Each year, the movie awards season offers a series of object lessons for speakers of all kinds. From the often highly accomplished hosts and comperes to the sometimes apparently under-prepared recipients, awards ceremonies are almost entirely about the speeches. That leaves a lot of fodder for analysts – or perhaps even critics! – like me.
It’s so easy to lampoon and satirise these kinds of event. In fact, in his memorable appearances hosting the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais seemed to spend his entire evening doing exactly that. From Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous tears to the regular examples of inappropriate political show-boating, there are plenty of ways speakers can go wrong.
It’s not just the Hollywood A-List who have to give acceptance speeches, however. Saying thank you in public is a time-honoured task that many find themselves undertaking, either formally or informally. There is an entire genre of after-dinner speaking that covers this; and many speakers in all sorts of contexts will need to thank the person who introduced them, or the audience who agrees to listen to them.
How, then, to give an acceptance speech which gets the message across, is memorable and characterful, but doesn’t try the patience? How to avoid the pitfalls of the dreary, over-worthy or self-indulgent thank you?
Most importantly, keep it brief. The best idea by far when it comes to saying thank you in public is to keep it focused. Pick five things to say, get through them – and get off. You should be able to do it in as little as 300 words.
Secondly: given your speech is so brief, don’t use notes. With thank yous, sincerity is key. If you’re reading from a script, the audience won’t believe that your words are coming from your heart. Learn some memory tricks and do those you’re grateful to justice.
On the subject of gratitude, make sure that one of the five things you say mentions the organisation which is hosting you. Say something brief about them, and thank them – in the most immediate of ways, it’s thanks to them that you’re speaking at all.
Equally, be sincere. Don’t over-thank people to whom you have no connection, and don’t be afraid of a little sentiment where it’s called for. When making an acceptance speech or giving a vote of thanks, you’re meant to be marking something that is important to you – so don’t be afraid of showing how important.
One way to demonstrate sincerity, of course, is to avoid humour. I’m often a big advocate of jokes as a way to build a bond with the audience, but with the exception of perhaps a single ice-breaker try instead to be sober. That’s not the same as earnest or self-important, of course – both of which are bad ideas. Aim instead for humility.
In fact, “be humble” might be the two-word take-away from this blog post. An acceptance speech isn’t really about you. It’s about the people you are thanking. Putting them front and centre in a set of brief, simple, memorable remarks is the best way to show them your gratitude – and to keep the audience with you.