Star Power: What the Oscars Can Teach You About Public Speaking

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For a public speaker, the Oscars can be a night of education as well as entertainment.

On Oscars night, viewers eagerly judge red-carpet fashion statements and track who goes home with a trophy. While that’s all fun, everyone knows the most dramatic aspect of the Academy Awards is the night’s acceptance speeches. The twin pressures of heightened emotions and time constraints have made for some of the best moments in public speaking history.

By watching how four of the most gracious celebrities handle their time at the Oscars’ podium, you can come away with some actionable tips for your next public speaking commitment. And who knows—maybe you have an award ceremony in your future. Learn from the masters, just in case.

Rita Moreno: Brevity is the Soul of Wit

With 24 categories awarded over the course of the night, the Academy Awards allots a limited amount of time to each speech to fit them all in. In the interest of avoiding the dreaded orchestral music, many of the best Oscar speeches are on the short side. But Rita Moreno’s legendary acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Supporting Role took this sentiment to an extreme level.

After winning for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story, Moreno walked up to the podium, took the statuette, and with wide eyes and a radiant smile said incredulously, “I can’t believe it! Good lord! I leave you with that.” Then she unexpectedly left the stage. That’s how you close with a bang.

While this speech was radically short, it was effective. Moreno managed to be direct, appreciative, and emotionally honest without subjecting the audience to an endless rambling. Twitter would have taken to this speech like wildfire—it’s always good to keep things quotable.

Susan Sarandon: Don’t Be Caught Off Guard

All too often, the sheer surprise of winning detracts from the quality of the winners’ speeches. Leaping between emotional reactions and a convoluted string of thank yous, winners will run past the time limit and lose the audience’s attention.

Preparation is key to keeping audiences engaged and the speech directed. In her Best Actress acceptance speech in 1996, Susan Sarandon was concise and prepared. She took the stage armed with reasons for her gratitude. While her exuberance was evident in her voice, she remained articulate and focused while thanking her supporters.

It just goes to show that even the most high-profile celebrities aren’t above good ol’ prep work.

Shirley MacLaine: Own the Stage

Many seasoned actors and actresses have the public-speaking advantage of being comfortable on stage. This was certainly true for Shirley MacLaine, who seemed to be in her natural habitat addressing the audience after winning Best Actress in 1984.

In a hilarious opening line, MacLaine giggled and said, “I’m going to cry because this show has been as long as my career.” The rest of her speech vacillated between topical jokes about that evening’s ceremony and eloquent expressions of gratitude. Almost every line elicited a swell of laughter from the delighted audience.

MacLaine’s speech succeeded because of its preparedness and charm, but also because of her confidence and authenticity.

Roberto Bengini: Charm Works

Many Oscar speeches are made memorable by their sheer personality.

After his film Life is Beautiful won Best Foreign Language Film, Roberto Bengini leapt up onto his chair and eventually made his way to the stage, where he began a truly unforgettable speech. Exuberant, excited, and unabashedly himself, Bengini was so overwhelmed he started spurting Dante and metaphors. Instead of saying thank you, he said, “I want to dive into this ocean of generosity and a hailstorm of kindness.” His earnest, charming gratitude was met with riotous applause.

Like all good performances, a successful Oscar speech depends on a combination of preparedness, self-awareness, audience engagement, confidence, and charm. If you can work these traits into your next public speaking engagement, you’ll feel like you’re walking away with a golden statue in hand.


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Author: Ken Sterling

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