Speech 101: Make It a Class Act

Sunday, February 22, 2009

To: Tonight's Oscar winners

Re: Your Speech

They call your name. Now the clock starts ticking. The show's running long, so you probably get 60 seconds.

59, 58, 57 . . .

Don't tell us how heavy the Oscar is. Don't tell us how you can't believe it. Don't tell us how you're just "a girl from a trailer park who had a dream," as Hilary Swank did in 2006. Don't thank "everyone I've ever met in my entire life." Maureen Stapleton did that in 1982. Kim Basinger did it again in 1998. It's lazy. Prepare some remarks but speak from the heart.

39, 38, 37 . . .

You are on a stage, and this is a performance. So perform. Tell a short story, punctuated with a laugh. The Brits are experts at delivering brief, engaging speeches that are both methodical and seemingly improvised. Take a cue from Alec Guinness, who, while accepting a lifetime achievement award in 1980, told an anecdote from his drama school days and then relieved the teaching-moment tension with self-deprecation: The greatest lesson from acting class, he said, "was to do absolutely nothing at all. And that is, more or less, what I've done since then." A bit of irony -- he's confessing that his secret is doing nothing while he's holding an Oscar for his 50-year career! -- turns the speech into a performance piece in and of itself.

25, 24, 23 . . .

If you're no good at public speaking, or incapable of being funny in front of a large crowd, don't strain yourself. It'll just get awkward. But remember this: A laundry list of thank-yous is not a suitable substitute, and it is certainly not an acceptance speech. It's lousy television, too. Do what Steven Soderbergh did in 2001 when he said "rather than thank some [people] publicly, I will thank all of them privately." He went on to honor "anyone who spends part of their day creating," without mentioning his agent. Tilda Swinton did mention her agent last year, but she was smart enough to make it a punch line, saying he was "the spitting image" of Oscar: "The same shape head and, it has to be said, the buttocks." Her speech was 72 seconds. It was hilarious and grateful. The Brits are experts.

15, 14, 13 . . .

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