Monday, February 23, 2015

When the clock is ticking

"Time Totem" by Peter Pierobon

I am reading a wonderful book for my book club, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. You may recall the story from the movie Philomena starring Judi Dench that was up for four Oscars just last year. Thought it does not have Dame Judi's stellar performance to keep you glued to its pages, the book is every bit as interesting as the movie. Maybe even more so, since it gives us more detail about the life of Philomena's lost child Anthony, rechristened Mike Hess by his American parents. Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who uncovered this gripping story and retells it like a good detective novel, drops in a few moments of comic relief when he can. I laughed out loud the other day when I read this sentence, describing the 1979 American Bar Association Christmas party in Washington, D.C. : "At around ten o'clock the MC tapped a glass and called for silence. The speeches were the usual mix of pomposity and bad jokes and Mike noticed a few people looking at their watches long before. . . the closing remarks." Chuckle, chuckle, cringe. I have been to events like that. And I am sure you have, too.

But it doesn't have to be that way! Just because this has become "the usual," as Sixsmith says, doesn't mean it is the only way to handle special occasion speeches. Celebrations, holiday parties, awards ceremonies, business social events of all types call for a "few words" given by senior staff and honorees. But so many times those people kill their own credibility, or reduce their own stature by trying to be something they are not - entertainers! When you get a platform, as on a festive occasion, the rule of thumb is short, sweet, and to the point. You can use the opportunity to make a point, of course (because every speech needs to be about something) but plan ahead and say it in a few well-chosen words for maximum impact. Don't hold your audience hostage just because you are having a "starring" moment.

People who actually are stars know the importance of preparation--partly because they know their speeches will be filmed, replayed and scrutinized, and partly because they know they will be "played offstage" if they drone on too long.  Last night's Oscars ceremony gave us a surprising number of speeches that made an impact and stayed within the allotted time limit! My favorite performer this year, Patricia Arquette, rallied the troops with her cry for women's equality, and Graham Moore encouraged those who feel like outsiders by pointing out that difference can lead to great achievement.  John Legend used his acceptance speech to powerfully call out pervasive racism that lingers decades after Selma. In fact, most of Hollywood's finest seemed to have gotten the message last night and actually prepared their remarks beforehand. That is something I always urge clients to do, so I was quite pleased.

I rarely hold up Hollywood as an example of How To Do It Right in Real Life, but Oscar 2015 gave us many strong examples of classy people delivering powerful messages. And it's always fun to see The Beautiful People being . .  . well, beautiful!

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