In the marvelous new film “The King’s Speech,” speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) describes how he began practicing his profession. In post-World War I Australia, some soldiers suffering psychological injuries could no longer speak. Desperate, their friends and loved ones sought out anyone who could help. They found themselves enlisting the aid of a second-rate amateur actor (Mr. Logue), who understood the soldiers’ dilemma.
Explaining all of this prior to his coronation to King George VI of England, a stammerer and Logue’s patient, the speech specialist says:
“I had to give them faith in their own voice. I had to let them know friends were listening.”
To those of us who lack confidence in our public speaking skills, Lionel Logue’s reassurance still has meaning: Friends are listening. We call them audiences.
Yet his first remark is even more powerful: All of us—whether we make sales presentations, give pep talks to football players at half-time, or deliver the State of the Union Address—need to have faith in our own voice. It is this that gives us the legitimacy to deliver our speeches. This is the source of our strength and the badge of our uniqueness. And it is the reason every one of us has the sheer inborn talent to persuade and inspire listeners.
Your Voice is Exceptional
During the two hours of “The King’s Speech,” we watch Bertie, the future George VI, struggling to find his voice. Surely, we might think, a member of the British royal family and the second in line to the throne would possess a voice of majesty, one that would move a nation in its pronouncements.
But it’s more complicated than that. And simpler.
Bertie has that voice, but it’s long been lost to him—numbed into silence by humiliation and abuse at the hands of his father, George V. To find it again is a frightening journey in which Bertie must confront his feelings of inadequacy with perseverance and bravery, which is what the plot of “The King’s Speech” is all about.
At the same time, he is marvelously fortunate, because what he seeks is simply his own true voice. He needn’t search the world for that voice, for it is always at hand. Best of all: it is exactly the right voice. All of England and the Commonwealth is waiting to hear it, and all Bertie has to do is set it free.
Like Bertie, like the shell-shocked Australian soldiers, all of us have the same challenge and the same advantage. We need the faith to find and set our own voice free; but we can gain comfort from the knowledge that it is the right voice. No one—not the King of England himself!—can speak in our voice and give audiences what they came to hear.
Churchill and the Power of Simplicity
What “The King’s Speech” demonstrates so well, is the struggle that ensues when we lose our voice and must try to get it back. It is usually a long journey. In our childhoods, we performed with abandon, eager to play kings and queens without the slightest self-consciousness or fear. What 6-year-old would be “afraid” to play Sir Lancelot or Cleopatra?
But things get complicated as we grow older, sometimes through no fault of our own, sometimes with our help. And so it is with our voice. Speaking with our authentic voice is as easy as acting. If we believe something with all our heart, we act as if it is true, and our actions demonstrate the truth of that thing.
Actors, then, simplify affairs—and so must we when we speak. One of the interesting plot elements in “The King’s Speech” is the presence of Winston Churchill, soon to be Prime Minister as England faces imminent war with Germany. Churchill above all speakers understood the force of simplicity. The plain, powerful language in his speeches demonstrates this. But so does his approach in speaking.
Churchill never complicated things when he spoke. Listen on CD to his first radio address as Prime Minister in May of 1940. As the air battle against Germany raged, Churchill didn’t allow his rhetoric to soar into the rarified air of a free people resisting implacable totalitarianism. He spoke of dogfights, bombs being dropped on oil refineries, and stubborn resistance to an effort to dominate the world. His delivery, too, is slow, simple, commonplace. There is no need to reach for the sun when you are already basking in its light, and only have to remind everyone to see it.
Simple language expressing extraordinary ideas: that was Churchill’s formula. And that was his voice, unadorned and eloquent in its simplicity.
Churchill didn’t need to sound like someone different from himself to gain the admiration of listeners. Neither did Bertie, as he finally understood. And neither do you or I, in our speeches and presentations.