I LOVE this acceptance speech. And a big part of what makes Sam Rockwell’s acceptance of the 2018 Best Supporting Actor Award so excellent is the attention getter he gives at the top. What makes it so great? Here’s my thoughts:
It includes a touching personal story about his parents! – Stories are your STRONGEST weapon against audience boredom, y’all.
It’s not only a story, but, also, a short joke, with a great punchline – notice the way that Mr Rockwell sets up his story to be solemn, and then takes us in a surprising direction. Jokes are GREAT icebreakers. A great joke needs to be BRIEF and have the ELEMENT OF SUPRISE. Mr Rockwell’s joke has both.
His icebreaker is appropriate for the occasion – it’s about going to the movies with his parents, and he uses the story as a way of demonstrating both his love of movies and his appreciation of his parents.
The short answer is yes, but how you do it is very, very important. If you make your product the primary focus of your speech, or Q and A, you will bore the audience, or worse, annoy them. Nobody comes to a major conference like TED to hear a product pitch. People come to hear new ideas. You must be able to craft a dynamic, purposeful, wildly creative premise to your speech first, and then strategically weave mentions of your product into the speech as you develop your material.
Take Elon Musk’s brilliant TED Q and A. The premise of his talk is really the nature of innovation, but he manages to use his three current companies, Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, as examples. It never really appears that he is promoting his companies, because his first loyalty is to his premise (the nature of innovation). As long as you prioritize your premise and keep it innovative, inclusive, and not sales oriented, then, ironically perhaps, it is safe to do a little selling.
It was an electric moment for Alabama last night, and for the country. Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in an election for a seat in the U.S. Senate, an election that had broad implications for the state of Alabama and for the country at large.
I’d like to focus on his victory speech. It would have been easy for Senator Jones to surf the adrenaline of the moment, and disregard good public speaking technique, but he didn’t do that. He spoke with intention, structure, and purpose. Here are three things that rock about this speech:
It’s selfless – unlike Donald Trump, Doug Jones wasn’t quick to take credit for his victory. He rightly laid the victory at the feet of the people of Alabama. Nothing unifies an audience more than selflessness.
It uses southern myth brilliantly – After giving the victory over to the people of Alabama, Jones credits them for taking the right road at “the crossroads”. “The Crossroads” is a common motif in the music of the deep south, evoking memories of a hodgepodge of southern people and events: Robert Johnson, the Civil Rights Movement, the Alabama Bus Boycott, Segregation, etc, etc. But it’s bluesman Robert Johnson who owns the most common iteration of this myth; the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar. Every man, woman and child from Alabama, and many people from other parts of the country will immediately understand the allusion, and likely feel thrilled to be walking in Johnson’s footsteps.
It uses southern myth brilliantly part two – I don’t think you can be a Democrat giving a major political speech in Alabama without quoting Martin Luther King Jr, but the question is, which quote? I’ll admit when Doug Jones trotted out the “the moral arc of the universe” quote from King’s 1964 speech at Wesleyan University, I was a little weary. It is a quote that is often overused. But it really is the best quote for this moment. This race had everything to do with morality and doing what is right. The Doug Jones moment, for so many reasons, is personified by Martin Luther King Jr, a man who fought against the establishment in the name of dignity, grace and human rights.
Again, it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment during these big emotional speeches and lose track of what you are saying, It’s very important to remember the importance of structure, allegory, and symbolism when you speak. I hope Doug Jones will remember this when he runs for president in 2020.
I recently poised the question, “is it possible to speak too slow while presenting“? My answer was “no”, but Brian Little’s pace of speaking would challenge that assumption. I think he picks up the pace adequately around the middle of his TED Talk, but I found my mind wandering off at the beginning. This is because he is speaking just a bittoo slowly, and because he doesn’t have a good story up front in order to attract the audience’s attention.
This changes dramatically half way through the speech. At about the ten minute mark, we get a series of wonderful, hilarious stories, starting with this gem, and the speech really comes to life. Its amazing how a few small changes can lift a speech from good to great. When it comes to presenting, the devil is in the details.
One of the trickiest parts of crafting a speech is figuring out how to start it. Some recommend launching into a story, others recommend letting the audience know where you are heading with the speech, and others suggest using a startling statistic or fact. I don’t think there is a “right” way to start a speech, but there are a few things that matter. An opener should be short, and create an immediate impact on the audience; a laugh, a giggle, a sigh, a gasp, etc. Here are a few great speech openers from some recent TED Talks:
1) Monica Lewinsky – Ms. Lewinsky is one of my favorite speakers. I really love this TED Talk. It’s chock full of courage, wit, pathos, and great storytelling. She starts the speech with a hilarious, BRIEF story about a young man who tries to pick her up at a bar. Check it out to hear his pick up line…
Needless to say, humor is one of the best ways to open a speech. If you can get the audience laughing at the top, they will be more receptive to your ideas. What makes this opener so brilliant is the way Mrs. Lewinsky manages to get a laugh out of a terribly painful and embarrassing moment in her life.
2) David Miliband – One powerful way to open a speech is to tell a story, but the type of story you tell matters. In an opener, you need to keep things brief, and personal. Watch the way Mr. Miliband uses his family heritage to make a startling point about immigration:
3) Anne Lamott – I think this opener is both subtle and startling. What’s subtle about it is Ms. Lamott’s delivery, which is pleasing, but subdued. What’s somewhat startling about it is the way she talks about her grandson’s nightmares. Openers can incorporate paradox:
So what are your favorite openers? Post here or at my twitter.