An awards acceptance speech – like the kind we saw during last night’s Emmy Awards – forces an artist to do something even the most talented performers are uncomfortable doing: Give an unscripted performance with graciousness and humility to millions of people.
Most of these winners simply gave thanks to industry professionals and random family members – instantly becoming as forgettable to most of the audience as if they had read random names from a phone book. Others sabotaged their authenticity by clumsily reading from “tiny paper” scripts. Writing a speech may seem like a security blanket, but this tactic tripped up most winners. Reading from a script also communicates both “I expected to win” and “I don’t really want to connect with you,” neither of which are good looks.
But a few Emmy winners used that same amount of time to reach for a higher goal. Whether these speakers realized it or not, what they were trying to do was make a point.
This is a teachable moment because we’re all in the business of making points. To last night’s winners, it was an acceptance speech. To you in a matter of days, weeks, or months, it’s a wedding toast, a conference presentation, a status report, a performance review, or just the sharing of an idea at a regular staff meeting.
Given that relevance, here are some of the most teachable insights from Emmy 2017 acceptance speeches, based on my own assessments as an executive communication professional, a speech coach, and a former competitive speaker.
1. Be Concise
“Winston Churchill reminds us what courage and leadership in government really look like.”
– John Lithgow, winning Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
2. Speak from the Heart
“I feel very proud to be part of reflecting fierce women and mothers finding their voice.”
– Laura Dern, winning Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie (“Big Little Lies”)
3. Say Something Relevant to the Audience
“When you die, you don’t remember a bill that Congress passed, or a decision the Supreme Court made, or an address made by the President. You remember a song. You remember a line from a movie. You remember a play. You remember a book, a painting, a poem. What we do is important. And for all of you out there in motion pictures and television, don’t stop doing what you’re doing. The audience is counting on you.”
– Alec Baldwin, winning Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (“Saturday Night Live”)
4. Be Inspiring
“The things that make us different – those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape, go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
– Lena Waithe, winning (with Aziz Ansari) Best Writing for a Comedy Series (“Master of None”)
5. Demonstrate an Impact
“If this show has [shined] a light on some of the prejudice in our society – Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system – then maybe that’s something.”
– Riz Ahmed, winning Best Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie (“The Night Of”)
“We shone a light on domestic abuse. It is a complicated insidious disease that exists far more than we allow ourselves to know. It is filled with shame and secrecy and by you acknowledging me with this award, it shines a light on it even more.”
– Nicole Kidman, winning Best Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie (“Big Little Lies”) (Frankly, Nicole’s speech was a bit of a mess, with this didactic language tacked on at the end. But I’ll give her credit for the attempt)
6. Share Something Personal
“Nineteen years ago, Detective Frank Pembleton held this joint, as impeccably played by Andre Braugher… Mr. Braugher, whether it is at Stanford University or on this Emmy stage, it is my supreme honor to follow in your footsteps.”
– Sterling K. Brown, winning Best Actor in a Drama Series (“This is Us”)
7. End with a Strong Call to Action
“Go home, get to work. We have a lot of things to fight for.”
– Bruce Miller, series creator of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” winning Best Drama Series
Joel Schwartzberg is a strategic communications coach, nonprofit communications executive, award-winning public speaker, and author of “Get to the Point: Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter”