On World Aids Day in December 2014 Prince Harry admitted something he had kept secret for years. It was this: he dislikes speaking in public. He evidently feels he is not good at it and gets ‘incredibly nervous’ . Now this caused some amazement in the media at the time. How could a Prince of the Realm, someone whose whole life is conducted in public, whose very position requires him to meet strangers and give speeches – how could he be nervous of public speaking? He seems so confident, doesn’t he?
I have never had the pleasure of tutoring a prince, but frankly I wasn’t all that surprised by Harry’s admission. I have had many clients in senior professional jobs who were literally terrified by the very thought of speaking in public. They all felt this was a personal failing and they all knew someone in their office who could speak wittily at length on any subject at the drop of a hat. Usually such clients are astonished when I tell them that this other person is probably just as nervous as they are, the difference being that they have learned to control their nerves. The good speaker’s apparent confidence comes not from inner strength but from practice.
Of course, if you are in a senior position in a company – or royalty – the nervous feelings of inadequacy can be all the worse. People expect you to speak confidently, so the bar is set that much higher. Yet just because you are a senior manager, or a CEO, or even a prince, that doesn’t make you a confident speaker!
Take another example: Winston Churchill. One of the things he is remembered for, apart from the cigar, the world war and the V sign, is his great skills of oratory. Some say his speeches helped the Allies win the war, by bringing Britain together at just the right moment. Yet by his own admission he was a poor speaker. When speaking in public he was halting, breathless and sometimes struggled to get certain words out. On one occasion in the House of Commons he rose to make a speech but found that nothing would come out of his mouth. After a few false starts he had to sit down again, having said nothing at all. The reason we now think of Churchill as a fine speaker is that he recognised his faults, and worked around them. Most importantly he practised, practised and practised again, often in front of a mirror, until he felt ready to deliver a speech. He had the advantage of being a superb writer of English, and he wrote his scripts to suit his halting style, with short but memorable phrases: ‘Never…in the field of human conflict…has so much…’, well you know the rest. Even though he virtually memorised his speeches he habitually held on to a paper copy when delivering them. He had learned that he was most comfortable doing that, and it gave him a useful prop to wave around if he did lose his place.
Now, you may never be invited to be Prime Minister, or join the royal family. The point I’m making here is that effective public speaking is not something that necessarily comes naturally. Nor do you suddenly acquire it along with a certain job title. It is in fact a skill and like any skill it can be taught, learned and improved with practice.
How do I know that almost anyone’s speaking skills can be improved? Because that’s exactly what I have been doing with my own clients for years. Come to think of it, I think I could help Prince Harry become the confident speaker he obviously wants to be. So if you are reading this, your Royal Highness, my contact details are on this website…