Help! I just won an Oscar!

How to give an Academy Award acceptance speech. Just in case.

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It happens. You’re going about your business, trying to have yourself a quiet Sunday night, when out of nowhere you’re told that you’ve just won an Oscar. And all of a sudden you’re standing onstage alone in front of millions of people.

Your first instinct will be to wet your pants. Fight this instinct. It would start an embarrassing Twitter trending topic and mar your obituary. Instead, make a conscious decision to stay dry and smile. Then give the world the acceptance speech of your life.

Oh, sorry. What’s that? You think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t just hand out Oscars to unsuspecting men and women? Then you, friend, have never watched the Academy Awards, an event at which the world’s finest actors and actresses are shocked—What?!? I didn’t even know I was nominated!!!—to learn that they’ve won their profession’s highest honor.

An Oscar win can come as a surprise at any time to anyone.

Three not-at-all-made-up stories: The night she won, Marisa Tomei was a seat-filler. Gwyneth Paltrow? She was handing out samples of grapefruit lip scrub in the lobby. Cuba Gooding Jr.? He was walking by the theater when they called his name.

Face facts. You might win an Oscar, and on behalf of the millions of viewers at home who don’t want to be bored by you, we think it best you prepare. So let’s get to it.

DAME consulted with three public speaking experts who train people to give speeches. They are Los Angeles speechwriter Eric Shapiro, Ohio University director of forensics Dan West and British speechwriting pro Lawrence Bernstein. They all watch the Oscars, and they all can’t believe how awful many of the speeches are. Says West, “You’re trained actors. You can memorize hours of dialogue. I know it’s emotional. Pull it together. It’s 90 seconds.”

Plan what you’d like to say. It’s not bad luck to acknowledge the possibility you might win. It’s foresight. You can tell when a winner has not prepared because they blubber and stammer and waste precious time.

Be like Winston Churchill. No, that doesn’t mean drink copious amounts of gin and conduct state business in your underwear. It means copy his public speaking strategy when he said, “I’m just preparing my impromptu remarks.”

Prepare your impromptu remarks by making a list of people you want to thank. Write this list down or memorize it because you will be emotional and your mind will go blank. West says winners should state individual reasons for thanking each person and cover the rest (the cast and crew, for example) with a wholesale thank you.

DO NOT read a list of names. That’s called a Rolodex Speech or a Shopping List Speech and nobody likes them and they’re not all that special for the people being thanked. Finally, always thank the Academy, even when it’s awarding you for the better movie you made three years ago.

Take the focus off of you. Talk about the people who helped you win and about your support system and mention the other nominees. “That, in a roundabout way, brings the focus back to you,” Shapiro said. You should also acknowledge people who have won the award before, say how honored you are to be listed with them and vow to live up to their standard of excellence, says West.

Want to see how it’s done right? Bernstein credits Colin Firth, the 2011 winner for Best Actor, with giving an excellent acceptance speech that was subtle, witty and controlled. Firth’s speech starts at the 4:00 mark. It includes a good closing line, which most acceptance speeches lack.

We wish you the best of luck at the Oscars this year. When you win—and a great many of you will—please remember to thank us.

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles who has been nominated for several dozen Academy Awards this year. He publishes the The Humor Columnist.


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