The brilliant and justly acclaimed film ‘The King’s Speech’, which deals with King George VI’s notorious stammer, will have made many of us secretly acknowledge our own dread of public speaking.
In the film, King George had no escape from public speaking and no deputy to whom he could delegate it. He had no choice but to face the nation; and, as war approached, the necessity for him to speak confidently was great.
The immense pressure to perform on the world stage is today a common experience for senior figures in politics and business. It is their duty to inspire an audience; and it is no longer just the spoken word, but the video as well, that so swiftly goes viral and exposes the speaker to criticism, ridicule and occasionally, well-earned praise. Whether it is a public speech or a key business presentation, we are all under more pressure to perform than ever, using a whole variety of media. The impression we create can inspire or disappoint a nation or win or lose business.
These high expectations for performance can only exacerbate our problems. We know that, when King George was relaxed with his family, he hardly stammered at all. It was the fear of stammering in public (and thus letting down his family, the nation and the institution of the monarchy) that made matters worse. It was only when Lionel Logue was able to distract him from worrying about the stammer that the King was able to perform at all. For instance, when the King got angry and flew at Logue, he would be perfectly fluent and barely stammer at all.
I have worked with many people who, when relaxed, communicate in a style and with the proficiency expected of those in senior positions in an organisation. When the pressure to perform is on, they worry that they will not meet expectations; and that’s when things start to deteriorate. Luckily, a stammer is rare; but how often have we heard the faltering voice, the evident lack of confidence manifested by ‘ums…’ and ‘ers…’ and lifeless intonation! Or recall the speaker pumped with excessive adrenalin and a desire to get it all over with as quickly as possible: the speaker begins, the voice speeds up and the pitch rises. As the firing squad sergeant replies when Captain Blackadder, playing for time, asks him to give the order to fire very slowly: “Sorry sir, bit of a gabbler me!”
So, if an aversion to public speaking is exacerbated by the expectation to perform, what then can our leaders do to ensure that they deliver their message with inspiration and sincerity?
Credibility is key
Many turn to the theatre for help and produce a fine, but artificial, performance. One of the Marx brothers said that what an audience really wants is sincerity; and, once you have learnt to act with sincerity, then you are home and dry. Alas, an audience can spot insincerity with ease; and once that happens, the speaker’s credibility soon vanishes. Others look for role models and copy them, or they change their personalities to conform to audience expectations. Once again, their performance is uninspiring and insincere. Indeed, some, such as President Barack Obama, do well in the early stages of their progress to prominence; but as the audience expectation rises, so the performance appears to diminish.
But, like King George, most of us communicate pretty well when we are relaxed and in our own conversational comfort zone. Our leaders, for instance, would not be where they are unless they communicated pretty well in most circumstances. The trick is to be able to identify what we are doing on those occasions when our performances are successful.
Take, for instance, just one aspect of natural style. All of us are brought up to think before we speak. Indeed, it is in those many brief moments of silence in conversation that our words form subconsciously – we don’t do a rehearsal – so that when we spit them out, they come out not only with the appropriate intonation for the occasion, and without the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, but in a style that is unique to each of us.
We can build on these natural characteristics in order to enhance our effectiveness. This allows us, when the pressure is on and expectations are high, to come across as ourselves and create a positive, confident impression. Add to that the beneficial effects of an appropriate bit of adrenalin, as well as a little preparation, and we can impress ourselves by our own performance.
It can take concentration, practice and determination to ‘be yourself’ when the pressure is on; but, if that is where we maintain our focus and effort ‘on the day’, we will be less distracted by the fear of failure, a stammer or poor performance and we can meet and exceed the expectations of our audience.