By Kathleen Hessert
Kathleen Hessert is President of Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte, N.C.-based firm, training amateur and professional sports personalities in crisis management, media relations, and public speaking. She has worked with many collegiate athletic programs including those at Notre Dame, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Stanford. Visit the firm’s Web site at www.sports.mediachallenge.com.
Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1302/ovothank.htm
If you’re at all successful in your career as an athletic director and/or coach, you’re going to have the opportunity to make a speech while receiving an award. And I use the word “opportunity” deliberately. While this can be a nerve-racking experience for some, speaking in a public setting is a great way to get your name out and show an audience the kind of person you really are.
A good speech will further your support. A poor speech will leave the audience wondering how the heck you, your team, or your department could be getting this award.
Before preparing for the event, though, there is one major premise to understand. The audience is not only there to see you, but to be entertained as well. Sometimes these people have spent money to attend, and even if they didn’t, they have some vested interest in being there. It’s up to you to make their investment of time and money worthwhile.
Preparing for any speech should start with a fact-finding mission. First, find out who will be in the audience? Will it be fellow administrators and coaches, student-athletes, or members of the media and general public? The answer can help determine the formality of your comments and the direction to take your content.
Second, find out which speakers come directly before and after you. Look at this as scoping out the competition. These are the people you’re competing with for the spotlight.
Third, learn who has received the award in past years. When you show that you are familiar with past recipients, you’ll be demonstrating your appreciation for the honor.
The most difficult part of developing your speech may be the opener. Two things can happen. You either grab the audience’s attention or risk losing them completely.
While it’s good to use humor, retelling a stale joke will definitely not endear the audience to you. Anyway, few people can tell a joke well and the audience almost always knows it’s intended to loosen you up more than truly entertain them.
Starting, instead, with a question or a little-known quote works well. A short relevant story that connects you, your audience, and why you’re there is also a great way to start any speech.
When preparing your comments, it’s common to suffer from “writer’s block,” getting stuck with no idea where to go next. One of the best solutions to writer’s block is as easy as logging onto the Internet.
There are several sites with good ideas, but one I like best (and that I, myself, use regularly to get my creative juices flowing) is www.idea-bank.com. IdeaBank is an electronic library of quotes, anecdotes, and moments in history. Some of those quoted are famous sports figures, others are nobodies who are nonetheless wonderfully wise and/or funny. (For a list of more sites like this, see chapter six of my book, The Coach’s Communication Playbook.)
Here are some more tips to help you formulate content for that perfect speech:
• Express your respect for the organization giving the award. This involves knowing something about the organization, such as its name and its correct pronunciation. I’ve seen award recipients thank the wrong organization, like the Touchdown Club of Charleston instead of Charlotte. The entire audience moaned and the speaker didn’t know why.
• Be humble, but not shy. There is no substitute for the power of humility in the limelight, but overly shy recipients look like they don’t have the confidence deserving of such an award. Pass the buck and praise the competition, but only if you mean it. The audience can see through a lie!
• Give people a glimpse of the real you. Recount a story that no one in the audience knows, giving them an insight into your personality. This will provide those who do not know you personally a sense of who you are so they can be pleased for you, too.
• Share the credit. While it may be your award, you did not get it alone. Credit those who have helped you get where you are. Thank someone who the audience might recognize by name or relationship, such as a principal or president who gave you a chance when others wouldn’t. And don’t forget your family! The support of others is important and relevant.
However, do not go overboard with the thank-yous. The worst thing to do is give a laundry list of names that mean nothing to the audience. They’ll start yawning fast, and you’ll lose their attention.
Occasionally, there are times when some of these rules of content should be broken. One such situation is when you have repeatedly given the same type of speech. If you have an outstanding program, you may be in the position of accepting numerous awards in a single season. Such a situation calls for a little creativity—as there is certainly more than one way to say thank you.
Take current NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. During February of his senior year at the University of Tennessee, he was presented with nine awards. By the time Peyton was ready to accept the last one, he realized he needed to drastically change his comments. Instead of thanking the organization for the award, he said thanks for something else.
“It is traditional,” he said, “to thank the NCAA for this honor. However, I would rather not. What I believe is more appropriate, is to thank our institutions and all of you, for the opportunity to play collegiate athletics and for the life lessons they taught us.” Peyton’s comments shocked the audience into listening and it was a great example of how a “run of the mill” acceptance speech can change direction and get the job done effectively.
At the Podium
As great as your speech may be on paper, delivery is also a key to acceptance speech success. Following are some suggestions to make sure the podium is the only wooden object on stage.
• Use a conversational tone. Make the audience feel that you’re talking with them instead of to them. This will make them feel that they are part of your speech instead of sitting through a classroom lecture. However, this doesn’t mean to engage them in dialogue. Their nonverbal reactions are sufficient.
• When you’re speaking, don’t stand still. You will look boring and stiff if you appear as a statue. Consider stepping out from behind the podium once or twice. As a minimum, use gestures to emphasize key ideas in your speech. On the same note, don’t move around too much. The audience came to see a ceremony, not a bouncing ball.
• Do not read your speech word for word. Instead, use an outline or notes that jog your memory about each point you wish to make. Write any such notations big and bold, and number your note cards or pages just in case you drop them and pick them up out of order.
• Don’t panic if you make a mistake. Remember, nobody but you knows what you’re going to say, so if you forget something, the audience won’t know unless you draw attention to it.
• When you have said it all, sit down. Don’t wear out your welcome by exhausting your audience.
Now it’s the night of the award, your comments are prepared, and it’s your turn at the podium. Everything is ready. There are only two things left to remember: 1) remain calm, and 2) be yourself.
Looking at individuals in the audience as friends, fans, and supporters, rather than a mass of people, makes it easier to connect with them. They’re there to honor you and your accomplishments. Give back to them by offering them something valuable to take away from the ceremony.
When Presenting an Award
While the premise is slightly different when you’re presenting rather than receiving an award, adopt the same basic rules. And whatever you do, keep your introduction short. No introduction (no matter how illustrious the recipient) should be longer than the acceptance speech itself!
Start by getting preferred information directly from the recipient. But don’t stop there. Dig up an obscure and/or personal story about the recipient. Your introduction should engage the audience and tell them something they don’t already know. Both the content of your comments and the delivery should create the atmosphere you want in the audience—for example, reverence, pride, awe, or enthusiasm. Your speech should also promote the singularity of the award and highlight the appropriateness of the recipient.