At its core, the Academy Awards are about celebrating the finest work in a given year of movies. But the actual presentation itself is anchored by the acceptance speeches, where viewers get to see celebrities at their most candid and real.
These speeches often end up becoming some of the most unforgettable moments in a performer’s career; for instance, you may not recall Sally Field’s whole filmography or even the 1984 film “Places in the Heart,” for which she won a Best Actress Oscar, but you probably can picture her standing on stage shouting “You like me! You really like me!” upon accepting the award.
But beyond being simply entertaining and memorable, Academy Award speeches can also offer a lesson in both public speaking and personal branding, says Rob Biesenbach, presentation expert, actor and author of “Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results.”
“My whole approach [to presenting] is based on the idea that everything we need to know about communication can be learned from the world of performance,” he says. “It’s knowing how to read and understand an audience, express empathy and emotion to connect with people, tell compelling stories that get results, bring energy to a room, and practice and prepare for any important communication.”
In the spirit of Oscar season, Biesenbach talked with PRsay about speech preparation, political messaging and which Oscar acceptances from the past are, for better or worse, his most noteworthy.
What is your overall impression of the way Oscar winners approach their award speeches? Do you think they should prepare more or be more spontaneous?
It’s a tough balance. The spontaneous moments are often the most memorable — but sometimes not in a good way. So I lean toward more preparation.
This means, first of all, timing it out. There’s nothing worse than when the orchestra starts up and the speaker rushes through the rest of the speech. It creates anxiety for them and for the audience. Find out how much time you have and prepare accordingly! Which gets me to the next point: Practice, practice, practice. This is what actors do every day. They’re accustomed to long hours of rehearsal and should apply that same discipline to their acceptance speech. As for being “in the moment,” that’s also what actors do, even with a rehearsed script.
Speakers should also focus on the audience. So many award winners resort to a laundry list of people they want to thank. The truth is, nobody but those five (or ten or twenty) people cares! Broaden your message to the larger audience — the millions of people watching from home. Talk to them.
Some of the more memorable speeches in recent years have contained political statements. Is it a missed opportunity, would you say, if an Oscar winner doesn’t use their speech to convey a focused message?
Sometimes the moment almost demands that winners acknowledge what’s happening in the political sphere. A good example of that was this year’s Golden Globes and the #MeToo movement.
On the other hand, one of the most controversial acceptance speeches in my lifetime was Vanessa Redgrave’s from 1978. In the run-up to the event she came under fire for perceived anti-Semitism and used the platform to hit back hard at her critics. Whether you agree with her or her critics, Redgrave’s remarks overshadowed the award and actually damaged her reputation for a time. So it’s a fine line to walk.
Beyond the political, I do believe fervently that there ought to be a focused message or narrative thread to any acceptance speech. Storytelling is what acting is all about, and it’s what people respond to and remember the most.
What are some memorable examples of both effective and ineffective speeches from recent years?
The one Oscar speech that has stuck with me for the longest time is Tom Hanks’ acceptance of the Best Actor award for “Philadelphia.” He always hits it out of the park, and here he delivered a beautiful, emotional tribute to his high school drama teacher and a classmate who happened to be gay. It was an important statement about equality at a time (1994) well before the tide of public opinion on gay rights had turned. And, of course, the theme was right in line with his performance in the film as a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. It was “on brand,” as cynical as that may sound.
Though it wasn’t the Oscars, Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech was one of the best awards speeches I’ve ever heard. One of the reasons it was so good was her use of story, starting with the opening lines about being “a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor” of her mother’s house watching Sidney Poitier become the first black actor to receive the award she was accepting that night. She went on to tell the little-known story of Recy Taylor and the injustices she faced. It was breathtaking.
As for ineffective speeches, examples abound online. James Cameron comes up a lot. At the time I hadn’t yet seen “Titanic,” so his “I’m the king of the world!” opening struck an especially discordant note. I also wasn’t fond of Roberto Benigni walking across the backs of people’s chairs on his way to the stage to accept the award for “Life is Beautiful.”
But this is all subjective anyway. Cuba Gooding Jr. makes a lot of “worst” lists for his “Jerry Maguire” speech, and while I agree he did many things wrong, I thought his enthusiasm was endearing.
As far as I’m concerned, most Oscar speeches fall somewhere between terrible and merely unmemorable. And that’s for three reasons: The majority of actors are not writers, they often have trouble letting go of their egos, and they seem to feel that since they’re professionals, they don’t need to practice.
Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications.