Thought Leadership

What Professional Communicators Can Learn From Oscar Acceptance Speeches

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.

9 Comments

  • This is a great synopsis of what has become a very important even for us as a nation to pause and witness. It is so true that the most candid and real speeches grab our attention and– most certainly — it helps to be “on brand.” It will be interesting to see who feels they have a social responsibility to address the current political climate this weekend.

  • This article was so interesting! Most of the acceptance speeches at the Oscars are unmemorable. Those that are memorable typically tell a story or are in tune with the current political and social climate. Every tip provided is applicable to PR professionals and those outside the profession as well. —Cara Bolt, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

    • Thank you, Cara! As a NYT reviewer put it this morning: “Other presenters were either forgettably banal or chillingly awkward.” Couldn’t have — though I tried — said it better myself.

  • This was a great read, especially in a time where our voices matter more than ever before. Having that platform as a celebrity and using it to send a message in an effective way can be hard. I agree that preparation is important and there is a way to find balance between being rehearsed and still seeming authentic. Emotions sometimes overtake the speaker and get in the way of the message. That brief minute onstage, when done correctly, can have a long lasting impression on the audience and society as a whole.

  • This was a really interesting connection! As someone that can cry at any acceptance speech, I really enjoyed how this was related to public relations. I think that handling the spontaneity and pressure that comes with accepting an award is really relevant when it comes to crisis communication. Thinking on your feet and building a positive reputation is really an integral part of public relations as a whole.

  • It is certainly interesting to see what celebrities use their time in the spotlight for, whether it be to promote themselves or to point out a social movement or injustice. When people use stories to amplify their message, it seems to stick the best, as is the case with most messaging. Most people don’t care about an actor’s individual agenda or their ego, but if they tell a compelling story, that’s what sticks. It will be interesting going forward to see whether the awards shows stay so politically charged, and whether celebrities can continue to use their time in the spotlight in a positive way.

  • I never thought of Oscar speeches as a true platform for strategic communication. In fact I thought it was for thanks and maybe talking about a relevant issue. The current social climate has been hot. Whatever someone says tends to be under immediate scrutiny. As soon as Rob mentioned the phrase “You like me. You really like me,” I immediately recognized the line. I did not know where it came from, but I knew it. When it comes to delivering a strategic message during an Academy Award acceptance speech I thought of course about Oprah, but also Leonardo DiCaprio. I did not watch the Oscars, but I saw the speech online multiple times.
    After reading the rest of the interview, I really think the Oscars is a great way for branding, if done right. It can be a place to show the human side of Hollywood. It can also be a way to generate conversation about important social issues. I think Hollywood needs to start seeing their acceptance speeches, not matter the award, as a way to start a conversation.

  • This is a very great article. Relating professional communication to Oscar acceptance speeches makes it so easy for people to relate to because everybody watches awards and how actors handle their speeches. I think people can forget who their audience is and how to get/keep their attention. The best speeches are always ones that have those personal notes in it that let you know the speaker is human and truly cares. These tips are so simple but can turn all your speeches into memories people will never forget. These can not only be applied in PR and any other professional communicators but in anyone’s everyday life.

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