In 2014, Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. The speech he gave is considered by many to be one of the top acceptance speeches ever given by an actor/actress.
Let’s break down, in detail, what exactly made this speech so good. Most people can identify that it was powerful, but not everyone can give you the reasons why.
Even if you’ve seen it, watch it again right now and be prepared to pause and jump to various points in the video to see exactly what I’m talking about.
Contrast with Jennifer Lawrence
First, let’s start with the contrast between Matthew McConaughey’s speech and Jennifer Lawrence’s announcement. She starts off with a poorly-executed joke that makes her look insecure, sticking with it for several lines. She puts the nail in the coffin when she makes one last attempt, interrupting her actual announcement, and says “I’m still watching you”. Trying to salvage a lame joke is usually not going to work.
Additionally, she puts the focus back on her instead of the award she is about to announce, and that comes across as selfish. She even mumbles something to herself after saying “And the Oscar goes to…” Again, it makes her look like she can’t appreciate the gravity of the situation.
Moving on to Matthew himself… the first couple of things he does would be problematic if it weren’t McConaughey doing them. He says “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you… to the academy” and then even appears to pick at his ear. But his delivery is so uniquely McConaughey, it doesn’t even come across as strange. It conveys his absolute comfort in front of an audience.
After he gets several standard “thank-you’s” out of the way, his tone becomes more grave and he launches into the speech. What you’ll notice in this speech is that he has excellent control over his pace. He speaks quickly for an interval, then pauses or slows down to emphasize important points.
He begins with a roadmap (a roadmap is just a verbal explanation of what you are going to cover in your speech). But his roadmap is not robotic and unnatural—it is worded in a way that a normal person might say it in a conversation. Instead of listing three points, he says there are “three things that I need each day”.
He moves through thing 1 and thing 2 quickly, then slows down during his 3rd one and uses his hand to emphasize the words he says. “Someone… to CHASE.” A less effective way of doing this would have been to run through all three with the same tone of voice, using his hands throughout all three without emphasizing any one word with his gestures.
Someone to look up to
He starts out by thanking God in a similar tone of voice to the rest of his speech. But then he raises his voice as he says “He’s graced me with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.” As he says this, he shakes his head. This combination of raising his voice and shaking his head gives the statement gravity and increases the intensity of the speech.
The way he says “in the words of the late Charlie Laughton” with a little smile is charismatic and winsome. Pointing at the audience and involving them with the quote increases his likability as well.
Someone to look forward to
Next, Matthew talks about what he looks forward to (his family). He points to the sky and says “And to my father who I know is right there up now…” and begins to paint a humorous word picture of what his dad was like. As he paints this picture, he acts it out slightly with his body. The key here is the subtle acting: he isn’t full on jumping into a character, he’s simply interpreting his words into some small movements like stirring the Gumbo or lightly dancing. If he had gone further, it may have come across as awkward.
Another key note about McConaughey’s style is that he’s able to seamlessly switch between being funny and being somber. He can make that transition in one sentence, and bring the audience with him by using his facial expressions and changing his speed and voice inflection.
Taking people on emotional roller coasters successfully is a very difficult skill, but if pulled off correctly, it is one of the most powerful things you can do.
At 3:20 in the video, his voice wavers as he tells his family how important they are to him. Then he does three things:
- He turns to the other side
- He says an emphatic, draw out “um”
- He widens his eyes and then blinks as if overcome with emotion
This combination communicates that he got carried away with emotion, and makes the moment more genuine.
Someone to chase
Now look at his change of pace starting at 3:32. Why does he speak so quickly here? Because he’s just setting up the background of a story to make his point. So he speaks quickly, which subconsciously tells people that this is just setup for his point. He finally slows down when he says “it’s me in 10 years.”
Matthew then uses a repetition device to emphasize a point when he says “so then every day, every week, every month, every year of my life, my hero’s always ten years away… I’ve never going to be my hero” He uses a tone here that is reminiscent of someone saying “duhhh” because he wants to communicate that it’s obvious he will never catch up to his future self.
Finally, he ties everything back together using all of his three points, and quotes his most famous line, “alright, alright, alright”.
Let’s summarize what McConaughey did right in this speech:
- Emphasizing with gestures
- Illustrating with gestures
- Tone variation
- Facial expression illustration and emphasis
- Charismatic body language
- Rhetorical devices, mainly repetition
- Solid content
- Clear roadmap without sounding robotic
- Emotional rollercoaster
- Using stories
- Using a quote
- Most importantly, sticking to his signature style
I want to bring some final attention to that last bullet point. Not everyone can pull off this speech. His presentation is very uniquely his. And what helps it stand out is that Matthew is a vintage cowboy type of guy in a place where there are few. But he has an undeniable charisma, and he’s clearly very good at public speaking.
Still, there is a lot that you can learn from this speech, particularly about pacing. Think to yourself: how can you integrate fast and slow talking into your next speech to influence the audience’s mood?
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