“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” — Jim Valvano
I have seen Jim Valvano’s speech at the ESPYs 100 times now. Maybe more. Probably far more, actually.
I’ve seen it on TV, and I’ve watched it for inspiration on my laptop. I once saw it played on the JumboTron at Madison Square Garden — even the beer vendors stopped for 10 minutes to watch.
It is, simply, one of the most marvelous, most inspiring, most deeply human things I have ever seen.
And for people like me — namely, people who enjoy public speaking — it’s a speech that can be watched over and over. I’ve studied it. I’ve wondered: How does he command a room like that? How does he deliver a speech like that?
Three things stand out to me about the speech:
1. His Poise on Stage — People forget this, but at the start of the speech, Jimmy V tells an opening joke about Dick Vitale — and it bombs! But he presses on. His facial expressions, his voice — they never waver in this speech. He demands attention with his voice, and he commands the stage by moving left to right, pointing at the crowd, throwing his arms around. He owns that stage. He’s got a few scripted lines ready, but mostly, he’s talking off the cuff. That really resonates here.
And when the ESPN cameras try to get him off the stage, and he tells them to screw off? That’s a raw moment in which Jimmy V wins the room. That’s the moment when the speech tips from great to epic.
2. His Use of Rhetorical Devices — He does two great things here. The first is his use of the Rutgers anecdote. It takes up the middle chunk of the speech, but it’s got a killer closing line, and it really humanizes him. For a few minutes, you get to forget that this is a guy who’s dying of cancer. For a few minutes, he’s a coach — speaking to a room of athletes and coaches, and a nation of fans watching on TV.
He also breaks out two great sets of three: “If you laugh, you think, you cry, that’s a full day,” and “[Cancer] cannot touch my mind. It cannot touch my heart. It cannot touch my soul.” Orators know: If you want to connect with someone, do it with a series of three.
3. The Call to Action — And here’s what so many speeches miss. So many speakers deliver great moments. They make the audience laugh. They make the audience think.
And then they walk off.
Jimmy V doesn’t. He closes with the biggest thing: A call to action. Donate, he says, to my new foundation. Help us find a cure. It will not save my life, but it may save yours.
Who could say “no” to an ask like that?
A great speech needs an equally great call to action — something that the audience can take on once the speech is over.
The call to action is the reason why ESPN can play this speech every single year during their Jimmy V Week. Every year, even though us sports fans have seen the speech more times than we can count, Jimmy V asks us to donate.
Nearly twenty years after he first gave the speech, we still can’t say no to Jimmy V. The speech is just that great.