Lessons from the 2020 Oscar Awards

It was Oscar night in Hollywood recently, and while it lacked a host this year, there was a lot of great advice offered during the acceptance speeches which could be helpful to anyone who speaks for a living.

I have asked a number of people over the past few days if they watched the Oscars, and what they remember about them. Some mentioned the performance by Eminem who delivered an explosive performance of his 2003 Oscar-winning classic, “Lose Yourself,” from 8 Mile. One person mentioned that Elton’s John’s performance was well done and some mentioned Brad Pitt’s acceptance speech. More on that in a moment, but there were two speeches that caught my attention.

When Mindy Kayling, who played Kelly Kapoor in the NBC sitcom The Office, introduced the finalists for Best Animated Feature film, she said, “As a shy little girl, a daughter of immigrant parents, animated films introduced me to world beyond my home and classroom. Then as I got older, I began to realize that those films contained some of the most sophisticated story telling in all of cinema. Their impact is extraordinary, and I cannot wait to introduce my daughter to this world now, knowing it will take her imagination in directions no one has even dreamed of yet.”

Story telling is an art form and it takes years to refine and master. Frankly, it is a lot of hard work. As performers, we need to find ways to tell stories on the radio in such a way that listeners will pay attention and want to hear more. This is not an easy process and requires effort and preparation. Once you find the topic, then you need to decide if it will relate to your target audience and, if so, how you will tell this story in such a way as you only take the number of words required to effectively deliver the story. Your story needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and if you do it right then you will grow your audience and grow that loyalty. Start by preparing one great story per hour for each hour you are on the air.

Marshall Curry accepted the award for Live Action Short Film and said, “I want to dedicate this to my mum who grew up on a peach farm in Chesterfield. South Carolina, and was the best storyteller I ever knew. She always had a story about some crazy thing that happened with her siblings when she was growing up, or some weird dog that she’s seen, or something that the taxi driver had told her about his life. It would break your heart. And I learned from watching her that a well-told story is a powerful thing. It can change the way we see the world. It can help us to notice other people.”

Clearly, Marshall’s mother was a great storyteller, and I am sure you have met a few great storytellers over the years as well. They have that rare skill to capture and hold the attention of the room. People want to hear what they have to say, and they hang on every word. Many world leaders are great storytellers and they got there because of their ability to engage and win people over.

Leo Tolstoy said, “All great literature is about one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” I tell announcers when I coach them that often the best way to find content is to think about something you have witnessed or experienced. By seeing the event unfold in your mind, you have a clear picture of what happened and can retell that story in detail and with accuracy. On the radio we need to be able to tell that story in a matter seconds and that editing process takes a long time to master. The best way to develop this skill is to start by writing out that story in a logical manner. Edit and refine the story on paper and then practice telling that story over and over to yourself, each time editing down the content until you have got it perfect. The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave it. Now practice that version of your story and then open the microphone and deliver it exactly as practiced.

Here are seven tips for how to tell a great story from well-known psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne:

  1. Set the context: You know what happened in a given situation and where your story is going, but your listener does not. The very first words should introduce such details that a good reporter would include, namely who, what, why, where, and how.
  • Avoid unimportant tangents. It’s easy to get lost in your own details, especially if you have a mind that tends to wander and aren’t that good at editing your thoughts. As fascinating as they may seem to you, these sidebars will only distract and perhaps frustrate your audience.
  • Be aware of your audience: Stories that have a possibly offensive theme or content, such as ones in which you broadcast your own resources in front of others who don’t have those resources, should be edited or not told at all. There’s no point in making your listener feel bad because she doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to shop at the expensive store that served as the locale for your story of how you paid too much for a scarf.
  • Embellish a little, but not too much: The more often we tell a story, the more little details we tend to add, and as we do, those stories drift further and further away from the truth of what actually happened.
  • Rehearse what you want to say before you start: You don’t have to read out a script every time you tell your story, but you might want to run it through in your mind. It’s especially important to anticipate the ending because this will allow you to follow a more direct path through the arc of the story from beginning to middle all the way until the final, climactic scene.
  • Keep it short: That 30-second elevator speech we’re all told to prepare when we meet a stranger is a good rule of thumb to use in storytelling. You might go for as long as a minute if it’s a great story, but anything longer that than that is putting far too much attention on you that would best be shared with your listeners.
  • Pay attention to the impact you’re having on others: As the Nebraska researchers discovered, listeners can become preoccupied and disturbed by hearing a story relating a difficult experience, especially when those negatively tinged stories become repeated over time. If you have a truly sad story to relate, be sure that you’ve adequately prepared your listener, and that you don’t go on for so long and in such detail that you’re putting stress on that listener.

One of the best acceptance speeches at the Oscar’s was delivered by Brad Pitt who won Best Supporting Actor for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He started with a joke about the Trump impeachment trial, gave a heartfelt mention to his co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, “I’ll ride on your coattails any day, man – the view’s fantastic.” Then he touched on how it all began for him with his parents taking him to the drive-in to see “Butch and Sundance” and reflected on some of the amazing people who had helped him to get to where he is today. He did this all in 90 seconds, and later he admitted that he had put a lot of work into that speech with help from some funny friends including Jim Jefferies, Bob Oschak and David Fincher.

I also think we can learn from some of the less impressive acceptance speeches from the other night:. Joaquin Phoenix won for Best Actor, but his speech was long, and rambled. I suspect he had put some thought into it, but perhaps failed to practice and refine it. I suspect he got up on the stage and winged it. Renée Zellweger won for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance as Judy Garland in JUDY! But her acceptance speech was a long four minutes of pauses and ums and stumbles. She thanked the academy, her fellow nominees, her family and what felt like everyone she knows in Hollywood. She is a fine actress and her performance as Judy Garland is impressive in that she learned and sang all the songs. But her acceptance speech was horrible and was a real missed opportunity.

As you prepare your next sales presentation, your next speech, or plan your breaks for your next on-air performance, I encourage you to think about the 2020 Oscar speeches and try and be more like Brad Pitt!