The art of public speaking – reflections on The King’s Speech

Tom Hooper’s film starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush has been eagerly awaited by me and other speakers/trainers – and it didn’t disappoint. Public speaking generates fear in most people at the best of times, but to be a king with a stammer in a country about to go to war places extra pressure on the performer!

The 2 leads are played beautifully, Firth playing King George VI (newly crowned following the abdication of his brother) and Aussie actor Rush playing speech therapist Lionel Logue.

Having seen it only some 2 hours ago, some early reflections…

It underlines the importance of effective oratory in leaders.

The film’s narrative arc mirrors what makes a good business pitch – problem (a stammering leader); solution (Logue’s coaching); legacy (a king who can finally communicate and lead).

Qualifications don’t necessarily make a good trainer (Logue has none and more conventional trainers are recommended by the King’s advisors). But he’s learnt from experience and gets results!

It says much about the client/coach relationship

Logue insisted they treated each other as equals (“Bertie & Lionel”).

Logue consistently challenged the king (pushing things too far at one stage).

Logue observes that a client has to want to change for change to be possible.

Logue works hard to build up trust with his client, eventually getting him to reveal the possible traumatic origins of his impediment (perhaps being forced to switch from left handed to right, or being fitted with a leg brace?).

Speaking technique – the importance of breathing, relaxing the jaw, strengthening the stomach muscles, the ‘flow’ that comes from swearing and the influence of music on fluid speech (the King’s stammer disappears when he sings the words).

Pacing of the speech – the King has to speak more slowly (with pauses) to overcome his stammer, but this adds gravitas and solemnity. It’s more common for people to speak too quickly in these situations and in most cases, taking longer to read a passage makes it better. But sometimes going too slowly means a lack of energy and persuasion.

Have a conversation - alone with the monarch when the all-important broadcast is about to start, Logue asks the King to imagine he’s just saying the words to him.

The importance of clear enunciation (marbles are used unsuccessfully in the film, but a pencil held lengthways in the mouth has dramatic effects on one’s enunciation). So many business ‘elevator pitches’ are mumbled and lack impact.

And finally, as film critic Mark Kermode points out, the irony of making a film whose happy ending also involves the declaration of war!

A quick aside…

When searching for the right actor to play Logue, the producer took the direct approach by dropping the script through the letterbox of Geoffrey Rush’s house in Australia (a contact of his lived three doors away). Rush’s agent sent a furious letter lambasting such an impertinent approach, but fortunately the actor liked the script and, well…it pays to be bold in these situations!

If you’ve not seen it yet, go and see this movie – and see what lessons you draw about the art of effective communication!

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