How to Make an Acceptance Speech

If you are great at what you do, chances are you may be given an award. The Public Speaker has great tips for making a memorable acceptance speech.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #199

How to Make an Acceptance Speech

by Lisa. B. Marshall

Over the years, I’ve had a few requests for help writing acceptance speeches of all kinds. What I’ve learned is that writing and delivering a good acceptance speech is a lot tougher than it seems. Today, I’ll cover the dos and don’ts for accepting an award with grace.

Awards aren’t only given to movie stars and country music singers. I just got an email from my daughters’ school inviting me to a Volunteer Appreciation Tea. During the program, an award will be given for Volunteer of the Year.

Awards may be given on a local or national level. For example, The Matrix Award, given to a handful of recipients each year by New York Women in Communication, is given out at a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, complete with celebrity presenters.

My point is this: If you are great at what you do, chances are you may be given an award at some point. You might be an exceptional teacher, a dedicated volunteer, a passionate community leader, a talented athlete, or a brilliant student. And when that award is presented to you, you will be expected to make a speech. So here are my 7 tips for crafting a great acceptance speech:

Tip #1: Ask Questions and Plan Ahead

You just got a phone call from your CEO’s office saying you’ll be presented with the Salesperson of the Year award at the national sales meeting. You were probably too excited to ask about logistics, but before you go to the meeting, there are some questions you should ask. 

Do I give an acceptance speech? Sometimes awards are handed out with a simple handshake and a certificate. Ask if you are going to be making a speech.

How long do I have? Be sure to ask how much time is allotted for your speech.

How many people will be there? A school volunteer award might have an audience of 50 people. A national teaching award might be given in front of 1,000 people.

What’s the order of the program? Where do you show up on the schedule? How will you be introduced? Will you receive the award before or after your speech? Knowing what’s coming will help you relax and plan ahead. There’s nothing worse than sitting through an hour of presentations wondering when you’ll be called.

Tip #2: Keep It Short

It’s not uncommon to have a 5-minute time slot, so you’ll need to keep your comments concise and to the point. Unless you’re receiving an Oscar or a Golden Globe, you probably won’t be cut off by an orchestra if you go over time. But it’s still a good idea to check with the organizer to see if they plan to signal you if you go over and how they’ll do it.

Tip #3: Start with Thanks

Thank the key people who helped you reach your goals. Typically that includes the person who introduces you or the person who nominated you, and the organization that granted the award. But it may also include mentors, coachers, or partners. You don’t want to include too many people—it’s more powerful to give sincere gratitude and appreciation to a few people than to rattle off a laundry list of names.

Tip #4: Talk about the Organization (Not Yourself!)

Be humble and show that being recognized by this organization is a true honor. Describe why it’s good for the community. Make remarks that touch on why you care about the organization, or ways your life has been changed by being part of it.  

Tip #5: Make It Memorable

Tell a brief personal story about how you and others have been affected by the organization or by the reason for the award. Consider including the person giving the award in the story. Don’t make it about you. Relate it to something bigger. Show how everyone wins. A great example that you may already be familiar with is Halle Berry’s emotional acceptance speech at the 2002 Oscars. She said,

"This moment is much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me – Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett – and it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."


Tip #6: End with Gratitude or a Call to Action

Conclude with a “Thanks again” to the organization. Thank them for their work in the community and the impact they’ve had on you.  Depending on the organization you may also want to inspire the audience with a specific call to action—perhaps to give generously of their time or money to the organization. 

I often recommend using humor in speeches, but when it comes to acceptance speeches, jokes are usually not appropriate (except if you are a comedian). Particularly jokes that imply the judges were foolish to choose you—they demean the organization. Remember, there are probably people in the audience who were up for the same award. Don’t say anything that trivializes the award. If you want to be perceived as sincere, don’t make any jokes. 

Tip #7: Examples of Acceptance Speeches

Finally, you can find some great examples of acceptance speeches online—including the Halle Berry speech I mentioned earlier and the speech Oprah Winfrey gave when she won the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in September of 2002. As I was putting this episode together, I listened to a few acceptance speeches from the U.S. Professor of the Year Awards Ceremony. One in particular caught my attention. It was delivered by Lois Roma-Deeley who received the Community College Professor of the Year award. Her acceptance speech follows the format I described fairly closely. You may want to watch (it’s just over 5 minutes) it or read the text for inspiration.  

It’s an honor to be rewarded and recognized for your work. Giving a strong acceptance speech shows your appreciation. Prepare for your speech, accept the award with grace and humility, tell personal stories and offer thanks to everyone involved. This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Helping you Lead, Influence, & Inspire through better communication.

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Do you struggle with difficult conversations? Do you know how to deliver feedback so that it doesn’t damage your relationships? Do you know how to effectively persuade and influence others? Learn this and more in my book Smart Talk, referred by Maureen Anderson of WZFG as “the owner’s manual for your mouth!” Visit www.smarttalksuccess.com to get your personally signed copy.  

Acceptance Speech image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.