February 28, 2011

Acceptance speeches improved by strong openings

"Why didn't I lose that 20 pounds?" ~ Robert Stromberg, accepting the Academy Award for Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland.

As I believe most bloggers who write about the Academy Awards acceptance speeches today are writing about speeches as a whole, I've decided to focus on speech openings. (And yes, I'm more than a little tickled that the Best Picture Oscar went to a movie about public speaking!)

As I mentioned in my blog post "More tips for better acceptance speeches," a winner has 45 seconds to speak, and less flexibility to go over that time as the evening goes on and the show starts to run long. Why waste precious seconds with apologies and fillers?

Last night, very few of the winners jumped right into their speeches without several seconds of "Wow!" "Holy cow!" "Oh my gosh!" "Is this real?" "This is unbelievable!" and similar exclamations of surprise.

I'm not saying an outburst of emotion is inappropriate for this type of speech (that would make me pretty cold-hearted, wouldn't it?), but there was so much time-wasting that speakers frequently got the "goodbye music" while they were still in the middle of their speeches. I'm sure that, for many of the award recipients, these outbursts were used to kill some time while they gathered their thoughts and their breath and tried to remember what they were going to say. But they were time-wasters nonetheless.

Beyond the outburst of emotion which, when brief, is acceptable, I have another theory about some of the more extended expressions of disbelief.

Is it possible that some winners were actually playing up their surprise in fear of coming across as egotistical? After all, if you just walk up, keep your cool, and start talking, you might look as though you expected to win all along. And that would be bad, right? Some of the winners seemed genuinely surprised while others seemed to be putting on a big show. I won't name names...

I can't pretend to understand what's going through the nominees' heads as they prepare their speeches, wait for their names to be called and then take the stage upon winning, all the while worrying about saying the right thing and dealing with Hollywood politics. But there is an awful lot of time-wasting on stage that could very easily be avoided.

Here's just one example of how taking out the fillers can make a huge difference in the opening punch of a speech.

Most speech-watchers have agreed that David Seidler's (winner for Original Screenplay, The King's Speech) was among the best last night. And it could have been even better with this one tweak:

Instead of beginning with "The writer's speech. This is terrifying..." he could have left that out and started with his next line: "My father always said to me I'd be a late bloomer." It got a huge laugh, as Seidler is 73 years old. What a way to kick off a speech!

That being said, here are some openings that I found effective for their humor or thoughtfulness, and while they still may have been time-killers while the recipients gathered their thoughts, they were much better than the "Holy cow" extended fillers.

"I should have gotten a haircut." ~ Luke Matheny (sporting an enormous pouf of hair), accepting the Oscar for Best Live Action Short

"Forgive me. I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail. And that's wrong." ~ Charles Ferguson, Best Documentary: Inside Job

"It feels like that top is still spinning." ~ Paul Franklin, Visual Effects: Inception

"I have a feeling my career's just peaked." ~ Colin Firth, accepting the Oscar for Best Actor. (His entire speech was a winner, one of the few. His warning of "stirrings somewhere in the upper abdominals which are threatening to form themselves into dance moves" had a touch of absurdity about it while creating a humorous mental image.)

"I'm very grateful for this, and surprised. My percentages aren't great. I’ve been nominated 20 times and this is the 2nd time I've won." ~ Randy Newman, Best Original Song: Toy Story 3 (He goes on to explain, in his entertaining speech, how nominees were instructed not to take out a list of names to read, because it doesn't make good TV. "I just have to thank these people. I don't want to. I want to be good television so badly, as you can see.")

Congratulations to all the winners, and next year I hope to see a few more acceptance speeches that truly rise to the occasion!

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