The King’s Speech may win lots of Academy Awards later this month for its story of King George VI’s battle against stammering and stage fright. But I liked it for another reason.
Having spent the last 13 years coaching CEOs. salespeople, and other business professionals in how to become more effective communicators, I saw the film as a good portrayal of what it takes for leaders to learn to connect with audiences.
Here are three lessons business leaders can take from the film.
Lesson 1. Practice, practice, and more practice. Leading up to the big speech at the end of the film, King George and his coach rehearsed over and over again–out loud!
I’m amazed at how often this critical idea is overlooked by sophisticated business people. I’ve seen Fortune 500 executives spend weeks preparing a deck of slides for a big presentation. They’ll have it reviewed by their marketing team, the CFO and the General Counsel.
But when it comes time to practice delivering the speech, they’ll review their notes on an airplane and declare themselves “ready to go.”
A speaker who doesn’t practice out loud is like a piano player who doesn’t practice at the keyboard. You have to practice out loud to get a feel for how the words will flow so that you can speak without hesitation. ( Tim Vine, a comedian, makes this point with a song called “The Importance of Rehearsal.” The song starts 54 seconds into the clip. )
What should you do during practice sessions? We urge our clients to speak from notes but not to rely on them. Practice enough so that you can put your notes to the side and only refer to them occasionally. Practice with an audience if you can. Recording yourself with a video camera is easier than ever (the video function on an iPhone works great) and is a great way to see how you appear to the audience.
I once worked with a woman who was a senior executive at a large investment firm. She told me that she was a terrible speaker and desperately needed to do well at a big speech at a trade conference.
I asked her if she ever rehearsed her presentations. “Sure,” she said. “I lie on my couch and go over the presentations in my head.”
I suppressed my urge to tell her that what she described sounded more like a nap.
Instead, I told her to rehearse her presentation out loud twice a day for the two weeks leading up to the big day. She nailed it. The key was rehearsing out loud.
Lesson 2: Beware of speaker envy. Often aspiring communicators get frustrated because they compare themselves to the “greats.” King George likely couldn’t help but feel he would never measure up to the likes of legendary orator Winston Churchill, who makes several appearances in the film.
But speaker-envy is dangerous. Of course it leads to frustration. It would be easy to watch Winston Churchill and decide to give up, despairing that you could ever be that good.
Just as important, however, speaker-envy can lead us to come across as inauthentic. If you try to imitate others, you can seem phony.
In the film, Lionel Logue, the King’s coach, gives the King wonderful advice on this issue. He says, “You must have faith in your voice.”
Logue’s point was that we all have the ability to connect with audiences. The key is to develop one’s own style, what I call an “authentic voice.”
I worked with a partner in a major law firm who told me that he wanted to learn to speak like his firm’s managing partner. Indeed, the managing partner was a great speaker, known for his ability to tell stories. He also had a classic speaking voice that made him sound like a network news anchor.
I advised this partner that he needed to forget about trying to imitate someone else and have faith in his own ability to connect with audiences.
We did an exercise designed to help him learn to speak in front of groups with the same attractive, animated style he had when speaking with close friends. I had him tell a story about something he was passionate about (It was fly fishing). As he spoke, I urged him to exaggerate the intensity in his voice. “On a scale of one to ten, go to a 25,” I said. I then had him use that same style when talking about a topic related to his law practice.
He worried that it would look and sound “over the top” and fake.
But when I showed him a video recording, he was amazed at how good it looked and sounded.
Even top leaders tend to suppress their personality when they speak. By exaggerating, we are able to get that “authentic voice” to emerge. And most of the time, as Lionel Logue understood, that “authentic voice” will connect well with an audience.
Lesson 3: Determination conquers all. Becoming a compelling public speaker is hard work. It won’t happen unless the person is committed to the goal.
Prince Albert, the Duke of York, as he was known before becoming King George VI, showed throughout the film just how badly he wanted to become a more effective speaker. In one scene, he endured a “cure” where he had to try to speak with his mouth filled with marbles. Through persistence, he finally connected with the right coach, worked hard, and prevailed.
The King’s success was assured as soon as he made the decision to work hard. Indeed, one of the most important keys to improving is simple determination.
I once received a call from the CEO of a health care services firm. He told me that the firm’s CFO needed to improve his public speaking skills.
“Does he want to improve?” I asked.
“He doesn’t really think it’s important. But I think a coach like you could help him,” the CFO’s boss, the CEO, told me.
“I can’t help him,” I said. I explained that the CFO could only improve if he truly wanted to improve.
If you’re serious about improving, you must speak regularly – at least once a week. Be it at sales meetings, your church, or Toastmasters, no one becomes a good speaker without regular practice. Not even the King of England.
I worked recently with a Senior VP of Sales for a large banking software firm. As part of his monthly coaching sessions, we would take out his calendar and highlight four speaking opportunities over the next four weeks, even if they were only three minute “sales summaries” on a conference call.
We made sure that he carefully prepared for each opportunity including rehearsing out loud. Because he wanted to work on telling stories more effectively, we strategize on what kind of stories he should be telling and when. And because he had an issue with keeping his messages tight, we plotted how he could focus each message.
He improved dramatically in only six months. The key, as King George VI learned, was determination.
Joey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”