Viola Davis’ Award-Winning Oscar Speech

If you watched the Oscars like us, you saw Viola Davis’ Academy Award winning acceptance speech, a gem among the humdrum thank you speeches most other award winners stumbled or rambled through. Her speech offers a good blueprint for those being honored for their accomplishments, and longer speeches in general.

What makes this Academy Award winning speech golden? Let’s break it down in Pinnacle terms.

Master Intro and Close

“Thank you to the Academy” at the top of her speech and again at the end. As we highlight in The Pin Drop Principle, the purpose of your Master Introduction is to establish the core theme of the message in a way that engages the audience and compels them to listen to you. It should also establish you as a credible messenger and summarize your main points in a way that compellingly introduces the benefit you’ll provide the audience. Viola’s is simple, but effective: Thank you. The goal of the Master Close is to summarize the main points. Again, simple: Thank you.

Objective & Intention

Her basic objective – the purpose of her speech – might have been to commend the Academy, August Wilson, and the key people in her life for supporting her. That said, there’s a moment in the middle of her speech where her intention and objective change. She seems to invite or to encourage her fellow actors to appreciate and celebrate the artistry of the acting profession.

Her likely intention(s):

  • To praise
  • To commend
  • To inspire
  • To champion

She uses strong intentions throughout and we can clearly see those intentions vocally and physically manifested to ensure her words and delivery are congruent, which we call intention cues. Her gratitude is so apparent; she’s doing everything she can to avoid bursting into tears.

Pattern interrupt

A pattern interrupt engages your audience by surprising them with something interesting or unexpected. It’s a shift in gears, a change in direction. After she says, “The graveyard”, she changes direction by posing a question, “People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell Viola?’” And then comes back to the story of the graveyard.

Vocal Dynamics

She takes her time through the entire speech. Her pace and vocal tone is a dynamic roller coaster. She uses both pauses and speed and the top and bottom of her vocal register efficiently and effectively. She articulates every word she says.

Eye Contact

Despite the large room, it feels as though she’s speaking directly to both sides of the audience and to those in the balcony and on the floor. Toward the end of her speech, she makes direct and engaging eye contact with Denzel Washington, the director of Fences, and her husband.

Body Language

Despite the overwhelmingly strong emotions she’s experiencing, she remains remarkably calm, confident and controlled throughout.

Gestures

While she’s holding on to her Oscar and her dress with her right hand, her left hand emphasizes each point she makes early in the speech – pointing with an open hand to “those graves” and clasping her fingers together as if holding a pen when saying “those stories.”

Storytelling

As she sprinkles in her thanks to specific individuals, she adds brief, but specific anecdotes on the backend to support her sentiments.

Humor

It’s an emotional speech throughout, but Viola manages to break the tension with a story. She says, “To my sisters, Dolores, who’s here, who played Jaji and Jaja with me. We were rich white women in the tea party games.”

Repetition

Finally, Davis uses repetition to drive her points home:

“Thank you”

She says thank you five times during her speech to reinforce the message.

“One place”

To reinforce the idea great stories are buried and waiting to be unearthed, she repeats the phrase “One place.” She says, “One place where people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard.”

“Exhume”

What a powerful word. She uses it twice.

Exhume those bodies.

Exhume those stories.

“People”

“The stories of the people who dreamed big, and never saw those dreams to fruition.”

“People who fell in love, and lost.”

“Thanks to August Wilson who exalted the ordinary people.”

“For a movie about people and words and life and forgiveness and grace.”

“How to…”

“How to fail, how to love, how to hold an award, how to lose.”

“How to live, how to love.”

While her speech is only 3:10, it’s powerful, emotional and very memorable. That’s what great speeches can do – make you cry, make you think, and make you laugh, even for a moment. It’s golden.

To learn more about how to deliver statue worthy presentations, please contact us.