Prince Harry’s Dark Secret

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…

I’m so nervous when giving a presentation – how can I stop this?

The first thing to grasp is that nervousness is a perfectly natural response when you have to get up and speak to an audience. In fact, if you didn’t feel some nerves and apprehension in that situation I would think there’s something wrong with you. What you are feeling is an instinctive fear which dates back before we were all properly human. When we roamed around in herds, constantly at the mercy of sabre toothed tigers and so on, we soon learned that making an exhibition of ourselves was a dangerous thing to do. In fact, those of us who did stand out from the crowd (ie the ones who weren’t nervous) were quickly eaten and removed from the evolutionary chain. This of us who survived still carry that ancient defence mechanism of the fight-or-flight response: if ever we have to draw attention to ourselves the adrenaline starts flowing, our blood pressure and heart rate go up, our muscles tense in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength. All that blood rushing to your muscles from other parts of your body can make you feel weird, even faint. Another side effect is a dry mouth, which of course makes it more difficult to speak, thus increasing your anxiety.

You need to accept that these things will happen to you because they happen to everyone. That incredibly fluent and self-assured person you know who seems to be able to speak calmly and wittily on any subject at the drop of a hat? They are suffering from the effects of nervousness too. The difference between them and you is that they have learned how to deal with their nerves; in fact how to harness them and use them.

This is the key – to be able to expect the nerves, then accept them and don’t fight them. Nervousness is your friend: it makes you think faster, it keeps you alert and it gives you that edge you need. Think of an actor stepping out on stage in some demanding scene from Shakespeare. He doesn’t want to be too relaxed, he just needs to look relaxed. If he really was as relaxed as he looks, he would give a dull performance. He needs that nervous energy to power him through the part. Giving a presentation is a kind of performance, so in a way you are in the same position as that actor.

So how do you learn how to use your nerves and make them your friends? Naturally giving a confident presentation is a skill, and like all skills you can improve it with practice and experience. There are some things you can do straightaway, though. One important element of your preparation is to take a leaf out of that actor’s book and rehearse. I don’t just mean running through your presentation script in your head, I mean saying it out loud over and over again until it becomes second nature. People who don’t like giving presentations tend not to rehearse like that because they find it a bit embarrassing – but believe me it works wonders.

There are some practical things you can do, too. Hydrating yourself by drinking lots of water (not alcohol) for a couple of hours before a presentation will help with the dry mouth problem. Also there are some simple physical exercises that will help calm those nerves just before you ‘go on’. A good one is just to shake your hands vigorously for a few minutes, so you can ‘shake out’ your tenseness. I have no idea why that works, but it does, and it’s something you can see actors and athletes doing before a big appearance. Then of course there’s your breathing. The fight-or-flight response tends to make your breathing fast and shallow, so make sure you take some slow, long, deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This has a double benefit: rhythmic breathing has a calming effect and it also puts plenty of oxygen in your bloodstream to keep you alert.

So – don’t worry about being nervous, because you will be anyway. Don’t fight those nerves: make them work for you.

English Skills for Business People

It is a fact that thousands of business people are self-conscious about the way they express themselves, to such an extent that they believe it is holding back their career. I know this from my own experience as a private tutor, because many of my clients have been in exactly that situation. They come to me to ask for my help in improving their writing or speaking skills, or both. They feel they are letting themselves down every time they open their mouths or write a sentence, either because of their accent, or the words they use, or because they are worried about a gap in their education.

Often the clients I see are professionals in senior management positions. They are clearly very capable in their chosen occupation, otherwise they could not have risen so high up the corporate ladder. At some point in their careers they find that personal communication skills have become an issue for them. This then damages their confidence – they actually feel inferior to more confident speakers or writers.

The fact is that effective spoken and written communications are more important now than ever before, and nobody feels confident if they think they lack them. The good news is these are skills that can be taught, and at any age.

A whole generation seems to have gone though the UK education system without being drilled in the essentials of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you are one of these people, it doesn’t mean you’re inferior, it just means that nobody showed you how to do it. If you like, it’s the same as riding a bike: if nobody ever showed you how, then you won’t be able to do it – but that doesn’t make you a bad person! A capable tutor can take you through the essentials of good written English and give you the skills that may have passed you by when you were at school.

The same goes for good spoken English. It’s a skill and it can be taught. Once you and your tutor have sorted out whatever it is about your speaking voice that embarrasses you, your confidence will soar.

I know what I’m talking about because I have worked with dozens of business people to improve their personal communication skills. Very often before they contact me they have spent years persuading themselves that there is something wrong with them because, for example, they don’t know how to use a semi-colon, or they have a strong regional accent which (they think) makes them stand out like sore thumb among their public school educated colleagues.

The problem, if it can even be called that, is rarely as bad as they have built it up in their minds to be. After a few sessions they get the hang of what they previously thought were the secrets of good English. Their self-consciousness begins to melt away and they are well on the road to being confident, effective speakers and writers.