It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.
Giving awards has become a popular way to get attendance at events. It was once suggested to me as the program chair for a fund-raising dinner. The challenge was how to get women business owners to spend hard-earned dollars to come to the fund-raising banquet. Someone who had been in public relations for a long time suggested creating the first-annual Celebrity Woman Business Owner Award. We sent letters to several celebrity women who were in business with clothing lines, retail stores, restaurants, and food products. They all said yes, so we had honorees for the next several years.
This becomes a win-win for everyone because the high-priced publicists who promote the stars are always looking for new celebrity angles and can't help but mention your organization, along with perhaps the time, date, and price in publicizing their recipient. This is also used effectively among giant corporations and law firms that will usually take a number of tables in literally paying tribute to their honoree!
There are two sides to an acceptance speech: Giving the award and making the acceptance.
A good technique for giving the award is to save the recipient's name as the last thing you say. Even though everyone may know whom you are talking about, it creates some suspense and a payoff.
Whichever role you play, do your research for some little known but charming and relevant facts about the recipient and/or the award. If something interests or pleases you, it is likely to do that for the audience, too.
At a UCLA scholarship awards ceremony I attend every year, the fun is in the novelty and variety of the students' speeches in accepting their scholarship awards. The audience is made up of benefactors who provide the dollars and enjoy learning of the difference the money makes in these underprivileged students' lives.
One young man announced that he was the happiest of all the students to receive the award because, unlike the other recipients who were pursuing medicine and law, he was a philosophy major and would, obviously, have a tough time getting a job!
A young medical student came directly from making rounds in scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck — she gave her appreciation in two languages, as her parents only spoke Spanish.
A young Armenian brought his high school teacher for recognition as his mentor. The grandfatherly teacher shared the podium with his former student, acknowledging that the cost of college back in his day was only $108 a term. "Thanks to your scholarship program, today's deserving students like Josef are getting this fine UCLA education, too."
Families were mentioned who did all they could to put food in their kids' mouths. Without the scholarship, an education would have been totally out of reach. One young man pointed with pride to his mother who had taken a six-hour bus ride to be at the ceremony. Another student acknowledged that he really appreciated the sacrifices his mother had made too, even though she had only bussed in from Pomona, which is a 30-minute commute. The running joke for the event became a competition of whose mother had spent the most hours on a bus to get there!
I once coached a corporate executive to present a check at a celebrity golf tournament. Because there was nothing inherently interesting or novel in the ceremony, we had to dig for something to give it meaning. Turned out that he'd always loved the game of golf, but as a kid with a handicap, he could only watch. Now, he felt like he was finally playing the game.
The biggest mistake to make in accepting an award is making your acceptance speech too long or too political. Your audience may not share your politics. At the twice-canceled Academy Awards that took place in the heat of the United States' war with Iraq, the stars were appropriately chastened about using the forum as an anti-war bully pulpit. But one documentary filmmaker piped up in a call for President Bush's resignation. The immediate reaction was that as the saying goes, he won't have lunch in this town again. And he may not have much work either.
A recent recipient of a homeless shelter award angered the million dollar corporate sponsor by launching an attack on big business in America.
So, stick to the subject and event at hand and mine for the poignancy to give meaning to an otherwise superfluous and tedious exercise for an audience.
Acceptance speeches, with few exceptions, are almost always too long. Lines such as: "It all began..." or "I was born in a simple log cabin in Illinois..." or "My birth as it was later told to me..." and even, "It was a dark and stormy night..." are cultural jokes that poke fun at the idea that there will now be a review of your life as a novel instead of a simple thank you.
If an after-dinner speech is text, the acceptance speech is shorthand. It probably needs to be more than just a heartfelt thank you, but often not a lot more. Look to the awards ceremonies such as the Emmys, Grammys, and Academy Awards. Decide which recipients you like and why, and who you'd like to emulate.
When you are competing for an award, take your lead from sports where every player and team genuinely compliment their opponents. This is a win-win situation, particularly for you, because if you lose, you said yourself that they were really good and if you win, you appear to be that much better.
In particular, when your acceptance speech is the result of winning over others in a competition, don't give a speech but rather a thank you. Again, look to professional athletes who follow the practice of "less is more" when they win. You can be pleased but not proud. Make yourself the example of a lesson learned, but never the hero. That is too much like bragging, which turns everyone off.
If you are accepting an award that is an acknowledgement of your service, part of everyone else's acknowledgement is an acceptance of sitting through what you have to say. Don't take advantage and go on too long.
One story goes that Yogi Berra was receiving the key to New York City on a miserably hot and humid day. Mayor Lindsay's wife, Mary, commented on how cool he looked, and he replied, "You don't look so hot yourself." Later, he reflected, "I guess I was a little nervous about the speech I had to make."