What Makes a Good Acceptance Speech? A Communications Analysis of the Academy Awards

It’s that time of year again – Oscar season – and Hollywood is buzzing about contenders for the golden statuette. Each nominee will be ready to radiate silver screen perfection on award night, should their name be pulled from the sealed envelope. But winning an Academy Award requires more than a drop dead look. Before the lucky few winners can take their Oscar home, they must deliver an acceptance speech to an estimated 40 million home viewers.

And, as home viewers, we know how those speeches can turn out. Some keep us glued to the television, moved by the sincerity and gratitude of the winner. Others are so dull that we’re startled when the orchestra chimes in to end them. And, occasionally, we even suffer through one or two that make us cringe.

Why do we see such differences among people whose profession is audience engagement? What separates the memorable speeches from the rest? We decided to find out by using our communications analytics platform.

We first selected 50 acceptance speeches from the Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database and analyzed them with our natural language processing and linguistic mapping tools. We then compared the results of our analysis to the 50,000+ pieces of unique communication content in our communication database in an effort to identify the defining linguistic characteristics of the speeches that achieved the greatest audience impact.

After analyzing the communications data, we found that:

Audience engagement and speaker authenticity are the key drivers of a great acceptance speech.

Winners who delivered the best acceptance speeches conveyed genuine excitement and eagerness to thank those who made their success possible. They often shared short anecdotes or personal insights that helped to demonstrate their gratitude. As a result, they kept their audiences focused and engaged.

Other factors, such as gratitude, humility, and enthusiasm expand this foundation of authenticity. As listeners, we can sense whether a speaker possesses these characteristics and, if they do, we perceive them as authentic. Moreover, we begin to experience “emotional contagion,” i.e., we echo these same emotions within ourselves.

When an Oscar winner is excited, enthusiastic, and proud, the audience can’t help but feel the same way as long as their speech is authentic. The effect is almost impossible to achieve unless the underlying feelings are sincere. If, for example, a winner says that they’re thankful and humble but their body language says something else, the audience will quickly pick up on the conflict and will likely question whether the speaker actually means what they say.

So, who gave the best acceptance speech?

Not surprisingly, we found that most actors were great at being engaging and authentic.

The average Oscar acceptance speech scored a 93% on engagement and 92% on authenticity, both well above the average 50% score contained in our database.

One speech, however, really stood out.

Jennifer Lawrence received an Oscar in 2012 for her work in Silver Linings Playbook and her acceptance speech was 100% engaging and authentic when compared with the samples in our database. Watching her speech is a lesson in authenticity. She graciously praised her fellow nominees and other actresses using conversational language and a natural vocal cadence. She then thanked those who made her success possible, thanked her family, and stopped speaking before the orchestra began to play. Her words, voice, and body language were all synchronized to portray an actress who was genuinely grateful and happy to be receiving the award. Her speech, in turn, left the audience feeling happy for her success.

Who has the most room for improvement?

Not everyone has such a flowing, integrated speaking style. Colleen Atwood received an Oscar in 2010 for her costume design work in Alice in Wonderland. Ms. Atwood, however, took notes with her to the podium for her acceptance speech and then read her words of gratitude. The speech, although unintentional, sounded rehearsed and cold. Reading almost always seems disingenuous compared with speaking the same message from the heart.

Give a great acceptance speech

Giving a great acceptance speech isn’t easy; surprise, general excitement, and nervous energy often play a role in what we say and how we say it. But if you ever find yourself standing before a microphone with a trophy in hand, remember what our analytics have revealed – graciously thank those who made your success possible, allow your genuine emotions to shine through . . . . . and bring your most authentic self to the podium.