A CEO client was on tap to give the keynote speech at a national health insurance conference, sharing insight about how data is transforming an industry not known for being open to change. She came to us for a fresh idea and needed the speech written in less than 24 hours.

Wanting to give the audience something surprising, I wrote a speech framed by the jaw-dropping story of a man free climbing the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The unexpected topic, supported by stunning visuals from our art director on two large screens flanking the speaker, helped turn a talk about healthcare data into something memorable and inspiring.

The client came back to the agency the following two years for additional speeches, both of which I concepted and wrote. One used a story about the first night game of Major League Baseball as its framework, and the other focused on Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Records.

And, yes, both were ultimately about innovations in health insurance and care.

Agency: Langrand
My role: Concept and speechwriting

Two months ago, on a cold night in Yosemite National Park, Kevin Jorgeson’s fingertips were split and covered with tape. His body was tired and sore. And balancing 1,400 feet above the ground. Kevin and his climbing partner, Tommy Caldwell, were attempting something thought to be impossible—free climbing Dawn Wall, the smooth granite face of El Capitan, a rock formation as tall as three stacked Empire State Buildings.

Free climbing means relying on your hands and feet to ascend a rock—or in this case, a 3,000-foot wall of granite—the only equipment being ropes to catch you if you fall. Where it’s not smooth as glass, Dawn Wall has hand and foot holds as thin and sharp as razors, many as small as a dime. Conquering it would require years of planning. Kevin and Tommy prepped for this climb for almost a decade, and they’d already experienced multiple failed attempts.

This time, they climbed when the rock was colder, in the late afternoon and even in the dark, so their hands wouldn’t sweat and their shoes would get more traction. At night, they slept in a tent hanging off the side of the rock in temperatures below freezing. Mornings, they had to dodge large falling blocks of ice as the sun warmed the cliff face.

The ascent up Dawn Wall is broken into 32 segments called “pitches.” The rules of free climbing require you to successfully complete each pitch before moving to the next one. Pitch 15 is one of the toughest on Dawn Wall, or anywhere, and that’s where Kevin was stuck on that cold night in January.

He tried to navigate the pitch, which required a ballet of precise and delicate moves, while his climbing partner waited for him above. And day after day he’d get to a certain point and then fall, unable to maintain enough of a grip on the almost non-existent holds. Oh, and a storm might be coming. His historic ascent was beginning to look like it wasn’t going to happen. But he wasn’t giving up.

After his fourth unsuccessful attempt, he posted online: “As disappointing as this is, I’m learning new levels of patience, perseverance and desire. I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.”

We’ll come back to Kevin a little later.