Manner of Speaking

“It’s Halftime in America” — An Analysis

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Every year, the commercials during the Superbowl are anticipated with almost as much enthusiasm as the game itself. This year was no exception.

One commercial that caught my attention was Chrysler’s motivational offering entitled “It’s Halftime America” and featuring Clint Eastwood. The ad has not been without controversy. However, I want to leave aside all commentary about politics and economics and bailouts, and analyze the speech on its own merits. I found it excellent for many reasons and believe that it contains valuable lessons for anyone who has to give a motivational speech.

First, you should watch the commercial below. Or rather, you should listen to it. This commercial has been meticulously scripted and contains beautiful images. Most speakers do not have a professional film and sound crew to produce a studio-quality film. (Nor do most of us guys have the cool, raspy voice of Clint Eastwood.)

So by all means, watch the video. But then replay it and listen to it while reading the transcript which I have added immediately below. The analysis follows.

It’s halftime.

Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.

It’s halftime in America too.

People are out of work and they’re hurting and they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback and we’re all scared because this isn’t a game.

The people of Detroit know a little something about this.

They almost lost everything.

But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again.

I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other.

It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times.

The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.

But after those trials we all rallied around what was right and acted as one.

Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.

All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win?

Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us.

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines.

Yeah, it’s halftime America and our second half is about to begin.

———

So what was good about Clint Eastwood’s speech and what can we learn from it?

1. A speech does not have to be long to be effective. In a previous post in which I analyzed the Gettysburg Address, I noted that Lincoln’s speech was only 272 words. Eastwood’s is on par with that, coming in at 247 words. I’m not suggesting that Clint Eastwood’s speech is on the same level as Abraham Lincoln’s; however, I am saying that a few well chosen words can have a much greater impact that many poorly chosen words.

2. Rhetorical devices are just as important today as they were centuries ago. Eastwood incorporates a number of rhetorical devices in his speech.

(a) Metaphor: “It’s half time in America”; “The fog of division, discord and blame”; “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch”.

(b) Polysyndeton: “People are out of work and they’re hurting and they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback and we’re all scared because this isn’t a game.”

(c) Asyndeton: “I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other.”

(d) Anaphora: “How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win?

3. Repetition of key words or ideas is a powerful speaking technique. Note the following words that Eastwood repeated: “we” (14 times); “our” (3 times); “halftime” or “half” (5 times); “America” or “country” (3 times); “Detroit” or “Motor City” (3 times).

4. Pausing is one of the most important things that a speaker can do. Pausing allows the audience time to absorb the full force of your words. I counted a dozen or so extended pauses in Eastwood’s short speech.

5. The right words in the right order add rhythm to a speech. Listen again to the sentence that begins, “The fog of division, discord and blame …”. The order of the three words was not random. Going from three syllables to two to one gives the phrase a rhythm that you do not get with any other ordering of those words. Look for opportunities to create rhythm in your speeches.

6. Contrast is important. As Nancy Duarte says in her book, Resonate:

“People are naturally attracted to opposites, so presentations should draw from this attraction to create interest. Communicating an idea juxtaposed with its polar opposite creates energy. Moving back and forth between the contradictory poles encourages full engagement from the audience.” 

Eastwood’s speech is filled with contrasts: the first half vs. the second half; the past vs. the future; Detroit almost losing everything vs. Detroit fighting again; being lost in the fog of discord vs. rallying around what’s right; being knocked down vs. getting back up.

7. A call to action is a powerful way to end a speech. “Our second half is about to begin” is a great ending. It is both subtle and powerful. It reminded me of Al Pacino’s “Now, what are you gonna do?” in his speech in the film On Any Given Sunday.

I have two suggestions. The first is grammatical; the second relates to word choice.

(1) “The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials we all rallied around what was right and acted as one.”

Because the fog of division, etc. occurred in the past and because the trials were overcome in the past, the correct tense of the verb “to lie” should also be in the past. Thus, “The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lay ahead.”

(2) “Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of usThis country can’t be knocked out with one punch.”

I don’t like the way in which Detroit and the United States are portrayed as them and us. Obviously, this was not the intention. Still, it would have been more effective, in my view, to substitute “Detroit” and “America” for “them” and “all of us”. Thus, “Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about Detroit is true about America. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch.”

The repetition of “Detroit” adds rhythm. The use of “America” feeds nicely into “This country”, which begins the following sentence. Most importantly, the idea that Detroit is a part of America, that Detroit is on the same team as America, is reinforced.

Still, on the whole, I think that Chrysler and Clint Eastwood have given us a solid example of how to construct a motivational speech.

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