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What makes Al Pacino's "Inch by inch" speech from 'Any Given Sunday' so powerful & effective?

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Pacino's 'Inch by inch' speech is taken from the movie 'Any Given Sunday' in which he plays Tony D'Amato, the coach of the fictional NFL team the Miami Sharks. It's without doubt the best sports coach motivational speech I've ever seen in a movie (and let's face it, there have been a lot!) and you can see a 4-minute video clip of it below as well as read the transcript (with the rhetorical figures of speech highlighted).

It has a distinct, easily-identifiable and recurring theme, i.e. life is a game of inches. I've highlighted every mention of 'inches' in the transcript below in blue. Churchill once advised speakers:

"If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack."

Pacino certainly leaves you in no doubt as to the central theme of his speech. First read the transcript, then watch the video clip and then we'll analyze it:

Transcript & Video of Speech

“I don’t know what to say really. Three minutes till the biggest battle of our professional lives. It all comes down to today.

Now either we heal as a team, or we’re gonna crumble (ANTITHESIS). Inch by inch, play by play (SCESIS ONOMATON), till we’re finished. We’re in hell (HYPERBOLE & METAPHOR) right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back (ANTITHESIS) into the light . We can climb out of hell (METAPHOR).

One inch at a time.

Now I can’t do it for you. I’m too old. I look around, I see these young faces, and I think… I mean I’ve made every wrong choice a middle-aged man can make. I pissed away all my money, believe it or not. I chased off(TRICOLON, ANAPHORA & PARALLELISM) anyone who’s ever loved me, and lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. That’s part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches(METAPHOR). And so is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean… one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast, you don’t quite catch it (SYMPLOCE, PARALLELISM & SCESIS ONOMATON).

The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA). On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch (TRICOLON, SYMPLOCE, PARALLELISM & SCESIS ONOMATON).

Because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying (ANAPHORA, PARALLELISM & SCESIS ONOMATON)! I’ll tell you this – in any fight, its the guy whose willing to die who’s gonna win that inch. And I know if I’m going to have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch (ANASTROPHE) Because that’s what living is! The 6 inches in front of your face

Now I can’t make you do it. You’ve got to look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes. Now I think you’re gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You’re gonna see a guy who will (ANAPHORA) sacrifice himself for this team, because he knows when it comes down to it, you’re gonna do the same for him.

That’s a team, gentlemen. And either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die, as individuals (ANTITHESIS). That’s football, guys. That’s all it is. Now, what are you going to do (HYPOPHORA)?”

Video of the speech

There are two things that make this speech stand out. If you watch the video clip, you'll instantly realize the first is Pacino's truly outstanding delivery. He starts off slowly, almost . . . hesitantly and gradually grows in speed and volume until he reaches a crescendo at the end. Real stirring stuff. You almost want to grab your helmet and get out on the field yourself! The only thing that lets it down a little is the close, in my opinion. He ends the penultimate paragraph with the words, ". . . you're gonna do the same for him," has them revved up and then slows right down and loses momentum (possibly there was a bit more cut out of the final edit). He should have given them one last 'Let's get out there and XYZ' call to action and ended on a high.

The second is the variety of rhetorical figures of speech used, which is what makes it so effective. The chief of these are Tricolon, Anaphora, Antithesis, Scesis Onomaton, Parallelism and Symploce. You can look at these in detail by clicking on the links above, but I also cover the use of Tricolon, Anaphora and Antithesis in my analysis of Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. So here I want to concentrate on his use of Scesis Onomaton, Parallelism and Symploce.

SCESIS ONOMATON is basically repeating yourself and saying the same thing several times but in different ways, to emphasize a point. For example, when John Cleese uses a variety of synonyms for being dead in the famous Monty Python 'Dead Parrot Sketch' (watch it here) he's using Scesis Onomaton to emphasize that the parrot is 'bleedin' demised!' and not just 'resting' as the pet shop owner keeps insisting:

"(This parrot) ... is passed on! It is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot!! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies! It's run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible!! This is an EX-PARROT!"

If you you wanted to stress in a presentation that you were completely behind a course of action, you could just say, "X has my full support." However, using Scesis Onomaton you could really ram the point home and say, "X has my full, 100%, unequivocal support."

Likewise, if you want to emphasize that a competitor's policy is dangerous and could eat away at your market share, instead of saying, "it could gradually eat into it, " you could say, "eat into it bit by bit, piece by piece, mouthful by mouthful. I explain more about how you can use it yourself in your presentations here.

Al Pacino uses this technique four times in this speech

  1. "inch by inch, play by play . . ."
  2. ". . . one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow too fast, you don’t quite catch it."
  3. "On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch."
  4. ". that's gonna make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying."

PARALLELISM is a technique that uses the same grammatical structure in consecutive phrases or sentences, as in these examples from JFK and George W Bush:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" -- John F. Kennedy,

"We have seen the state of our Union in the endurance of rescuers, working past exhaustion. We've seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers -- in English, Hebrew, and Arabic" - George W. Bush

NB: If you look at Pacino's 4 examples of Scesis Onomaton above, on each occasion he also uses Parallelism, i.e., each time he 'repeats' himself he uses the same grammatical structure.

SYMPLOCE repeats the same words at the beginning of successive sentences and the same ones at the end, as in the example from President Obama. It's not found as often as Anaphora (starting consecutive phrases or sentences with the same word/s) because it's more difficult to write:

"In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk aloneIn the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone"

Pacino uses it twice:

  1. "On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch."
  2. ". . . one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too or slow too fast, you don’t quite catch it."

 

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