Don’t make the same mistake that Madonna made in her Aretha Franklin tribute
It happens: You’re supposed to sing someone’s praises — and you go on about yourself, instead.
Take Madonna’s botched tribute to Aretha Franklin at the MTV Video Music Awards, which has been dubbed the ultimate show of D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She began with, “Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life,” but then spent most of her speech reflecting on her own struggles, including being robbed and mistaken for a prostitute.
Madonna responded to the backlash by claiming MTV had only asked her to share career anecdotes that she had connected to Franklin before presenting Video of the Year. “I did not intend to do a tribute to her! That would be impossible in 2 minutes with all the noise and tinsel of an award show,” she wrote in a statement posted on Instagram.
But Her Madgesty’s tribute to the late King of Pop was just as questionable as her words to the Queen of Soul. She began her speech honoring Michael Jackson at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards by comparing him to herself: “OK, here we go again. Michael Jackson was born in August 1958. So was I. Michael Jackson grew up in the suburbs of the Midwest. So did I. Michael Jackson had eight brothers and sisters. So do I.”
Idk why folks are surprised at Madonna’s self-serving Aretha Franklin tribute at the #VMAs because I still remember how she began her Michael Jackson tribute back in 2009 🤦🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/aYJQKbfwLe
— Dallas.Hawes. 💬 (@DeeEmAych) August 21, 2018
President Trump’s remarks to the White House press pool last week on Franklin passing at age 76 also ticked off many fans, as his condolences were undermined by him adding, “She worked for me on numerous occasions.”
But this is actually quite common. “People are tasked with singing someone’s praises, yet they insert themselves into the narrative,” etiquette expert Elaine Swann told Moneyish. “We see it with politicians. We see it at weddings, when someone is giving a toast to the bride and groom. And we see it even in the workplace, when sometimes an individual just cannot keep themselves from taking credit or telling their own story.”
This is partly because we are living in a narcissistic society. A 2010 study found that 30% of students displayed narcissistic personality traits — like grandiosity and entitlement, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration, according to Psychology Today — which has increased by more than half since the early 1980s. In fact, psychologist Jean Twenge noted in her 2009 book “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement” that the rise in narcissism has been just as big as the rise in obesity in adults. “Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking,” Twenge wrote.
Preston Ni, author of “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People,” told Moneyish that social media is largely to blame. “So many people use social media as a self-advertisement — and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. But if that’s all you do, then your life becomes one of, ‘What about me?’ and ‘This is what I’m doing’ and ‘This is what I’m eating for lunch,’ and it’s overly self-absorbing,” he told Moneyish.
And so now when you’re tasked with talking about someone else’s achievements, it can be easy play up your own. So etiquette experts and psychologists shared their tips to staying on track the next time you give a toast or tribute.
What point do you want to make? “Just take a beat, and think back to a time when you were really inspired by this person, which is what you want to bring to a tribute,” said psychologist Karlyn Borysenko, the author of “Zen Your Work.” “The audience is looking to have that same experience that you had with that person.” And if your tribute subject is still alive, Ni suggests asking him or her directly about some accomplishments that they might like for you to highlight in your remarks, such as their charity work.
Count how many times you say ‘I’ or ‘me.’ “If you are preparing a statement or a speech, or even thinking about it in your head, and you’re seeing or hearing the words ‘I’ and ‘me,’ or ‘my’ and ‘I did this’ everywhere, then it’s too much about you,” said Swann. “Modify it. It’s that simple.”
Read it to someone else first. “Make sure that you have someone on your team that you can run things by who can be honest with you,” said Swann. “So if you have time in advance, run your presentation or tribute by someone who can tell you when you’re out of line.”
“Minimally, the thing you should do is read it out loud in front of mirror, or record yourself and then play it back, to see if it evokes that same sense of inspiration that you intend it to,” added Borysenko.
Consider how well you know this person. “If you have a close, personal relationship, I think it’s OK to talk about your personal experiences highlighting on their qualities or uniqueness or virtues — but still not overly focused on yourself,” said Ni. “But if you don’t know the person that well, make some more general remarks, and try to keep it short.”
And even if you do know a person well — whether they are living or dead — now is not the time to bring up embarrassing or risque stories. “This is often done in an effort to try and be funny, and these jokes have a tendency to land flat,” said Swann. “Things that may have been funny at the time between the two of you don’t necessarily have a place in a tribute or toast.”
Read the audience’s body language. Signs that you might be getting off-topic include people showing signs of discomfort, such as failing to make eye contact with you, shifting in their seats, or looking at someone else whenever you say something. “When people are engaged with what you’re saying, they will typically maintain eye contact, they will nod their head, or they will mimic you and smile when you smile,” said Swann. So if you’re losing the audience, it’s time to pivot. Keep it light with something like, “I got way from myself there. Enough about me. Can we agree how wonderful Aretha Franklin was?”
And if it’s your natural inclination to make something about you, Borysenko suggests that you lean into your narcissism: you want praise? Well, praising this other person will get people to praise you. “If, just like Madonna, you go up there and turn a tribute into a personal story about yourself, you’re not going to get the result that you’re looking for,” she said. “But you are going to look better if you inspire others with someone else’s story. And that’s what you want.”
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