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How to write a killer acceptance speech

Posted by Sarah Mitchell on 19th July , 2023 in Copywriting, Editing & Proofreading
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One of my favourite activities at work is helping people write better award submissions. There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing someone who attended a workshop take the stage for a well-earned reward.
After sitting through many award ceremonies, I can tell you that listening to acceptance speeches can be about as fun as ripping a bandage off a skinned knee. The problem is rife. If you’ve ever watched awards programs like the Oscars or the Grammys you’ll know what I mean.
How many times have you seen someone take the stage and be totally unprepared to give a speech? Or act like they were caught off guard? I call foul on that behaviour because nominations are announced well in advance and people know when they enter an award that they might win.
The shame is it’s not that hard to write a great acceptance speech, but it does take advance preparation. If you’re writing a speech for yourself, or someone in your organisation, here’s how to impress an audience and come off as a graceful winner.

Gather your facts

Before you start writing, consider what needs to be included in a killer acceptance speech. Reflect on why you won and who helped get you there.

  • Who nominated you?
  • Who encouraged you to get involved with the project or event that you’ve been recognised for?
  • What is your connection to the people sponsoring the award?
  • How do you feel about the organisation’s people and/or the goals of the organisation?
  • No-one will remember details of an acceptance speech. They will remember stories. If you’re the speech writer for someone else, you may need to guide them on finding a story to tell. Find a recent account of how the winner impacted a person and tell their story.

Know how much time winners have on stage

Usually event organisers give two to five minutes for an acceptance speech, which is hardly any time at all. If you do get five minutes or more, that may include the time it takes to walk to the podium. Plan for three words per second.

Don’t disrespect the audience

There’s nothing worse than having a winner act bewildered about why they’re standing with a trophy in their hand. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and you’ve squandered an opportunity to position your organisation with the people in the room.
This is not the time for self-deprecation. It never sounds genuine and is disrespectful to the other entrants. If the best you can do is claim you weren’t worthy of the award – or you were just having a bit of fun with your mates – then in my book the judges made a mistake.

Leave the jokes at home

Don’t try to add humour in an acceptance speech (unless it’s a comedy award). It’s easy to unintentionally offend people in a diverse group. If it falls flat, you’ve wasted precious time and potentially rattled yourself or the speaker accepting the award.

Constructing the speech in six steps

  • Get straight to the point. Don’t waste a second of precious time acting surprised or gathering your thoughts.
  • Express gratitude. Be genuine. Recognise the other nominees. You can do it in a sentence or two:

“I’m honoured to stand here, especially in the company of so many worthy organisations. I’m truly humbled to receive this award on behalf of Gertrud’s Bakery.”

  • Focus on your relationship with the organisation giving the award. They’ll want to be recognised and you should do it early in the speech. What is your connection to them? Why are they giving you this award? Why did you win the category?

“I’d like to thank the Chamber of Commerce for their efforts to showcase local business, especially family businesses. It’s an honour to be recognised for the work started by my grandmother’s vision to produce the best bread and baked goods in our city.”

  • Mention people who have helped you get on that stage. First, mention who nominated you. Next, if it was a team effort, include the people responsible for the project or work that contributed to winning the event.

“I’m grateful to Laura Becker, who nominated us for this award. She’s been a true champion for the work we’re doing to bring affordable, artisan-quality bread to people experiencing food insecurity in our city.

“I want to thank our staff, who work tirelessly every day to provide the best customer service and quality product. We wouldn’t be here without their dedication and talent.  

“We are grateful for the financial support from the Small Business Community Fund which made it possible to increase our baking capacity. Their grant for fuel-efficient commercial appliances has also helped lower our operating costs and improve our profit margins.”

  • End on a personal/heartfelt note about what it means to win the award.

“My grandmother arrived from Germany with handwritten family recipes and not much else. I wish she knew how many people her bread helps nourish every day and the pleasure it gives them to eat it.”

  • Give a final thanks.

“Thank you, once again, for recognising the important work we do in the community. I know everyone at Gertrud’s will feel as elated as I am to receive the Family Business Excellence Award.”

Don’t write the speech word for word

Unless it’s a lifetime achievement award or the winner has a lot of mic time and a lot of people to thank, it’s best to stick with notes. Put them on a small card in bullet-point format instead of using verbatim text. Nothing makes the audience groan faster than watching the speaker unfold a piece of paper and read directly from it.

Don’t wing it

If you’re the speechwriter or work in marketing, hold practice sessions before the event. You want to ensure the speech runs on time and the speaker is comfortable with the material. Don’t skip this step if you’re the speaker. Words on a page don’t easily translate into great delivery without practice.
One of the big mistakes people make when accepting an award is forgetting to thank the event organisers and/or sponsors of the award. By putting them at the front of your speech, it lays out the structure and focuses the speaker on what’s most important. This is especially helpful if the person accepting the award is not a natural speaker or gets overwhelmed in the moment.
Lastly, don’t carry acceptance speech notes on your phone – this is a time when note cards work better. Winners often immediately begin to get text messages, which can distract the speaker.
What are your tips for writing a great acceptance speech?

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