This month’s Communicator of the Month is Jim Valvano. Jimmy V, as he was affectionately called, was best known for two things:
- Coaching the 1983 North Carolina State University men’s basketball team to a national championship against tough odds; and
- Delivering one of the most memorable speeches about fighting cancer at the ESPYs in 1993.
Jimmy V was a cancer challenger and launched a foundation that has raised millions of dollars for cancer research, but his greatest gift to us was his skill as a communicator. His acceptance speech of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs truly showcased Jimmy V’s strength as a communicator.
What made this speech great? Here are five speechwriting best practices that Jimmy V used to make his words unforgettable.
- Be human. Jimmy V admitted he was an emotional man, and he allowed that passion for life permeate his speech. He didn’t hold back; by doing so, he welcomed his audience in.
- Use numbers. When Jimmy V wanted his audience to remember something, he would tell them the number of things they needed to remember. For example: “To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.” Giving your audience signposts for what is coming, especially the number, improves their message retention and helps when they share your message with others. By giving us numbers, Jimmy V made his speech easier to remember and retell.
- Share statistics. Statistics are critical in sports, but they are also essential for building a case for action. Jimmy V understood this technique. He ended his ESPY speech with stats about the prevalence of cancer, building the case for why we need to raise money to combat this deadly illness. He recognized that while everyone knew someone who had cancer, perhaps people didn’t understand how widespread the disease was, or how little funding was allocated to better understand and treat this disease. He made sure that the ESPY viewing audience — and generations to come — were better informed about cancer and its reach.
- Help everyone. As someone dying of cancer, Jimmy V could have made his speech — which became his final public address — all about himself and his legacy. Instead, he admitted to the audience that supporting and funding cancer research now wasn’t going to help him survive. He wanted us to raise money to help others — the unnamed people who would be diagnosed with cancer in the future. He repositioned the cancer research issue as everyone’s fight instead of just his own. Even when he was gone, Jimmy V wanted the public to be motivated and invested in continuing his fight against cancer — a stronger, longer-lasting legacy.
- Leave a catchphrase. One of the most memorable elements of this 1993 speech was Jimmy V sharing his foundation’s motto: “Don’t Give Up … Don’t Ever Give Up!”® It’s now a registered slogan for The V Foundation, which carries on Jimmy V’s work to cure cancer. It is often quoted when other speech-makers talk about fighting cancer, most recently by the late ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott when he accepted the same Arthur Ashe award at the 2014 ESPYs. Offering a simple thought or message for your audience to take home with them makes it easy for them to pass your message to others.