Unforced error

What exactly went wrong with the Oscars disaster—and how a thoughtful public speaking pro would have avoided it.

It’s hard to imagine a higher profile bungle than the Oscars Best Picture Award debacle that happened a few hours ago.

The winner was announced as La La Land and that movie’s top team were busy accepting their award on the stage itself when they were told that Moonlight had won. So much #fakenews these days. It’s hard to keep up.

So what EXACTLY went wrong at the Oscars last night?

This seems like a reasonable account:

… there is strict protocol designed to prevent gaffes. Only two partners in the firm, Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, know the winners beforehand. Each carries a briefcase with a duplicate set of the 24 winners, and they stand on either side of the stage to be able to hand winning slips to presenters, depending on which side of the stage they approach from.

Best Actress winner Emma Stone said tonight that she still has her winning slip, and Beatty and Kimmel said the Best Picture winner was read from a duplicate of her prize. So the Academy and the accounting firm will have to answer how a system designed to be foolproof could have led to the worst possible screw-up…

One clue lies in the fact that there are two sets of envelopes, each with a full set of winners. Once there are two sets of over 20 envelopes in play, the chances of confusion in the heat of the moment grow exponentially.

These chances were increased again by the seemingly irrelevant detail of how the envelopes and cards were printed.

The envelope that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway used in making their doomed announcement of La La Land says Actress in a Leading Role (ie it’s the Best Actress award).

But the font and colours are designed to make it look nice and elegant and discreet for the audience in the hall and on TV – NOT to help the person on the stage amidst all the lights and excitement spot at a glance if anything is wrong.

The card inside is even more badly designed. The problems here include a teensy, almost invisible Best Picture font at the bottom of the card, and indeed the poor layout of the card as a whole. The biggest, most prominent and utterly useless information on the card is the logo of The Oscars. By this point people probably know where they are and what’s happening.

Hence a hapless stressed person making the announcements can be forgiven for not spotting immediately that the category of the card was not the category of the announcement.

The card should have been laid out roughly thusly, so that the presenter can see at a glance what is going on, with the most important information linking the names/movie to the category concerned given the maximum emphasis:



Names of producers

The Oscars

Big bold fonts for the key information that dominate the card, and leave virtually no room for error.

Details. Details. Details.

Pick the tool for the job.

Here the job is not for the card to look nice on Google Images or to the audience or on a computer screen. The job is to help the announcer on the stage announce the right winner.

Yes, the presenters might have been expected to spot that they had the wrong card in their hands. But they are not so young and it’s hot and the evening has dragged on for hours. Above all, in laying out the fonts on the envelopes/cards so badly, the organisers made it far less likely that they would spot any mistake!

The public speaking lesson?

It’s not enough to focus on all the details when planning a top event. You need to think about how those details attach (a) to each other and (b) to real life.

Always start with what happens right there in the heart of the action at the event itself in the heat of the moment. What can possibly go wrong, however unlikely it seems? Then work back from that.

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