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5 Communication Lessons Learned from the Oscars

March 2nd, 2017

Warren Beatty stepped on a communications land mine when presenting the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. The Oscar ceremony always goes longer than you think it will, and the thing that keeps everyone there until the bitter end is finding out the big reveal of which film takes away the big prize. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had the honour of presenting best film, and it went terribly wrong. In case you missed this historic flub, you can check it out here.

To break it down, the best film award is the final Oscar. When Beatty opened the envelope he was given, he hesitated. For a long time. Was he trying to draw things out to make the final moment even more impactful, or was he just confused? He showed the results to his co-presenter, who urged him to get on with it. He announced “La La Land” as the winner, the auditorium exploded into applause and the entire crew and stars of the movie swarmed the stage. The acceptance speech started and then… someone came to the stage announcing there had been a mistake.

It was quite amusing to see the pandemonium on stage as people tried to figure out whether this was an over-the-top and ill-timed Jimmy Kimmel joke. But in short order, “Moonlight” was announced as the true winner and the folks who made that film came to the stage and received the Oscars from their La La Land colleagues.

While embarrassing for the Academy and certainly for the accounting firm who has “guaranteed” accurate results for the past several decades, there were some golden “Oscar-worthy” nuggets of insights we can all take from this communication debacle.

1. Speak Up

What was confusing Beatty was that envelope he opened told him the winner of Best Actress was Emma Stone, of La La Land. It didn’t make sense because that category had already been awarded. In the face of huge public expectation and anticipation of the best picture results, Beatty didn’t speak up. He could have asked for someone from the wings to clarify things for him. He could have addressed the audience to say the information he got didn’t make sense. He didn’t point out to his co-presenter that the card didn’t make sense and ask her advice.

Each of us has faced this dilemma. The train is leaving the station and you don’t want to be the one asking “the dumb question.” The old psychological wiring to find safety in the tribe and not be left behind kick in and you don’t want to “rock the boat”, so we stifle our wisdom or insights. Yet by trying to avoid upsetting the planned sequence of events, Beatty’s choice to stay mute and not directly address the confusing information he’d been given resulted in an Oscar award ceremony that will go down in infamy.

In contrast, Adele made a very different choice at the 2017 Grammy Awards in her tribute to George Michael. She stopped and re-started her performance because she wasn’t happy with it. She let herself be vulnerable, and the result was not only an outstanding performance, but she further deepened her relationships with her fans because they admired her courage to admit she wasn’t perfect and were inspired by her decision to give it her very best, even if it took two tries.

2. Have Each Other’s Back

Another lesson I found in the Oscars was about the importance of being a team and having each other’s back. The accounting team didn’t have the co-presenters or the event organizers’ back. They handed out the wrong envelope (you had ONE job, just one!). But more than that, Dunaway and Beatty didn’t have each other’s back. If Dunaway had taken just a few seconds to focus her attention on her partner’s discomfort, rather than her increasing uneasiness at the delay in making the announcement, she might have realized that the card Beatty showed her was incorrect.

In the workplace, to be a team player means to care just as much if not more about the entire team’s performance and not just your individual one. When you have each other’s back, you’re more willing to take a risk, to point out the gaps, and to contribute fully without editing yourself. Trust is essential to have its others. Without it, you spend precious time, focus, energy and money in hesitation, doing work over again, and self-doubt. After the Oscar snafu, multiple players were involved in apologies, statements and likely further investigations into how to prevent such a thing from happening in the future.

3. Focus

We all know that multitasking is not a productivity strategy. The accountant who handed the wrong envelope to Beatty was subsequently shown to have tweeted out a picture of Emma Stone just minutes before the mistake, despite having been told to stay off social media during the actual ceremony. Just a coincidence? Clearly not.

Even if a task switch only takes a fraction of a second, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain your attention on your original task. Over the course of a day, research shows that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. With our online gadgets, ready access to the internet 24/7, and the dopamine hits we are delivering to our brains every time we indulge in checking “just one more email”, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, believes we are losing our ability to concentrate and think deeply on any subject. The first step to break our additive habits to distractions, is to become more intentional about how we direct our focus.

4. Be Gracious

When the train goes off the rail, being gracious and generous in your communication goes a long way to getting things back on track. When one of the producers from La La Land realized what had happened, he took control of the situation and immediately praised his colleagues from Moonlight and encouraged them to come to the stage. He was committed to the bigger “why” everyone was there – to recognize excellence. Confusion, disappointment, and hurt feelings became irrelevant in that moment.

When communications break down somehow, it’s important to take a step back and remember why you’re in the room in the first place. Set any recriminations aside and pull people together by reframing the snafu in the context of the reason why you’re there.

5. Own It

The accounting firm quickly issued a press statement taking responsibility for the mistake and promised they would investigate it thoroughly to prevent a recurrence. They owned it, which immediately stopped the finger-pointing and blame game. That’s not to say that in future presenters might not have a twinge of doubt when the next Best Picture award is given, but it’s a good start to rebuilding trust and credibility.

Your word is your integrity. When you don’t do what you say, integrity and trust break down very quickly and it can be very hard, if not impossible, to repair that disconnect. Part of owning your success is owning up to the failures along the way.