d expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Miss Sanchez—then you take out your calculator and multiply that number by a hundred.
Rather than attempt to appeal to the lawyers’ rational minds in her speech, Brokovich turns away from logic and attempts to generate emotion in order to spur empathy for the victims and win them a bigger settlement.
Stirring emotion in a speech is key to changing minds, since speakers who can evoke emotion can also generate empathy. Neuroscientist Richard Lopez explains, when people feel emotion, “empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like.” Empathy is directly linked to helping behaviors in people—so listeners who empathize with speakers are more likely to help them achieve their goals.
By telling graphic stories about the people suffering in Hinkley and asking the lawyers to imagine the same things happening to them, Brokovich upsets the people listening, then she asks them to show compassion and understanding. This persuasive technique gets the lawyers to feel something about the situation, with the hope that they’ll ultimately choose to take a different action.
Rocky Balboa in Rocky VI, “The World Ain’t All Sunshine and Rainbows”
In the sixth installment of the inspiring boxing movie, Rocky Balboa, the legendary boxer proves that he’s not only a fighter for the ages, but also a speaker, too.
In the movie, Balboa is over 60 years old, and he has a 30-something-year-old son, Rocky Jr., who is working in the corporate world, but struggling to turn his life into a success. Rocky Jr. looks to blame everyone else in his life for his failures (including his dad) and he doesn’t realize that he must shift his attention inward to set his course straight.
In order to help his son, Balboa delivers him an inspirational pep talk. The speech works: it moves his son, and it’s often considered one of the most moving and memorable scenes of the entire series.
Why does Balboa’s speech land so well? Because he lays out the path to success in narrative form for his son, and he places his son at the center of that narrative—as the hero.
He starts describing his son’s idyllic childhood and how it devolved, then explains,
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth!
Placing your audience as the hero of the story you’re telling makes that story relevant and meaningful. It inspires people to heed your advice because they can see where they’ll end up if they do. As Chad Hodge explains in the Harvard Business Review, when you speak, try to “help people to see themselves as the hero of the story…Everyone wants to be a star, or at least to feel that the story is talking to or about him personally.”
If you need to deliver a speech that changes minds, sways hearts, and spurs action, and you’re feeling stuck, head to the movies. Thanks to great screenwriters, the best movie speeches have a way of using just the right speaking tools to deliver talks that are rousing and impactful. You may leave inspired to write a talk that your listeners will quote for years to come.
May the Force be with you!