Congratulations! You’ve won an award. Maybe you’ve been selected for the prestigious National Speakers Association’s Speaker Hall of Fame. Maybe you’ve been named volunteer of the year for your local service club. Whatever you’ve won, now you may be wondering: how do I give an award acceptance speech? what kind of a speech am I supposed to give? Where can I find award acceptance speech examples? How do I make sure my speech is memorable in a good way?
Maybe you’ve never given a speech before, and after toiling for years far from the spotlight, being put on stage is a nerve-wracking prospect for you. One of the best ways to minimize those nerves is to do your homework beforehand so you know exactly where you’re going with your talk, and reading this article is a great start! (For more on managing nerves when you speak, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast.)
Even if you’re a seasoned speaker, the structure and format of an award acceptance speech may not be what you are used to. To master the shortened format and time limits you may have, you’ll need to structure your speech in a more specialized way. For more on how to do so, read on.
Determine the goal of your speech
First of all, what is the goal of your acceptance speech? The starting point for most, if not all, acceptance speeches, should be a humble “thank you” for whatever they have received. It may also be appropriate to highlight particular experiences or individuals who helped you to get where you are. But this can be overdone; fake modesty and a long list of thank-yous to people the audience doesn’t know can cause your audience to tune out just as much as a braggy or even vindictive diatribe. How do you strike the balance?
One way to start could be watching others’ acceptance speeches, and ideally not just speeches from the Academy Awards. Award acceptance speech examples can be found on Youtube, Vimeo, and other video-sharing sites. Learn from others but don’t mimic – You’ve probably watched a lot of speakers before haven’t you? You know the things they do that work. It’s easy to want to just duplicate what you saw them do since you know it works. But don’t do that. Learn from why it worked and how you can incorporate a similar (but not copied) methodology into your own talks.
Structuring your speech
Another tip: figure out from the event organizer what the time restrictions are for your talk. You don’t want to plan a 20-minute overture when the event organizers expect you to speak for just a minute or two! This will also set the tone for your talk.
Remember that your speech is supposed to be shorter than your typical speech. You shouldn’t have that much to write out. Once you’ve determined a few people you’d like to thank, maybe a story you’d like to tell, and determined the overall goal or vibe of your talk, you should start structuring your speech.
Perhaps you could begin by breaking down your speech into a few sections. For example, you could structure the speech as follows: Introduction, thanking a few specific people, telling a story or an anecdote, and conclusion. This should all take no more than 3-5 minutes. And it will fly by.
Consider telling stories
Want to tell a story in your acceptance speech? It’s a good idea. Humans relate to stories. We connect to stories. Funny stories. Sad stories. Inspirational stories. We love stories. So tell them. Lots of them. Stories will keep your audience engaged and are also easier for you to memorize.
There’s nothing wrong with telling a 3rd person story or using some case study or example. But especially for an award you’re receiving, telling a story that you lived and experienced generally makes the story better for you and the audience. For the audience, they can oftentimes find themselves in your story. For you as the speaker, it’s much easier (and more powerful) to tell a story that you lived versus one you read in a book.
What kind of story to tell
In an award acceptance speech, any such story should be short and sweet. One way to keep an eye on the length is to try timing yourself telling the story out loud. As Harriet Turk discusses in our podcast on creating your talk, “If you practice out loud, you learn a whole lot more about what the story hits on and what parts need to be told.” Turk goes on to say that sometimes we find that we try to tell a story the way we wrote it, but authoring a story is much different than presenting a story. A story that reads well in a book may not work as well on stage.
Some examples of stories or anecdotes that you could do well to include would be about a setback you overcame in your role, or how someone helped you in a particularly meaningful way. If that person who helped you is one of those you want to thank, it would serve as an incredibly powerful testament to their character to include such a story. Of course, if something about that story is sensitive, it would be prudent to notify them in advance that you plan to tell that story. Even if not, it could be polite to give them a heads-up, particularly if they will be in the audience for your acceptance speech.
