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This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Think about the Oscar speeches you remember. Not many, right? Now think about what you remember from those speeches. Probably nothing more than a single line, a brief story or a holy-shit-I-won show of emotion. The joyful freak-outs of Cuba Gooding Jr. or Roberto Benigni. Tom Hanks’ tribute to his acting coach, or Matt and Ben’s shout-out to Boston (OK, maybe that’s just me). Halle Berry’s tears over the door that had just been opened for black actresses. Patricia Arquette’s plea for equal pay and equal rights. And, my all-time favorite, Imitation Game writer Graham Moore’s potentially life-saving advice to all those kids who’ve often felt like they never fit in: “Stay weird. Stay different.”
I realize it’s an honor just to be nominated, and you don’t expect to actually win, but ha-ha, yes you do, so on the off chance you’ve turned to the pages of The Hollywood Reporter for advice on the biggest speech of your professional life, here are a few tips from a has-been speechwriter.
Prepare it yourself Do not wing this. Do not outsource this. Do not forward this article to your publicist with the subject line “Help.” Take one hour to jot down a few thoughts about what this honor would mean to you and focus on the one message you want the world to hear.
Waste no words You have only about 200 words to say something memorable. Don’t waste any on how you never thought you’d win, or didn’t prepare a speech, or don’t have enough time. And, I know this is hard, but limit your list of acknowledgements. Instead of reciting a checklist of names, spend a few words on one person who helped make it possible for you to stand on that stage. Thank the rest later with a heartfelt note — or money.
Tell a story You of all people know the importance of good storytelling. You literally just won an Oscar for it. The best speeches are built on a narrative arc, not a collection of snappy lines. Share a moving anecdote or an inspiring journey. Surprise with something different. You know, entertain us.
Be you If only because it’s so much easier than trying to guess who the rest of us think you should be. Don’t worry about tears if you’re emotional. Don’t worry about jokes if you’re not funny. Don’t be political if it’s not your passion. On the other hand, if you do feel strongly about an issue — if, say, you believe that an industry as subjective as Hollywood should be able to find, produce and recognize more films that actually look like America in 2016 — don’t be afraid to speak up.
Enjoy this Everyone’s a critic. Still, most of us can’t help but smile when we see someone overwhelmed with the happiness and gratitude of achieving a life’s dream. Whatever you decide to say, know that the audience is rooting for you to succeed (except on Twitter, which is Lord of the Flies).
Jon Favreau served as the White House director of speechwriting from 2009 to 2013.
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