Oscar night lessons for all speakers

by Halina St James

What did you think of the Oscar ceremony? For me, it was one of the best in years. I’m not talking as a movie fan when I say that. I’m talking as a speaker and presentation skills coach, who can’t watch the ceremony without evaluating the presentations and the acceptance speeches.

The acceptance speeches ranged from good to great. The best of them drew on simple techniques that any of us should be incorporating into our presentations and speeches. More on that in a moment.

But some of the presentations – the moments when celebrities read out the nominations and announced the winners – were truly dreadful. Talented actors stared at the camera like deer caught in headlights and stumbled through the teleprompter introductions in a monotone.

It wasn’t their fault, entirely. Even the most talented actor in the world can do little with a badly written script. And the problem with the Oscars is that 99% of what the presenters had to read onstage was badly written.

By badly written, I mean written for the eye, not the ear: long, convoluted sentences usually starting with adverbial or preposition phrases. This type of writing may look great on paper – but it sounds wooden when spoken out loud. It reminds me of a comment Harrison Ford made to producer George Lucas during the making of Star Wars IV; A New Hope. Ford was struggling to deliver some lines in a script Lucas had written. The star looked at the director and said: “You can type this s**t, George, but you sure can’t say it.”

At Podium, our TalkItOut technique ensures that you speak before you write. So the writing works for the ears – not the eyes. You will never sound as if you’re reading. Even if you are an Oscar winner, a written-for-the-eye speech will make you sound bad in everyone’s ears.

Say the words out loud before you commit them to the page. Keep the sentences short. Turn commas into periods. Eliminate subordinate clauses. And use simple words you’d use in conversation with people you care about.

The Oscar winners’ speeches worked for the ear because they were from the heart, spoken with passion, and not read from a teleprompter or script. The winners used accessible language – simple words, simple sentences – even if they carried notes for support.

And I thought the best acceptance speeches contained two other qualities: humility and universality.

The bar was set high by the first winner – Jared Leto, winning Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. He quickly told a story about a single mom and her struggles to raise a family. That was, of course, his mother – who was in the audience. The point of the story was the inspirational lesson he’d learned from his mom’s struggles. At Podium, we teach our clients the power of storytelling to engage and hold an audience.

Mr. Leto mentioned the struggle in Ukraine and Venezuela and then, acknowledging the 36 million people who lost the battle with Aids,  added: “To those of you who ever felt injustice for who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.”

When Cate Blanchett accepted her Oscar for Best Actress in Blue Jasmine, she thanked each of the women who had been nominated in her category. But it wasn’t just a blanket thank you. She took time to say few words about each woman and how much she admired them.

That enabled Ms. Blanchett to seamlessly segue into the point she wanted to make – the role of women in films today. She said that, contrary to popular opinion, people do want to see women-centred films, and those film do make money.

Oscar night has a reputation for gushing, teary, empty performances. It was a delight to hear so many winners use simple techniques to deliver acceptances speeches that gave us an insight into who they are and what they care about – besides being Hollywood’s finest.

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