Lessons in Presenting from 3 Award-Winning Movie Speeches
There’s a lot you can learn from a film about how to give the perfect speech or presentation. In this article, I’m going to show you three key movie speech makers. By studying these powerhouse performers’ speeches, you’ll gain a unique insight into how you can make your next boardroom pitch a blockbuster.
Movies are seen as one of our most powerful communication tools. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Jimmy Fallon’s recent takedown of President Donald Trump. The satirist noticed distinct similarities between the speeches of Trump and the inspirational words delivered by Reese Witherspoon at the end of Legally Blonde. Did the President’s team steal from a fluffy rom-com in order to get their point across? We’ll probably never know. Either way, Trump made it to the White House… so whoever wrote the script, it certainly packed a punch!
If you think about it, there isn’t much difference between a Hollywood screenwriter and a speech maestro working for the big hitters in DC. That’s a good starting point for my look at how film can help your presentation. You can learn a lot about how to present ideas to an audience by watching characters in movies. How they talk to crowds, their language, their physicality. There are many examples where they represent the whole package when it comes to imparting information.
What Citizen Kane’s speech can teach you making an impression on your audience
My first pick from the land of Hollywood is Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane. This ground-breaking movie focused on an all-powerful media mogul said to be based on William Randolph Hearst among others. The story concerns his meteoric rise from idealist to establishment figure and was co-written and directed by the great Orson Welles. Welles himself was one of the great movie showmen, who reportedly panicked a nation with his infamous War Of The Worlds broadcast.
On the outside, Kane was a success story, though was plagued by demons within. I’ll ignore the demons part and zero in on his success, which can be put down to his dynamic presentation style!
This fictional business titan sought public office as a Governor. Below is his attention-grabbing message to voters:
How to hook your audience before you even say a word
How does he make such an impression on the assembled masses? Let’s start by looking at the appearance of his speech. What’s immediately noticeable is the branding of Kane, promoting him as the be and end all via a huge image of his face and surname. A blown-up version of himself sets out his stall. This visual declaration represents the sheer scale of his ambition. It shows Kane is not only ready to take on the Governorship but also probably the whole country!
Now I’m betting you won’t have the resources to commission a vast canvas of yourself. But you can have the same effect on a smaller scale. Think of the first thing people are going to see when walking into the room for your presentation.
Is it a blank screen? An empty stage? The first slide of your PowerPoint presentation?
If it’s the latter, what does your first slide say? If it sounds boring, your audience is going to be switched off from the very start. If you know your audience well, you could go with something light-hearted or inspirational.
If you don’t know them well and it’s more of a corporate setting, hit them with straight to the point, urgent message that will make them sit up and think ‘hey, this is going to be useful for me. I’m ready to listen’.
Making an effort with your intro sets the tone for what is to come and if you can hook people from the outset then you’ve won a significant part of the battle. Let audiences know from the word go what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.
Getting your audience on your side right from the start
Now I’ll move on to the content of the speech. Kane neatly positions himself as an anti-establishment candidate. He asserts his country is in the grip of “special interests”. This is reflected in an attack on opponent Jim Gettys, who he claims puts a stranglehold on the competition: “I made no campaign promises because until a few weeks ago I had no hope of being elected!”
This combination of subversion and humor is worth bearing in mind when presenting to the public. Most people can relate to a dig at authority and if you’re sweetening the deal with some jokes, that can go a long way to getting the crowd on your side. A harmless joke about your industry/boss /product/competition can quickly win over a crowd. But this is a dangerous tactic unless you know your audience well. Just don’t over-egg the pudding!
Can a quiet presentation still be powerful?
My next selection is from There Will Be Blood. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this dark and brooding tale is set in the harsh landscape of Southern California at the turn of the twentieth century. Oil was the prize for prospectors such as Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. His attempts to find black gold brought him into conflict with a local pastor, leading to the blood of the title being spilt. You might think there’d be nothing to learn about presentation from the unholy mess depicted in this movie. I’m here to tell you there is!
The speech I’ve chosen is delivered by Plainview to the fictional community of Little Boston. Here is his fascinating pitch to the gathered townsfolk:
How to create intimacy in a crowded room
Plainview illustrates a powerful method you can use to hold peoples’ attention: intimacy. Adopting a restrained tone, he is highly noticeable but doesn’t resort to bombarding his listeners. His physicality is low key but speaks volumes. He speaks in a low but audible tone.
Day-Lewis’s performance is as distinctive as you’d expect, bringing us a man who is commanding but doesn’t need to project. He stands but he’s also humble, behaving like a visitor rather than a savior. It’s a good example of creating intimacy, even in a crowded area and this is a technique you can use to your advantage in the right setting.
This can be especially relevant if you’re heading off-site for a presentation as a consultant or even as a salesperson. You’ll likely to get a lot of kickback if you storm in, act over-confident and speak too loudly. Using a more subdued, but authoritative tone will encourage your audience to listen to what you have to say.
Plainview also refers to family and their role in the enterprise. A dash of familiarity is key. By encouraging men to involve their families, he creates a deeper level of understanding and intimacy. Not something you can necessarily do within business! But you can appeal to something bigger than the people in the room — how it will affect their teams, departments or businesses. That element of being relatable is a strong one to bear in mind when putting together presentations.
