Friday, March 29, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Tilda Swinton's "David Bowie Is"

"All the nicest possible freaks are here" might not seem like the right greeting to open an exhibit about your famous friend's art and work, unless you're actor Tilda Swinton and your famous friend is David Bowie. Swinton spoke last week at an opening of the "David Bowie Is" exhibit at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, a palace of design and one of my favorite places in London.

As unusual as its subject, the speech had out-of-the-ordinary parameters, factors that might happen to any speaker. The person to be saluted, David Bowie, was not present at the opening. The exhibit, which features more than 300 objects from Bowie's personal archive, spans his career--which is still active. (Swinton's featured in the video for his latest single.) So it's important to avoid sounding like his work is over, even as the speaker recalls the honoree's importance.

Perhaps due to all these factors, Swinton chose a letter as her format. Addressing herself to Bowie, she early on established both the museum and Bowie as muses in her childhood:
This was my favourite playground as a child. Medieval armour: my fantasy space wear. 
And, alongside, when I was 12 - and a square sort of kid in a Round Pond sort of childhood, not far from here - I carried a copy of Aladdin Sane around with me - a full 2 years before I the wherewithal to play it.  
The image of that gingery boney pinky whitey person on the cover with the liquid mercury collar bone was - for one particular young moonage daydreamer - the image of planetary kin, of a close imaginary cousin and companion of choice.
Swinton gave full measure to the experience of the opening in her speech. "We all have our own roots and routes to this room," she said, encompassing the entire crowd in that one sentence. But she went further, making sure the audience felt her enthusiasm for the show:
They wanted a Bowie fan to speak tonight. They could have thrown a paper napkin and hit a hundred. I'm the lucky one, standing up to speak for all my fellow freaks anxious to win the pub quiz and claim their number one most super-fan t-shirt. I want to give thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum for indulging us so. For laying on our dream show. For showing us - look at their advance ticket sales - that, as is written along the bottom of this month's Q magazine,'why we all live in David's world now.'
What can you learn from this famous speech?

  • You can do better than pro forma remarks when speaking at an opening: Swinton's speech is nothing like the usual ribbon-cutting, grip-and-grin, I'm-so-happy-to-be-here-to-open-this-exhibit speeches you normally hear. Listen up. This is intimate, personal, detailed, funny and focused. Can you do the same when you're officiating at an event of this type?
  • Make allies and familiars of your audience and your honoree: It's all personal in this speech, as Swinton speaks directly to her friend, the honoree, about her own feelings as a fan. In doing so, she engages the audience of like-minded fans, reflecting their enthusiasm in her own. It's an encompassing speech, one that draws the listeners in with fellow feeling.
  • Take a letter: The letter format won't work for every speech, but it works here for two reasons, bridging the absence of the honoree and allowing the speaker to speak in a more intimate and personal manner. Swinton concludes by calling Bowie "Every alien's favourite cousin, certainly mine." From framing the speech as a personal letter from her to him, to the ways she refers to him with a personal perspective, Swinton makes sure the focus here is on her subject. In your tributes and testimonials, make sure it's all about your honoree--even if you don't deploy the letter format.

Read the full text of Swinton's speech here--I wish I had a video for you! What do you think of this famous speech?

(Photo (c) Dave Benett Getty Images, courtesy V&A)

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