The Big #Fail: How to Say Thanks

It looked like a fun night at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles  for this year’s Oscars.

Academy Award Sugar Cookies

There were many famous (and not-so-famous) talented people, excellent work celebrated, and a few most-deserving awards handed out.

People in general who presented and accepted awards, along with host Ellen DeGeneres, were great – home runs if you will –  along with one clear miss.

Thanks – the sort of thing you see at an IPO closing, a soccer banquet, or at something like the Oscars – are best given when they’re sincere, a little shorter rather that noticeably longer, and speak to the “what” that caused the person, team or organization to be recognized.

That “what” is the context for the award. It turns out that adults learn best in context, and if you want to make a story memorable, providing context is one of the key pillars that will make it “sticky.”

And most people at the Oscars did just that: they spoke to challenges overcome in making films, the talent that surrounded them, and the purpose or message of the film. Everyone seemed like they gave a shout-out to mom, whether mom was in the audience or not.

Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor) did a memorable piece about mom but also talked about the context of The Dallas Buyers Club for which he won the award playing a transgender person by mentioning AIDS victims (“the thirty-six million people who have lost the battle to AIDS.“)

Lupita Nyong’o (Best Supporting Actress) speech was gracious in accepting her award earned from 12 Years a Slave, and framed her thanks in the telling of the story (“so much of the joy in my life [at winning the award] was the result of so much pain in someone else’s [the free man enslaved on whom the story is based”].

Cate Blanchett (Best Actress) gave a shout out to writers developing strong roles for strong women – the context for her part in Blue Nile. Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen (Best Picture) talked about the presence of the main character from 12 Years a Slave as inspiration for their work.

And then there was the big fail: Matthew McConaugh’s award for Best Actor for The Dallas Buyers Club, a film that Slate notes ” tells the true story of Ron Woodroof’s founding of a buyers club from which AIDS sufferers could purchase unapproved drugs, approaches the crisis from a homophobic straight man’s point-of-view.

Anyone who lived through the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s and 1990’s will remember two things: it ravaged the hemophiliac and gay male community (I lost count of the number of people I personally knew who died from HIV) and there were no effective drugs available.

McConaugh in his speech thanked mom, dad, and God (all appropriate) and then told a rambling story about himself. There was no mention of the context of the role he played as a straight man afflicted with HIV selling drugs to primarily a gay clientele during a horrific time.

The speech, mostly about McConaugh as “me, me and more about me” and absent proper framing, was a huge dud.

Memorable, and not in a good way.

 It was widely panned. The New Yorker graded it a “C“.  Time Magazine’s headline blared “Explaining Matthew McConaugh’s Confounding Acceptance Speech” and called it “semi-bizarre.” The UK’s Independent wrote “Matthew McConaugh thanks himself at the Oscars.

Cut to the chase?

When you give thanks, give context.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.

Academy Award Sugar Cookies. Photo credit: cam knows. 

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