Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Check those name-checks at the door: How to thank people in speeches

Those of us who lead ordinary lives name-drop, mentioning famous or important people we saw. The famous name-check, the opposite task, by mentioning those of us less important or famous in acknowledgements. Name-checks, to my ear, are taking up far too much time and space in speeches and presentations these days. But in one case at the Oscars, name-checks were a leading actress's shield against criticism of her success, a way to look humble when she's been accused of being arrogant--and a way to push her limelight remarks into easy-to-ignore status at a peak moment of public speaking.

Actress Anne Hathaway may have set a record in her acceptance speech for the Oscar for best supporting actress in Les Misérables earlier this week, thanking more than 30 groups and individuals. It's thought she did so to avoid the criticism she got for her Golden Globes acceptance speech--a speech I thought had more content and fewer name-checks, and so worked better for her. It includes a gracious and insightful tribute to fellow nominee Sally Field:

It's no surprise that actors thank lots of people in their awards acceptance speeches. After all, it does take a village to make a film. But there's also a trend in the sciences to include long chains of thank-yous and credits to graduate students, in particular, when scientists give talks or media interviews, a major entry on of my list of 7 ineffective habits of scientists who communicate with the public.

The real problem for most of us with a direct, named thank-you in a speech? You're excluding most of us in the audience in favor of a one-to-one moment. While those are precious in life and lovely for the person in question, they can be deadly for your listeners when multiplied by the dozens. The speaker may well have trouble remembering all those names, a real challenge on stage, but it's a certainty that none of us will. That means we'll be left with no truly memorable moments from your speech. Hathaway's Oscar speech has been routinely covered for just its opening and closing lines, not for the name-checks, and that's perhaps what she wanted to achieve. But is that what you were aiming for?

If not, here are some questions to ask yourself before you rattle off that list of names:
  • Can you thank people in context? We'll be more engaged and interested if you can share what that person did with some specifics, rather than including her in a list of names. "Angela Brown was the graduate assistant who noticed the sampling error that led us to this discovery" or "Fred Stevens makes costumes that transform you as completely as Method acting does" are all the more enchanting because you're letting us see them as real people behind the scenes. Call that proper credit, if you like.
  • Are you name-checking to look important? If that long list of graduate students or assistants or agents and publicists is partly to show off the power of your lab or your production company, consider this: You'll dissipate the power of the moment by showing off your rank-and-file. Try inspiring us instead.
  • Can you elegantly and briefly sum up the village supporting you instead? In an interview, Dustin Hoffman talks about the retired musicians hired to play extras in his movie Quartet, about, well, retired musicians: "[T]hese people, all in their 70s, 80s, 90s...had so much passion, so much gratitude, so much energy...I wish most actors that I work with had so much focus and passion and clarity." Yes, you'll have grouped them together, but in a way that acknowledges and dignifies them, rather than listing them. (And you won't risk having left someone out.) At the Oscars, Daniel Day-Lewis's speech made a lovely summary reference to all the workers on the film Lincoln, and devoted more time to humor and content.
  • Have you timed those thank-yous? This is a good time to record your intended name-checks in advance and play them back. How much time did your list take? What proportion of your remarks does it occupy?
  • Did you want to sound like a PowerPoint presentation? Just because lists are easy to put together in slides and speeches doesn't mean that they work well for your audience. If you're going to list people, you need to use pauses and inflection and other means to keep our attention, lest you sound more like a presenter than someone giving heartfelt remarks.
  • Can you work some meaningful, non-name-check lines into your remarks? Give us some memories and we'll let you run some credits. But only a few. Try to remind us why you got the award in the first place, not to whom you are grateful.
I'll also add that I believe the criticism of Hathaway has much less to do with her speeches than with the "who do you think you are?" objection that arises when women succeed--witness that her well done Golden Globes speech was panned, sometimes rudely. Ironically for women who seek eloquence, she's most decried for sounding "too rehearsed" and "too polished." As the Daily Beast points out:
Run a Google search for 'Anne Hathaway' and 'annoying,' and 1.5 million search results are returned. Try 'Anne Hathaway' and 'hate,' and that number spikes to a mere 28.5 million. 
The switch to name-checking worked with some observers of the Oscars, making her seem more genuine and humble, the look she was reportedly going for. But should she have changed her speaking style for that reason? Daniel Day-Lewis and Ben Affleck were considered to have done the best job with their speeches that night, among the actors, and did far fewer name-checks. Seth Godin writes today about the difference between the sure hand and over-confidence. Oddly enough, I don't think Anne Hathaway was over-confident, but I sure wish she'd been able to deliver the remarks she wanted with a sure hand.

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