Christopher Reeve’s speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 1996 was a memorable and impactful moment in political and social discourse, arguing on behalf of disability rights and medical research.

The actor best known for his role as Superman had suffered a spinal cord injury in 1995 that left him paralyzed from the neck down. His appearance at the DNC in 1996 was significant because of his physical condition and the powerful message he delivered.

Here’s what communicators can learn.

Create a Human Connection

Christopher Reeve's portrait

As communicators, the most important connection we make is the powerful yet intangible human connection. This connection involves identifying something that we share, something that goes beyond what we need or want, to something we believe.

Reeve does this with an appeal to “family values,” albeit using a different approach than we might normally think of:

“And over the last few years we have heard a lot about something called “family values.” And like many of you, I have struggled to figure out what that means. And since my accident, I’ve found a definition that seems to make sense. I think it means that we’re all family. And that we all have value.

Now, if that’s true, if America really is a family, then we have to recognize that many members of our family are hurting. And just to take one aspect of it, one in five of us has some kind of disability. You may have an aunt with Parkinson’s disease, a neighbor with a spinal cord injury, or a brother with AIDS, and if we’re really committed to this idea of family, we’ve got to do something about it.”

This is a practical approach because he speaks of shared experience and responsibility when calling us family. As a family, we should care for those hurt, sick, or suffering. By emphasizing that we all have “value,” he argues that we cannot forget about those struggling or who perhaps cannot contribute the same way they once did.

He returns to this idea of shared responsibility by juxtaposing it with shared innovation and hope. Later in his speech, Reeve says:

“Now, on the wall of my room when I was at rehab, there was a picture of the Space Shuttle blasting off, and it was autographed by every astronaut now at NASA, and on the top of that picture, it says, “We found nothing is impossible.”

Now that — that should be our motto. It’s not a Democratic motto, not a Republican motto, it’s an American motto. It’s not something one party can do alone. It’s something we as a nation have to do together.”

The power of this passage is that he can appeal to the community as one with shared ideals, obligations, and values. As communicators, we should also look for ways to build these shared values. This is particularly true when trying to build a consensus or draw attention to an idea or course of action.

Use Contrasts to Offer Better Alternatives

The best way to argue for a point is to provide its opposite, or antithesis, as a form of contrast. While the word “antithesis” is commonly used to refer to the opposite, it’s a word from classical rhetoric referring specifically to the use of opposing ideas through a similar construction.

Consider Reeve’s statement here:

“Right now, for example, about a quarter million Americans have a spinal cord injury, and our government spends about 8.7 billion a year just maintaining these members of our family. But we only spend 40 million a year on research, that would actually improve the quality of their lives, and get them off public assistance, or even cure them. We have got to be smarter and do better.

Now, during my rehabilitation, I met a young man named Gregory Patterson. He was innocently driving through Newark, New Jersey, and a stray bullet, from a gang shooting, went through a car window, right into his neck and severed his spinal cord. Five years ago, he might have died. Today, because of research, he’s alive.”

Reeve contrasts the current approach to spinal industries (social support) with investments in research. While these don’t seem like opposites, Reeve positions them as such: By spending billions per year just maintaining those who have been hurt, we are leaving them essentially to suffer a lower quality of life. We don’t support them; we just don’t let them fall through the cracks. 

Following that, his call for research support carries that much more power: research and innovation are now imperatives for increasing the quality of life for those who have experienced the same types of injuries he has.

Contrasting alternatives provides a way to frame your offer or ideas in a much better light. Even if the contrasting idea isn’t bad in and of itself, if you can show that your core idea or offer is superior, then the reader can see just how much better it is, considering real-world effects.

Marketer’s Takeaway

In his speech, Reeve advocated for increased funding for medical research, particularly in spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders. He spoke eloquently about the importance of hope and the belief that, through scientific advancement, cures for debilitating conditions would be possible.

Using techniques like contrast and group identification (via family values), Reeve emphasized the potential benefits of such research for those directly affected and society. He framed it as a moral imperative and a testament to the power of collective action and compassion.

Likewise, we can learn from this speech–that by defining shared values and responsibilities and positioning good ideas against bad (or simply “less good”) ones, we can show an audience the merits of our vision.

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