February 5, 2014
by Andy Saks
We watch them, quote them, mock them and remember them. They’re the acceptance speeches the Hollywood elite give upon winning an Academy Award.
What we rarely do is learn from them. So in this post, we’ll dispense with the “best Oscar speeches” and “worst Oscar speeches” labels, examine five memorable Oscar speeches, and draw a lesson from each for your next speech.
The high-profile circumstances of Oscar speeches create many “teachable” public speaking moments. Winners face a large audience of their peers in person and a massive global audience through television. Amidst heightened emotion, without the support of a script or director, they’re challenged to say something unique and significant seconds before the orchestra plays them off.
What can you learn from their acceptance speech triumphs and tragedies?
And the awards go to…
Christoph Waltz, Best Supporting Actor, Inglorious Basterds, 2013 Academy Awards
Business speeches often suffer from so-called “data dumps” (or “speeds and feeds” in high-tech): laundry lists of facts, stats or words rattled off in quick succession and with little impact.
In awards speeches, data dumps take the form of thank-you lists, as winners acknowledge everyone from their directors to their mothers. Fulfilling this mandatory show of gratitude inevitably brings the natural flow of a speech to a grinding halt, like a record that keeps skipping.
In his acceptance speech for Inglorious Basterds, Christoph Waltz elegantly made hearing his thank-you list painless by embedding it in the narrative of his personal story of joining the film. As he mentions each name, he hints at how that person played a key role in his involvement.
Instead of waiting for his list to end, you become curious to see who else had a role in his story.
The lesson: In your next speech, consider embedding your laundry lists in a story that shows how you engaged with each of them. You’ll give each fact, stat or name the critical context and value that helps your audience appreciate and remember them.
Halle Berry, Best Actress, Monster’s Ball, 2002 Academy Awards
Berry’s Oscar for Monster’s Ball marked the first time an African-American woman had won the Best Actress award. Overwhelmed by her win, Berry was for several seconds unable to speak when she arrived at the lectern, shaking and tearing up.
When she finally spoke, she remained so choked up, she managed only a few words with each breath:
“This moment…is so much bigger…than me…This moment…is for…Dorothy Dandridge…Lena Horne…Diahann Carroll…is for the women that stand beside me…Jada Pinkett…Angela Bassett…Vivica Fox…and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color…that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened!”
Berry’s acceptance speech is often derided as a self-aggrandizing attempt to assign herself great influence in opening doors to women of color in film. Many weren’t sure she deserved the honor.
I disagree. Berry’s speech clearly came unvarnished and straight from her heart. It stated honestly what the win meant to her, an African-American woman who had lived the experience she was referencing. Clearly she wanted to tie her victory to those who inspired her as a young actress, hoping she might similarly inspire others. She used her moment in the spotlight to share that.
Was her wording perfect? Probably not, but considering a billion people were watching, it ain’t bad.
The lesson: Make room in your speech for a heartfelt moment or two. Tell your audience honestly what your topic, story, people or lessons mean to you. The more they appreciate your passion, the more they’ll embrace it with you.
Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actor, Goodfellas, 1991 Academy Awards
Oscar speeches often suffer from the same malady as other speeches: long-windedness. Speakers drone on aimelssly, to the increasing dismay of their audiences.
Joe Pesci suffered no such handicap when his moment came. Stepping to the lectern to accept the award for Best Supporting Actor for his memorable turn in Goodfellas, Pesci looked down for a few seconds, popped his head up, said “It’s my privilege, thank you” and left the stage.
This mini-speech seemed all the more remarkable because it came from Pesci, known in films like Goodfellas, Lethal Weapon, and My Cousin Vinnie for playing loud motormouth characters.
Why so few words? Only Pesci knows. He probably had at least an outline in his head of what he might say if he won, and his head drop the moment before he spoke hinted that maybe he spontaneously decided to toss the speech let the award speak for itself. Certainly the five short words he did choose say it all, and with no other words cluttered around them, they stand out proudly.
The lesson: don’t use ten words when one will do. Less is often more, and no one in the history of speaking ever complained that a speech was too short.
Sandra Bullock, Best Actress, The Blind Side, 2010 Academy Awards
Maybe it was the relief of her first nomination and win after fifteen years of high-profile film acting. Maybe it was brashness borrowed from Leigh Anne Tuohy in the role for which she won the award.
Whatever the cause, Sandra Bullock began her first-ever Oscar acceptance speech ever with a line somehow both accusatory and self-deprecating. Peering down at the audience like a testy librarian, Bullock begins: “Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y’all down?”
Humor like this is multi-purpose. It exudes modesty, which endears your audience to you right up front. It surprises your audience, making them even more curious to see what you’ll say next. And it gives you a momentary break while your audience laughs to breathe, relax, and consider what you’ll say next, making it more likely it’ll be worth saying.
Bullock is nominated again this year for Best Actress in the film “Gravity.” If she wins again, will she top this opening line?
Jamie Foxx, Best Actor, Ray, 2005 Academy Awards
Ending a speech can be as tricky as beginning it. You want your last impression to be powerful and memorable, original and honest. How to do that?
Jamie Foxx gives a great example in his Oscar speech for Ray. After thanking the filmmaker, family members and others, Foxx invokes his grandmother, Estelle Marie Talley, who’d passed away a few months earlier and for whom his daughter is named. He says:
“She was my first acting teacher. She told me, ‘Stand up straight. Put your shoulders back. Act like you got some sense.’ And then when I would act the fool, she would beat me, she would whoop me, and she could get an Oscar for how she whooped me ’cause she was great at it.”
Choking up, Foxx continued: “Now she talks to me in my dreams. And I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight ’cause we got a lot to talk about.”
Foxx beautifully brought this woman to life, assured us that her approval meant more to him that his award, and left us wondering what each of them might say in their conversation that night.
The lesson: end with a statement that ties the threads of your speech together and hints at a “next step” to follow. If your audience members approach you afterward needing to know what happened next, you’ll know you nailed it.
Have you tried any of these acceptance speech tips before? How’d it go?
What’s your favorite acceptance speech moment at the Oscars or elsewhere? What did it teach you?
Which Oscar nominee do you hope gets to speak this year?
Please share your comments below!
ABOUT SPARK PRESENTATIONS
Spark Presentations is a private company founded in 1998 that provides presentation skills training and speech coaching for executives, salespeople, marketers and other businesspeople, plus booth staff training for trade show exhibitors.
Spark also books professional presenters and public speakers to represent its clients at high-profile events, in roles like keynote speaker, trade show booth presenter, master of ceremonies (emcee) and auctioneer, as well as on camera talent and voice talent.
Spark’s client list includes large corporations like AT&T, Best Buy, FedEx, Hyundai, Intel, Kimberly-Clark, Olympus, Owens-Corning, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Volvo; high-tech industry players like AMD, Atrion, Citrix, Gigamon, and Symantec; service organizations like Vistage, 1nService and NERCOMP; and New England institutions like the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Spark’s owner, Andy Saks, is also the author of The Presentation Playbook Series: Be a Most Valuable Presenter (MVP), a three-volume series of books that help businesspeople master common presentation situations by building and running speaking “plays” like a coach or player calls a key play in a game. Volume 1 will be published in March, 2014.