By Tim Hayes
All right, show of hands, please: How many of you knew that, in the original script for the first “Rocky” movie written by Sylvester Stallone, Rocky dies after the climactic fight that ends the film?
Thank goodness wiser heads prevailed. Not only would that have been the ultimate downer, but I would wager that “Rocky” would never have won the Academy Award for Best Picture if that original ending had remained.
For those of you old enough to remember, “Rocky” was a phenomenon in 1977 because it featured a true hero with positive values who worked hard to overcome long odds, and who – even though he didn’t win the boxing match – won something more, the love of a woman and validation of his own self-worth. In the mid-1970s, a story of courage, perseverance, and ultimate triumph was not corny or hackneyed – it was revolutionary, and it caught lightning in a bottle. And for my money, it all came down to that wonderful, chaotic, uplifting ending of the film.
A great ending sticks with an audience, whether they’re in a movie theater sharing a cinematic experience or in an auditorium listening to a speaker. A great ending spurs people to action.
The first time I saw “Rocky,” I was sixteen years old and was so inspired that I literally ran the mile and a half home from the theater – something I had never done before and have never done since. But that explosive ending did something to me, to my brain, to my adrenal glands, and it ended up in my legs and my Converse All-Star sneakers as I sprinted like a teenager possessed, up and down hills, streets, and alleys all the way to my back door, breathless, wild-eyed, ready to take on the world.
A great ending can lift a speaker’s audience too. Think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s stemwinder at the conclusion of his “I Have a Dream” speech:
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
Chills. Nearly fifty years later.
The speech doesn’t have to be one for the ages, though. A strong ending works no matter what the venue or the context. I wrote a commencement speech for an executive that ended with the following:
“Penn State has prepared you, even amid all the uncertainty in the world today. Plus, the Penn State alumni network is the largest in the world – you’re joining an amazing global force today. With that in mind, here’s your final pop quiz as a student here: WE – ARE!” The graduates then enthusiastically shouted back, “PENN – STATE!” My speaker wrapped things up quickly by saying, “You all pass with flying colors. Blue and white, of course.” The entire gathering felt tremendous positive energy for themselves, their school, and their commencement speaker, all stemming from a great ending.
Too often, speakers and speechwriters stumble, trip, even crawl across the finish line with limp statements that convey relief it’s over. Don’t do that. Sprint across that finish line! Get your audience juiced up and keep them there all the way to the end. Challenge them, surprise them, inspire them, give them something to act upon. Give them a great ending that keeps you and your message top of mind.
Who knows? They might even want to run the whole way home.
Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting