Award acceptance speeches surround us. We watch the Academy Awards, Golden Globe, Heisman Trophy, Miss America, and Tony Awards. On a smaller scale, we see and hear our local colleagues honored as Rotarian of the year, philanthropist of the year, or employee of the year. While we are not likely to qualify for the nationally known trophies, we might eventually move into the spotlight as top salesperson of our district, hospital volunteer who gave the most hours of service, outstanding rookie on the team, or-for a very select few-valedictorian. What guidelines should we follow, to express our gratitude gracefully and sprinkle our humility with an appropriate measure of pride?
ONE: Prepare your remarks yourself
Maybe you will face significant occasions when you should engage a speech coach or ghost writer, but this is not one of them. For an acceptance speech, the thoughts and words should be yours entirely. Consider your presentation a dignified conversation with your audience, not a structured, stilted speech. Who else could explore your feelings well enough now to express them to your satisfaction? Work alone as you gather your thoughts and shape your brief key word outline.
TWO: Never take the “I don’t deserve this” approach
For one thing, that declaration became trite decades ago. For another, most listeners will doubt you on this point anyway. Then again, saying you’re not worthy of the award accuses the selection committee of making a mistake. Also, you will anger other finalists who will muse silently, “Well if she isn’t worthy, I sure wish they had called my name.”
THREE: Remember to thank your presenter as well as the group
Caught up in the excitement of the event, too many recipients fail to thank the person who hands them the plaque or trophy. Your credibility will rise markedly when you say sincerely, “Ellen, having you hand me this award makes this tribute much more special, because of the many projects we have worked together on during the last few years.”
FOUR: Within limits, thank those who helped you qualify
The audience expects you to name two or three mentors, coaches, family members, and teammates who carried the work load with you. Yet you will want to avoid calling the names of what Hollywood once termed “a cast of thousands.” Think about the worst Academy Award acceptance speeches, and you’ll get the point. For a positive example: note that Robert De Niro, in receiving an Oscar, thanked “my mother and father for having me, and my grandmother and grandfather for having them.”
FIVE: Mention two or three previous winners
Paying tribute to prior members indicates you are grateful for being in their company as an honoree. “As I stand here, I remember-as I am sure you do-how Nelda Fleming embraced this trophy tightly last year and shed a few tears of joy. And the year before that, we can still visualize Marvin Pennington calling his entire family to the stage to embrace him as the photographer took pictures for our newsletter.”
SIX: Be surprisingly brief
As I just hinted, a short acceptance speech will make you both likeable and memorable. Probably you will break the norm, because the majority of honorees tend to stretch the ceremony to its maximum time span. And consider that many award citations come at the end of a long evening. Mentally, people are reaching for their car keys by this time. So setting a 3-5 minute limit for your speech will generate acclaim and appreciation.
SEVEN: Tell a story about your experience with the group
Audiences welcome good stories any time, and they absolutely embrace stories that convey a “you are there” sensation. So describe a pivotal incident related to your involvement with the organization. To illustrate: “It seems like yesterday that our CEO, Trudy Miller, shared lunch with me at the end of a morning of interviews I had with her staff. She painted a vision of where this company was headed. She gave me the greatest professional compliment of my life when she said that I could play a pivotal role in helping her team reach those targets. I wouldn’t have dreamed that lunch conversation would one day lead to this award-but I am thrilled that it did.”
Keep this list of recommendations handy. You never know when a ranking official will notify you that you are going to be center stage at an awards dinner. Following these seven guidelines, your speech will become as award-worthy as your career.