The power of giving a quiet presentation
Of course, Plainview is doing more than simply extracting some oil from these peoples’ property. He’s a quiet man but at the same time offers a firm deal. He presents himself as the architect of a long-term solution for the community. His arrival, he says, signals prosperity for ordinary people — provided they take a chance on him. Crucially he positions himself as the possessor of knowledge. Only Plainview understands the process they are pondering to undertake. He is the only one who can help them. But the key takeaway here is that he doesn’t talk down to them. He speaks to them at their level.
Finding the level of your audience takes skill. However, informing them whilst remaining on that level takes work also. You don’t want to be too much of a pal and you don’t want to be superior. That balance is expertly captured by Plainview.
Don’t be afraid of plain speaking
“I hope you’ll forgive good old-fashioned plain speaking,” Day-Lewis says. He talks directly to the populace. The powerful prospector has a simple message of hope. Trust him and the rewards will be plentiful. Often breaking down the substance of your presentation to its essence is the best way forward. Everyone knows where they stand and many people respect such an approach. For better or worse, it’s a tried and tested way of earning valuable trust.
What Gordon Gekko’s speech can teach you about winning the crowd
The next movie character you can learn from is a product of the global markets. He had an unabashed passion for the art of the deal. A belief in the role of traders to shape the world. He defined what it was to be wealthy and influential in the Eighties. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Played by Michael Douglas, he became a controversial emblem of capitalism in director Oliver Stone’s drama about those who sit at the top of the financial pyramid.
Young, hopeful Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) was taken under Gekko’s oily wing. It wasn’t long before he came to appreciate both the good and bad sides of that famous slice of the Big Apple. A bear pit where lives were made and broken on a daily basis.
Now some of you may be sitting there wondering what the hell you’re going to learn from Gekko about giving a great presentation. He is, after all, a villain. My previous choices were flawed certainly, but there were at least redeemable features. To some Gekko is beyond help! I’d say to you what I’d say about Kane and Plainview. They communicated effectively to crowds and had large degrees of success. Gekko, unfortunately, is the same. Just because someone is morally bankrupt doesn’t mean they don’t know how to charm a room.
Let’s watch Douglas work his questionable magic in an iconic scene that’s still talked about today:
Getting out into the audience
What’s noticeable straight away about Gekko is his position. He starts off sitting with the other stockholders but once he begins having his say he stays there. He doesn’t stand up in front. He doesn’t get in a box. He’s exactly where he needs to be. There’s a marked difference in the way he roams among the crowd, holding the mic almost like a stand-up comedian. The audience is held in his thrall by his fraternizing presentation.
The first lesson to learn here is not to be afraid of mingling with those you’re speaking to. It shows you’re one of them. On their side. The more relaxed you are and the more you’re willing to be on the level of whose listening, the more interest you’ll receive.
Marking yourself out from the pack
Gekko is familiar with his surroundings. He’s playful in the way he criticizes his so-called superiors. However, he’s still a predator and he’s still out to draw blood, marking himself out the leader of this particular pack. I should point out this section isn’t designed to turn you into a presentational carnivore! But as with Kane, there’s an element of anti-establishment thinking combined with absolute mastery of his environment. This makes him a powerful speaker as not only do people warm to him, they also want him to lead.
You can achieve this in a much less ruthless way yourself by showing your broad knowledge of the business you’re in. Gekko provides a no-nonsense overview, before revealing what he thinks is the secret to success in that field that others are missing out on. I’ll take you through how he achieves these aspects.
How to play to perceptions
For the first aspect, he begins his speech with the words: “America has become a second-rate power.” A broad, sweeping statement that the majority would agree with. He addresses a mass consensus and taps into the perception people have that things aren’t working as they should. Drawing attention to these generalized feelings is a great way of getting an audience to listen and respond. As long as you start getting into specifics and don’t play on lazy stereotypes of the situation you’ll do brilliantly.
Gekko’s use of aggressive terminology as the answer to everyone’s problems is masterly. In relation to the current set up, this super trader mentions “survival of the unfittest”. He has an instinct of natural conquest. The gladiator of commerce asserts that incompetent men should “get eliminated”. Though ideally, you would want to get your message across in as friendly a way as possible, it’s worth considering rolling your sleeves up and bruising a few egos in the process if you really want to shake things up.
Paint a coherent picture
Whatever you feel about this character’s personal philosophy, he’s organized in what he’s saying. He puts his point of view across intelligently and above all coherently. With regards Gekko, he does so in an underhand fashion but it’s definitely worth exploring how he manages to succeed in this.
Crucially Gekko refers to the “malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” He acknowledges the hole this country is in. The clever thing he does is show how the way out lies within the corporate confines of global markets. There is no alternative to the greed which drives America’s competitors: they must ultimately be out-gunned in that greed. From the desire to win comes the advancement of civilization, resulting in his famous maxim: “Greed is good.
In this way, Gekko presents both an alternative to the status quo whilst also embracing it. Run the same show with a different approach. This is a powerful way to present new ideas to a conservative audience that is reluctant to change.
I wouldn’t advise you to become like Gekko in your business dealings! But you’ve got to hand it to the man: when it comes to presentation, he’s worth his weight in dollars.
The three characters we’ve looked at today demonstrate that presentation requires a degree of simplicity combined with a fine sense of judgment. They also show how persona can be key in realizing your ambitions.
If these actors can do such a great job pretending to be other people, you can learn from their example by adapting your own presentational persona accordingly. Good luck getting that all-important message across!
You might also find this interesting: Movie Life Quotes: 13 Great Hollywood Movies and What They Can Teach Us About Life.
Originally published at 24slides.com on December 1, 2017.