Using humor: advantages and pitfalls
You might wonder whether or not humor is appropriate in an award acceptance speech. Generally, humor is not a bad thing to include if you want to liven up your talk. However, keep in mind that you are being spotlighted as an individual accomplishing something in an award acceptance speech, and harsh joking about other people, in particular, may reflect poorly on your deserving the award. Negative jokes about the organizer, your collaborators, or others in the audience are no-nos.
On that point, as we cover in our 100 speaking tips article, you don’t need to be crude or inappropriate just for a laugh. It’s not worth it. If you deliver a killer keynote and are flawless throughout, but you make one inappropriate remark, nobody will remember anything else you said. There’s nothing wrong with using humor or making a strong point on something, but don’t do it at the expense of crossing the line and turning people off.
On the other hand, a dash of humor, such as light self-deprecation, can be perfectly good at keeping your speech from sounding sanctimonious or stuffy. When you tell a joke or deliver a punchline, give the audience time to laugh. Sometimes speakers like to rush to the next point, but don’t do that. You need to give the audience a chance to respond to what you just said (in this case to laugh), but also if you rush on to the next thought while the room is still laughing, nobody will hear what you’re saying.
Practice makes perfect
You’re not going to have a Powerpoint. You’re probably not going to have any visual aids. So how are you going to stay focused and find cues for your award acceptance speech?
Consider writing your speech out and timing yourself to ensure you don’t go way over any time allotments you might have. And if you don’t have time limits, consider your audience – they will almost certainly tune out after 15+ minutes of seemingly-endless acknowledgments…
Remember: Professional speakers don’t just make stuff up. They don’t write a few thoughts on a notecard and then shoot from the hip for an entire presentation. They take the time to write and carefully craft their material.
As Harriet Turk discusses in our podcast on creating your talk, bullet points can be one way to succinctly outline a talk in a way that you can rely on, even when you’re on stage and nervous. “Bullets are easy because they trigger what it is that you’re really wanting to do,” she said, “Whereas if you write it out and then you memorize it, you could have stage fright, or you’ve practiced it so much that you get to a point that you’re nervous and you forget.”
Although you shouldn’t just be reading from a page the whole time, writing out specific names of people you want to thank can help keep you from forgetting anybody.
When you’re on stage
So you’ve written, practiced, and are headed to your acceptance speech venue to give your killer talk. What should you remember when you’re standing on the stage?
As we outline in our 100 speaking tips piece, remember that on stage, you can be an amplified version of yourself. The bigger the venue, the bigger you need to be on stage. The way you would communicate to a group of 10 people is very different than how you would need to communicate to a room of 10,000. Both should be an authentic version of you, but simply amplified to the setting. The bottom line is don’t try to be something you’re not on stage. Be you.
Keep it slow and steady. When you are talking really fast, it becomes difficult for the audience to follow. It’s hard to keep up and process. Plus the faster you talk, the harder it is to understand what you’re saying. So slow down and enunciate. Give the audience the chance to keep up with where you’re going.
Don’t be afraid of the silence. Silence, to a speaker, can feel deafening but it can be powerful. Silence shows confidence that you’re in control of the talk and the room and you’re continuing to guide them towards a common purpose. When you make a strong point, don’t rush to the next line. Stop and let it hang there. The silence is your friend.
All in all, giving an award acceptance speech is a great opportunity to practice your speaking skills while simultaneously a big honor! Whether you’re an experienced speaker or haven’t given one for years, these tips and processes can help you conceive of, outline, and deliver an awesome acceptance speech.
If you found this piece helpful, we have a great podcast with Grant Baldwin on how to create your talk. He tells us how he prepares for talks, what makes a talk good versus another talk, and what types of structures you can use to organize your content. You can listen to this podcast on creating a talk here. Want to read more about speaking tips? Take a look at our 100 tips for motivational speaking for any speaking engagement! Happy speaking!