How To: Accept an Award with Class

Prepare a few well-crafted remarks and be brief, gracious and modest.

By Patricia Fripp

Accepting an award is like walking a tightrope. You need to be gracious, grateful and humble – but not so humble or self-deprecating that the audience thinks you are trivializing the honor. The warm glow of the occasion can suddenly turn chilly or sour with a few ill-chosen words.

I once coached a man who was due to receive an award from a large organization. Two thousand people would be in the audience. “I want to be funny,” he told me, “so I’ll start by saying how desperate they must be to give me this award.” I persuaded him that he’d be insulting the organization and everyone who had ever been honored. We worked together to come up with a gracious acceptance speech; one that was still funny but would leave everyone present feeling great about the evening, the award and the organization.

Sooner or later, you’ll be presented with an award. It may be a surprise, or you may have time to prepare. Use your answers to the following questions to weave a warm, wonderful story that will leave everyone with a big smile (and maybe a tear):

  • Who nominated you?
  • Who invited you to join this group or encouraged you to get involved in this project or event?
  • What is your connection to this group?
  • How do you feel about the people and the organization’s goals?
  • Why are they giving you this award?
  • Have you seen someone else accept this same award?
  • When was the first time you attended a meeting and what were your experiences?

People will not remember all the details of what you say, but they will remember the stories you tell. Include a memorable vignette or incident, something entertaining or touching about your connection.

Inspiration From the Oscars
Show biz can provide wonderful examples of great acceptance speeches. When Russell Crowe won an Oscar for The Gladiator (2000), he dedicated it to “everyone who has seen the downside of disadvantage.” Then he received the 2002 Golden Globe Award for A Beautiful Mind. First, he gave credit to the people on whose life the film was based, offering special thanks to “John and Alicia Nash, for living such an inspirational love story.” He added, “A Beautiful Mind is just a movie, folks, but hopefully it will help us open our believe that something extraordinary can always happen in our lives.”

It’s okay to be excited. Sally Field’s joy when she won the 1979 Academy Award for Norma Rae has never been forgotten: “You like me! You really like me!” When she won the 1987 Oscar for Moonstruck, Cher said, “I know this does not mean I am somebody, but I am on my way to become somebody.” I quoted her when I won the 1996 Cavett Award, the highest award offered by the National Speakers Association.

Action-star “Everyman” Harrison Ford was honored with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2002, for “outstanding contribution to the entertainment field” – or more specifically, 35 movies over four decades, including Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Witness, The Fugitive and Patriot Games. “In anticipation of tonight,” he said, “I wrote two speeches, a long one and a short one. I’ll give you the short one: ‘Thank you’ But it seems there might be enough time for the long one as well, which is: ‘Thank you very much.’”

Whenever you have some advance notice, be sure to ask how long you are expected to speak. The shorter your time slot, the more you will need to practice! When the time comes, look directly at the audience. Never read your remarks. You can walk up on stage with notes, but they should consist of a few bulleted points.

Whenever you are involved in philanthropy or leadership in your professional organization, your company or your community, you are likely to get an award some day. It’s better to have a few well-crafted remarks ready just in case than to be caught speechless. Or worse, saying the wrong thing. Be gracious. Be modest. Be prepared! 

Patricia Fripp, is an executive speech coach, professional speaker and author of Get What You Want! and Make It, So You Don’t Have to Fake It! Reach her at