5 tips for a timeless acceptance speech, straight from CEOs

A well-crafted and classy acceptance speech is an art form, as the Oscars will remind us Feb. 26. We caught up with seasoned speakers in healthcare and asked them a simple question: What makes a great acceptance speech? 

Here's what they advise, whether this is your first or 15th time earning an honor. Good luck — and congratulations!

1. Show honest appreciation. A CEO attends tens of dozens of award banquets throughout the course of his or her career, yet those who deliver grade-A speeches treat each honor like the first. "Good speeches start with humility, showing thankfulness and gratefulness for receiving the award or honor," says Aster Angagaw, CEO of Sodexo Healthcare, North America.

Sincerity today is a rare but wonderful gift. It looks different depending on the personality, but people can easily distinguish real from phony thanks. Every CEO who contributed to this report underscored gratitude as the most important element of an acceptance speech. Leaders who accept recognition with heartfelt thanks stand out.

"People often say pretty much what's expected when accepting an award or honor," says Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health in San Diego. "But it means more to those who are bestowing that award or honor — and to the audience — to hear something personal from you about yourself or your organization. Being genuine is a more compelling way to show what the recognition really means to you and why."

2. Know the organization from which you are accepting the honor. Take a few moments to acknowledge the organization or individual presenting you with the award, and try to tailor your remarks. This is an indirect yet thoughtful way to show thanks. "I'm often surprised when people don't understand the organization or what the award really means," says Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "If you are getting an award, understand some unique things about the organization you can comment on that the general public may not know."

"Someone made a decision to present an award to you or your organization," says Mr. Van Gorder. "That award is probably very significant for the organization or individual making the presentation, so your acceptance comments should communicate how special it is to you, as well."

3. Make one thing crystal clear: This is not about you. "Thank the people who actually did the work," says Rod Hochman, MD, president and CEO of Providence Health & Services in Renton, Wash. "It's the other people who actually did the work, and you need to make sure they get the credit and get thanked first."

"Most awards are the result of more than the awardee's efforts, and I believe it's important to recognize those who might have contributed in one way or the other," says Mr. Van Gorder. "In this world, we stand on the shoulders of all those who have supported us — be they members of our staff, our family or others in the community."

Mr. Dowling advises awardees to keep their comments relevant to the awarding organization and their own company or team. Stay humble and check your ego at the door, but at the same time, be proud of your people. "Don't spend all your time talking about yourself," he says. "It's a balance between being very, very proud of getting the award, but not building yourself up so you become the most important thing at the event."

Lastly, it's good for the human spirit to see award winners acknowledge their fellow colleagues, competitors or nominees. If appropriate, do so. And say some kind words about your mentors who helped you along the way.

3. Be brief. Winners have 45 seconds to make their speech at the Oscars. The longest speech on record goes to Greer Garson in 1942 — six minutes — while the shortest came from a 16-year-old Patty Duke in 1962, who simply said, "Thank you." The takeaway here: Find a happy medium, then err on the side of brevity from that. People appreciate thoughtful but short statements.

4. One suggestion and one rule for delivery. Suggestion: Try to avoid reading your speech. Rule: Do not read it from your iPhone. You are bound to lose audience members from the get-go if you pull out your phone upon accepting an award. It only gets worse if the phone freezes, takes an incoming call or you nervously drop the darn thing.

Either do your best to memorize the speech or refer to shorthand notes — which you will write on paper! "I recommend highlighting the three or four points you're trying to get across, then put the sheet away and talk to those points," says Dr. Hochman.

5. Be yourself. Don't Google jokes and don't try anything for the first time. Do take a deep breath and a look around the room — you're standing in a pretty nice spot, after all.

"Good speeches are well-planned, but seem spontaneous," says Ms. Angagaw. "Don’t be afraid to show emotion, which can help connect you to the audience." 

The bells and whistles of your delivery will differ depending on personality, place and the people around you, but you'll do great if you keep your good nature and gratitude at the heart of your remarks.

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