6 Storytelling Lessons from Peyton Manning’s Retirement Speech

March 8, 2016

Game respect game. Future NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Peyton Manning announced his retirement earlier this week, and the entire sports community is using this moment to celebrate his illustrious career.

As a storyteller (and a speech writer), I wanted to pause to celebrate his well-written and gratifying retirement speech. There’s a lot to like and learn from Manning’s goodbye speech, from the way it was organized to his use of repetition to a flourish that will likely be quoted for years to come.


1. Start with a story

“In my very first NFL game, I completed my first pass to Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk. I threw a touchdown in that same game to Marvin Harrison, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this August.”

That’s how Manning opened his remarks. No “thank you all for coming.” No “this is an emotional day for me and my family.” Manning just went straight into a story, and he never slowed down from there. Jumping right into narrative made for a compelling speech from the first sentence.


2. Reel them in with emotion

“… when the game was over I had the chance to shake Johnny Unitas’ hand. He told me, ‘Peyton, you stay at it. I’m pulling for you.’ Well, I have stayed at it. I’ve stayed at it for 18 years and I hope that old No. 19 is up there with his flat top and maybe his black high tops on and I hope he knows that I have stayed at it, and maybe he’s even a little proud of me.”

During the underlined section of these remarks, Manning was visibly choked up. This was the first of several (possibly a dozen) moments where Manning seemed on the verge of tears. This vulnerability is engrossing. The audience feels that intense emotion, and they’re invested in the outcome of the speech.


3. Comedy gives them a breather

As one of the few athletes that has a nice sense of comedic timing, I was surprised Manning didn’t use humor more often, but he did land two nice jokes during his 11-minute speech. The first was a playful jab at his younger brother Eli, and the second was a story about his daughter Mosley that ended with an unexpected punch line related to reporter sources. Both moments were classic Manning, and they gave the audience a second to exhale and enjoy the moment.


4. Repetition creates tempo, builds momentum

With only a few minutes remaining in his remarks, Manning started to rattle off the things he’ll miss from the NFL. By my count, there are at least 14 things Manning chose to list, but there was undoubtedly more to choose from. Nevertheless, his speech gathered momentum in this section, as he painted the picture of his storied career with a few colorful images. Repetition like this can help speechwriters maintain the attention of the audience, especially as means to create momentum for a flourish at the end. There’s no way to measure this, but I suspect this is the part of Manning’s speech that most people will remember.


5. Look to the future

As we near the conclusion in any speech, the audience wants to know what’s next: For Manning: “I’m totally convinced that the end of my football career is just the beginning of something I haven’t even discovered yet. Life is not shrinking for me, it’s morphing into a whole new world of possibilities.” This perception shift offers the speaker and audience a glace at the finish line.


6. Conclude with a clean flourish

As a religious man and athlete, it made sense for Manning to incorporate scripture into his remarks. The memorable flourish, however, was the final line of his speech, which I suspect will be quoted by football people for years to come: “There’s a scripture reading, 2 Timothy 4:7: ‘I have fought the good fight and I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.’ Well, I’ve fought a good fight. I’ve finished my football race and after 18 years, it’s time. God bless all of you and God bless football.”



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