Speech of the Month, February 2019 - Olivia Colman

The public speaking techniques we can all take from Olivia Colman's Oscar acceptance speech

Speech of the Month, February 2019 - Olivia Colman

Olivia Coleman winning the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Favourite came as a pleasant surprise. Yes, she’d bagged the Bafta, but Bafta generally favours Brits and, given that Colman is so loved on home turf, the judges probably feared civil unrest if they didn't award it to her.

When it came to the Oscars, everyone assumed Glen Close was a shoo-in for the gong, everyone including Colman. So knowing that her win was a shock and that the likelihood of her ever picking up a second Oscar is slimmer than a Nestle Matchmaker on hunger strike, Colman decided to enjoy her moment and give a speech that will be remembered. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it below. 

So what can we learn from her speech and bring to our own presentations?    

Open with a provocative statement that subverts the audience’s expectation

Most Oscar winners stagger onto stage looking like they’ve just received the most shocking piece of news imaginable, they then swallow, say they don’t know what to say because this win was so unexpected and then they launch into what feels like a very well-rehearsed speech, right down to the sobs. Colman doesn’t do this. She looks around and says, “This is genuinely quite stressful.” A statement that nobody expected and because of that it gets a big laugh.

The good news is that this technique is easy to reproduce. Let’s imagine the Sales Director of 'Hands Off Locking Systems' is addressing an audience to persuade it to stock a new range of home safes. He could open by saying, ‘The Neptune Digital 316 is probably the worst safe on the market.’ Pause. Audience members' eyes widen in surprise. 'Fancy saying that!" They start to giggle. And then he follows up with, ‘That’s the view of Tom Higgins, a would-be burglar who tried to break into the Nepture safe for hours before smashing the French doors in frustration which led to his arrest.’  

Find a common enemy

An Oscar winner finds him or herself in an awkward spot. Yes, all the other nominees they pipped to the award post are applauding them with fixed smiles that they hope look genuine, but the winner must be very aware that their glee is unreal. Usually he or she will lick the wounds of the failed nominees by publicly saying how marvellous their performances were and how humbled they are to feature in a category with them. This approach sounds kind and big, but it’s so routine that it’s also boring. 

Colman finds a more original way to get her disappointed (and possibly envious) fellow nominees and rival films on-side when she squares up to the common enemy; the time buzzer. By blowing a raspberry at it, she’s telling it to ‘shut up and stop ruining my moment.’ And because all the nominees were probably put out when they heard they were to keep their speeches to 45 seconds, they enjoyed the fact that she challenged the clock-watching kill-joy, and applauded her for it. 

So when you are going to address an audience that’s potentially hostile, consider who your common enemy is. Can you mention it? Can you talk about what an irritation it is for you? Can you poke fun at it? 

Take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride

I’m always telling my clients to find ways to get their audience to feel during their presentations; move them as much as is appropriately possible and always end on an upbeat or optimistic note. This improves their chances of being liked and remembered.  

Given that Colman’s acceptance speech was so short – but longer than it should’ve been! – she gives us a masterclass in how to drive that emotional roller-coaster. When she thanks her parents she becomes so choked that she’s unable to speak, so she squeaks out a charming and affecting, “Well, you know.” Then she moves on to thank her kids who “are watching at home. And if you’re not then, kinda well done.” This gets a huge laugh as the audience considers the forbidden fun her kids could be having. Next she turns to thank her husband and becomes tearful again but instead of giving way to tears she says, “He’s going to cry. I’m not!” Which has a playground ‘ner-ner’ tone to it which is ridiculous but also hilarious coming from a woman of 45. More laughter. 

If you enjoyed this article, then maybe try some of my other blog posts.

And if you feel you or your staff would benefit from stronger intros and the ability to move audiences, then get in touch

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Five stars
“Entertaining, hugely relevant, confidence boosting and inspiring. The training that Emma provides has motivated and equipped academics to boost and rethink their lecturing technique.”

Jane McNeill, The University of Manchester

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