It's a familiar Hollywood scene: a high-stakes competition, millions on the line, winner-takes-all and the whole world is watching. On February 22, you won't have to go to the movies to feel the drama these story elements create -- just tune in to the Academy Awards.
While we might multitask during the opening monologue or the performance of a nominated song, most of us are at attention as soon as we hear: "The nominations are." It's analogous to the last play of the Super Bowl with the game on the line -- we watch, usually on the edge of our seat.
For us viewers, and for all in attendance, the suspense and excitement ends as soon as we hear the winner's name. We relax, maybe go to the bathroom or fill up our food plate.
For the winner though, it's a twist. Despite the fact that he or she has just won Hollywood's most coveted award, the pressure of the moment is on -- not off.
Now, he or she must walk up to the podium, and with the whole world watching, give a "presentation" in front of the most powerful individuals in their business. It's a live performance, no retakes. For the winner, it's time to perform under pressure.
The goal is the same for all winners -- to build bridges with those in attendance, and for sure not to burn any, which an omission of thanks could do. Also at stake is creating a favorable perception of themselves for fans and Entertainment Tonight, and to motivate the talk shows to book them the next week so that they can get more mileage out of their award. In other words, the acceptance speech is very important, and the more important the winner makes it out to be, the more pressure he or she experiences.
All winners have to perform the same task -- under the time pressure of a minute, each must express their gratitude to the Academy for giving them the opportunity to fulfill their childhood dreams, and a broad statement that acknowledges they are all artists. Then, the meat of the presentation is given. The winner has to acknowledge that he or she is honored to be in the company of the other nominees.
That being said, it is imperative that each winner remembers to be incredibly grateful to the producers who always believed in the project, the other actors who were family to each other, the writer who wrote magic or whatever and the director who had the faith, courage and conviction to give them the part.
Next -- and this is optional for A-list winners -- is to thank his or her people, agents, managers, mentors, for always being there and providing support and guidance, invaluable to their success. Finally, there is thanks to family and, when applicable, a hello and goodnight to the kids. All throughout, they convey positive emotions and a sense of being overwhelmed.
That's the winner's script, and if all goes well, they walk off the stage effortlessly. However, often the case at the Academy Awards, pressure makes a cameo appearance that derails an Academy Award-winning performance -- a mental lapse, a stumble on the way to the podium, an incoherent ramble.
It's not a Hitchcock ending when you know that hundreds of empirical studies demonstrate pressure universally impacts how we think, how we respond and how we communicate. Specifically, pressure downgrades our memory, attention, judgment and decision-making.
It's predictable a winner might forget to mention a producer or her agent, or that he or she stutters and stammers through a bunch of names or pulls a Jennifer Laurence. It's also predictable that numerous presenters will fumble the simple task of opening an envelope. The fact is, nobody performs better under pressure, not even Michael Jordan. Accordingly, there is a good chance that many of the winners will be competing for one of the following Pressure Awards:
• Best Memory Lapse -- usually, the winner will say: "I know I'm forgetting somebody."
• Best Incoherent ramble that goes over allotted time. The winner usually keeps talking, even when the music is cuing her or him to end.
• Best Performance Downgrade -- stumble or fall. Unlike the NFL, the thought here is embarrassment, not injury.
What can winners do to prevent pressure from blotching their performance, a.k.a. acceptance speech? There are 22 pressure solutions to help them in my new book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science Of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most, published by Random House, but unfortunately, it is not in the stores until February 24. If the nominee's publicists can't get them a copy, I suggest they (and you, before any presentation) do the following (explanations given in the book):
• Winners that are right handed, clench your left fist as you are walking to the podium. (Pressure Solution #14)
• All nominees, write down your anxieties and concerns about losing the night before. (Pressure Solution #15)
• Two seconds before you start, tune in to your senses. ( Pressure Solution # 9)
Actors and actresses are often given the opportunity to portray a character that performs under pressure -- The Natural, High Noon, The Hustler, White Men Can't Jump are some of my favorites. Naturally, the hero always comes through in the clutch. On February 22, we will see how many actually can perform under pressure, or whether they will strike out like Roy Hobbs did in the novel.