"How do you feel?". "Full of hot air."
"Isn't that what public speaking's all about?"
My field of expertise is visual, and I tend to talk through pictures more than anything. I speak well enough, and can carry a conversation as well as anyone, but presenting to a group of people still makes me nervous. I have one of the biggest presentations of my career coming up this week, and naturally I am the most nervous that I have been in a long time. My friends and family, and the members of my SMPS chapter, have shown me 110% support and love, but it doesn't leave me any less terrified of failure. My strengths are in visual communication, not necessarily oral communication. I create amazing proposals that look good and read well, I don't usually give presentations and speeches. However, knowing one's faults and having the courage to face them is the best way to overcome them.
My friend tells me that "anything that scares you is good, because it changes you". So, in preparing for this presentation with those words in my head, naturally the first film I thought of is The King's Speech. Directed by natural talent Tom Hooper, the film portrays a reluctant king who stammers and would rather be a naval officer, and an unknown speech therapist who used to be an actor. In the world of politics where speech is a tool, and sometimes a weapon, Albert "Bertie"/King George VI is a stammerer, and ill-equipped to convince anyone of his power as a king - least of all himself.
Albert, Duke of York, has a supporting role in his family's political life as the son of King George V, as a prince of England, and second in line to the throne. His father is firm and strict, and doesn't take well to his stammering - a result of years of psychological setbacks. After a failed speech at Wimbledon, his wife, the Duchess Elizabeth, desperate to find help for her husband, turns to Lionel Logue, an Australian in England known for his successful, however unorthodox, speech therapy tactics. He manages to convince the Duke that he can help with his stammer and learn to speak with eloquence and grace. To address the intimacy of the nature of their speech work, Lionel calls him by his family name Bertie. Albert reluctantly accepts his help and the two set off to fix his speech, while Lionel attempts to fix his self-confidence as a monarch and as a man.
Meanwhile, on Albert's home front, his father passes leaving Albert's brother David as King of England. However David is irrational and irresponsible, and chooses his love affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson over his duty to crown and country. He chooses to abdicate after some contention with Parliament and the Church of England, leaving Albert to ascend the throne as George VI. He not only faces the stress of delivering his coronation speech, but convincing the country that he is fit to rule. He also must now contend with the threat of war from Germany and facing, on the political stage, one of history's most famous orators - Adolf Hitler.
My partner is an audio engineer, whose ears are his expertise, and he understands the nuances and intricacies of speech craft quite well from a recording perspective. At one point we were discussing that some politicians are simply masters of speech craft, while others tend to struggle, and it shows in their success. He also explained to me, while recently working on a video project together, that I have a tendency to accent my "a"s and I also struggle with my Valley Girl/California accent; which naturally makes me less believable. Improvements are always necessary in the practice of public speaking, but they can never really change the true nature of who you are, nor should they. All of my friends and mentors have always coached me to be myself, and to be authentic above all. So of course, I have some polishing work to do on my speech skills, however afraid of failure I may be.
My current situation is not unlike Bertie throughout the film while working with Lionel Logue, and I can totally empathize with his struggles to put thoughts into effective words. Not so long ago, I felt that my writing needed improvement to help with the execution of my proposals, so I began to write a blog, and here we are. Now faced with the self-imposed challenge of offering a webinar presentation to nearly 150 online participants, I can empathize with how Bertie must have felt having to address an entire nation under the threat of war. When people are counting on you, your fears and anxieties feel exacerbated by the impending consequences of failure. In one scene showing a private moment between him and his wife, after they are both crowned King and Queen, he breaks down and cries from the stress of it all, proclaiming that he's a naval officer and not a King, and it's all just too much for him. It's so easy to feel for him, as we have all probably felt that stress, and I am certainly feeling it now.
As Lionel shows us in one pivotal revealing scene, the cause of many speech problems such as stammering begins in the mind. He works through the source of Bertie's stammering by exploring previous psychological challenges, similar to soldiers returning from war with PTSD. Because nervous energy usually begins as mental and emotional stimulus, the mind can often be the biggest barrier to successful speech craft. Lionel bases his lessons not just in speech mechanics, but the psychological source of Bertie's issues to enact a more permanent change.
Anything that improves you requires consistent practice, just as Bertie shows his dedication to speech practice throughout the film. Once, I heard that Aretha Franklin went to school to take singing lessons after she had already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and graduated from Julliard in 1998. I was flabbergasted at first, why would she need singing lessons if she was already the best in the world? I had to talk it out to realize that she wanted to improve herself, despite what others may have thought. Similarly, Bertie is a crowned King of England, but he understands that to do his job better, and to be received with confidence and respect as a true leader, he needs to improve and maintain a professional level of speech. Constant success requires constant training, and that comes from a constant sense of self-awareness and willingness to improve. So understandably, you'll be reading blogs from me in the future.
I love and appreciate this film for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think it shows that being a monarch has its own challenges and it's not all it's cracked up to be (see also, Elizabeth, Roman Holiday, etc.) People born into power and privilege are still human (with a few current exceptions in the U.S.) and they have the same struggles as anyone. Supporting my sentiments is the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, Albert's wife, by the amazing Helena Bonham Carter, who never fails to deliver. Her performance is commanding as always, and she brings a subtle strength and humanity to a perennially classic role - the woman behind the man in power. Her role as wife and queen is the stuff that all strong women are made of - supporting, consistent, and unrelenting.
Secondly, this film to me is less about speech and more about fear. Specifically, overcoming fears. While speech may be the medium through which that happens, Bertie's goal is still to overcome his fear of speaking publicly. Glossophobia, or fear of public speaking, is a recognized anxiety disorder and the Mayo clinic even has tactics for overcoming it. the intricacies of overcoming speech therapy in this film seem strange to me, but I like the moments where Lionel emphasizes that the mind and the speech mechanics are all connected. As a visual communicator I am a full supporter of the idea that there are many ways to tap into the mind to increase effective communication, and this film really highlights a few of them.
Thirdly, Britain is known for its vocal training and acting schools, which is why many American films employ them. Their speech craft is not just a skill, but a time honored tradition. Ever since the popularity of My Fair Lady and Professor Higgins, and even going back to the Globe and the days of the Rose, English actors have mastered oration. I would imagine this adds some extra weight to Bertie's task at hand, and the film eludes to such a tradition in the opening scenes when the announcer at the BBC shows us how it's done. Bertie not only has to master his own speech, but uphold a family and cultural tradition.
Re-watching this film at a much-needed time has left me a bit inspired, and thinking that I just may be able to pull off a 90-minute presentation based on the lessons of Lionel Logue. If a King of England can overcome his stammer and fear of speaking, in the country that is known for the vocal training of its actors, then I can mind my "a"s and "likes and umms" to deliver a professionally delivered presentation. A proper speech is another good way to maintain your brand, and I am a queen after all.
Have a big speech or presentation coming up? Lionel Logue's speech tricks may help you warm up!