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Posted: February 20, 2013

Five sales lessons from the Oscars

Are you entertaining enough?

Julie Hansen

The Oscars offer a great opportunity to see how the stars and those behind the scenes handle (or mishandle) their moment in the spotlight. Out of character and costume, free of directors, scripts and props, even as we expect them to show an appropriate level of professionalism, gratitude and humility, we are also hoping to be entertained.  Some disappoint (Natalie Portman) others surprise (Emma Stone) and a handful almost pay off for the three hours we’ve invested in front of the television (Christopher Plummer, Robert Downey Jr., Colin Firth.)

A business audience, whether they are clients, prospects or employees, expect a certain level of both professionalism and entertainment from you as well.  Are you delivering on all fronts when you step into the business spotlight?  Here are some lessons to be learned from this year’s Oscars:

1.Be prepared with a strong opening (winners):
How many times did we hear “I wasn’t expecting this!” or “I’m so surprised!” followed by an awkward grasping for words or incoherent string of thoughts?  They did get the invitations, right?  (In fact, Octavia Spencer had won the Golden Globe and the Sag Award for her role in The Help, yet she was the most shocked winner of the evening!) Knowing your first line greatly increases your confidence, sets the tone and provides momentum for the rest of your presentation.  I’m not sure anyone topped last year’s opening by Colin Firth:  “I think my career just peaked,” but you have to at least give the sound editors from Hugo props for their, “You go…No, HU-GO” bit. 

2.Be prepared (presenters):
Last year’s best actor winners Natalie Portman and Colin Firth both gave tribute to each of this year’s nominees for best actor/actress yet while Colin’s delivery was heartfelt and fresh, Natalie acted as if she’d just been handed the lines backstage.  If even Academy Award winning actors need to rehearse in order to give a winning performance, shouldn’t you consider giving your pitch or presentation a few run-throughs for that next important client or meeting?

3.Be specific:
Oscar winners have to thank others, but how much more engaging was Christopher Plummer’s sincere and specific thanks delivered to a select few than those grocery lists of names most winners gave - or even Hugo’s sound editor who thanked “anybody who’s here tonight or not,” and “anybody who’s ever been born”?  General information, whether you’re talking about features, value propositions or experience are far less effective at making an impact than bringing to life a few specific, unique and memorable details, so choose wisely, but do choose.

4.Assume the audience likes you:
I love Meryl Streep but her self-deprecating “I bet half of America is saying ‘why her again’” seemed to undermine the confidence she has more than earned in my book. While a far cry from Sally Fields, “You like me, you really like me!” in 1985, displays of insecurity make your client or your audience feel uncomfortable and may even drive them to question your competence.  So own the stage.  Consider the audience a friendly group of peers who wants you to succeed, not a royal court whose recognition you are not worthy of receiving.

5.Use what’s given to you:
The golden rule of improv works as well in life as on stage.  Being in the moment allows you to use opportunities that arise and further connect with your audience.  My favorite example of the evening was the winners for the Best Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants, who, after accepting their award from presenter, Angelina Jolie, adopted her oddly threatening “look at my leg” stance.  I’d never heard of them before and hadn’t seen the movie yet I instantly liked them for their ability to lighten up an awkward shared experience with the audience – especially during their own highly charged moment.  In business we are often presented with opportunities to “go off script” yet we may resist that urge in an effort to remain “professional.”  Next time use those opportunities to humanize your presentations or pitches and strengthen the connection with your audience.

Treat every moment in front of a client or prospect as your turn on stage and see if you aren’t soon winning more business and perhaps a few statues of your own.  And if all else fails, I suggest bringing in Billy Crystal or Cirque du Soliel.

Julie Hansen helps sales and business executives differentiate their solution and deliver winning presentations by leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv.  The founder of Performance Sales and Training, Julie’s techniques have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM, Oracle, SAP and local Colorado companies to gain a competitive selling edge.  Julie is an international speaker, sales trainer and the author of ACT Like a Sales Pro!  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at, start a sales conversation at  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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Readers Respond

I missed the Seacrest intervew Steve, but seems like would have been a good place to use some improv. Hosting "Idol" was probably good experience for dealing with anything thrown at him...literally in this case! But agree, remaining calm under stress always good advice in business. Glad you got some helpful tips out of the teleconference Sam - glad you could join us! By Julie Hansen on 2012 02 29
Julie - I enjoyed the teleconference presentation you made last week with Liz Wendling; especially the parts about body language, vocality and content and the need to warm up. Thanks! Sam. By Sam Cordovano on 2012 02 29
Good points Julie. And from the Red Carpet, I would add "Remain calm under stress" and offer an award to Brian Seacrest for not decking the jerk who dumped ashes on him during an interview. Brian remained calm, with a stern fake smile on his face as he attempted to brush the dust from his tux. Bad things happen in public and a pro must move on through it. By Steve Baker on 2012 02 29
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