The Princess's Speech: How George VI & Princess Di Faced Similar Challenges
Richard Greene is a Beverly Hills-based communication strategist and author who has been a speech advisor to many high-profile clients -- including the late Princess Diana.
"The King's Speech" is much more than an entertaining and well-crafted movie. Director Tom Hooper has allowed us to peer into the inner world of King George VI and, more importantly, into the vulnerabilities of all who play an exalted role in the long-running drama of human hierarchy. Because of the meticulous nuance and detail of the film, we are able to see and feel the profound human-ness that lies underneath the finery and fancy titles. The insight this film brings gives us a special opportunity to collectively shed a heavy historical burden -- the outdated belief that those who are born, elected or elevate themselves to reign over us are akin to Supermen or better than us in some way. When we let go of that fiction - be it in how we relate to royals, politicians, showbiz stars or sports heroes - we grow and evolve as a species.
I wasn't around in the mid-1930s so I can't vouch for the accuracy of every detail about the British royal family in the film, but I was around some 60 years later in June of 1996 when I was summoned to London's Kensington Palace by Princess Diana to help her overcome a problem that SHE had with public speaking. The specific challenge the Princess wanted to overcome was a little different than that of King George VI. But the underlying cause, and the pressure that it was placing on her were very much the same. Her issue, like over 40% of all adults, was that standing and speaking in front of an audience made her intensely nervous and uncomfortable. So, for a short while, I fulfilled for Diana a very similar role to that of the vocal coach in "The King's Speech" as we strategized about how she could more effectively deliver "The Princess' Speeches".
I will never forget my own nervousness as I stayed up late the night before our first meeting, being tutored by my London hotel concierge in the proper way to address Her Royal Highness, whether to bow or simply shake her hand and how to eat soup by moving the spoon from the front of the bowl to the back, instead of the apparently gauche American habit I had developed of doing the exact opposite.
Diana was truly terrified of public speaking. Exactly like her husband's grandfather, King George VI, it was a duty that came with the territory and it did not initially fit the personality of someone who, at that point, was still essentially a shy, introverted nursery school teacher thrust into a grand role. But, like the King, she had no choice. It was a requirement of her position.
Somewhat surprisingly, Diana regarded her estranged husband Charles as a role model for her speech-making. "Charles has such a calm way of standing up there and starting every speech off with a joke. You must teach me how to do that", she said.
I told her that Charles could not, in a million years, match what she had -- one of the most inherently compelling and charismatic personalities I had ever encountered -- and that she would easily eclipse Charles as a confident and compelling public speaker once she became more conversational in her speaking, allowed her authentic self to fully emerge and overcame the British trait of concealing passion.
And, had her life not tragically ended the very next year in that tunnel in Paris, I am convinced that Princess Diana might indeed have become one of the finest orators to have ever emerged from the palaces and castles of the United Kingdom.
But the lesson I learned from my time with Princess Diana, and my work with Presidents, Prime Ministers, tycoons and celebrities from around the world, is the unspoken yet transcendent message of the superlative "King's Speech".
It is that, really, no kidding, not just in movies, there is NO inherent difference between the exalted and the "average", the crowned and the commoner, the elite and the downtrodden.
Lionel Logue, the speech coach brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, gets it exactly right when he refuses to engage with the future King as anything other than an equal. He understood, years before our present-day more egalitarian society, that no therapeutic progress could occur unless he and the then Duke of York met on an equal and purely human playing field. He knew that hierarchy, even when the social protocol of the day called for it, creates role playing, "performance" as distinct from "conversation" and distance as opposed to genuine intimacy.
The Royals, and all the others that we as a society place on pedestals, have exactly the same human vulnerabilities, flaws, fears, insecurities and psychological challenges as we who hoist them up high. There is not one high-profile client I have had in 27 years that does not have an Achilles Heel... who is not different behind the scenes than his or her public persona, in some significant way.
As I sat with Diana, I became aware of this fundamental dichotomy. The presence was that of a dynamic, gorgeous, confident Princess with charismatic rays of sunshine radiating from her eyes and yet underneath it all, a self-conscious, quiet, Englishwoman deeply vulnerable and in palpable pain. Her persona would oscillate so rapidly, from one to the other, that, with the same candor that Lionel Logue deploys in "The King's Speech", I felt compelled to address it.
"There are two of you, aren't there?" I said.
Diana looked down, paused for what seemed a very long time, looked up and then whispered: "How did you know?"
And that's the magic of "The King's Speech". It lets all of us know. It not only lifts the veil and shows us the "behind-the-scenes" of the Duke who becomes King George VI, it raises the curtain on the whole charade of Royalty and, more important still, the charade of hierarchy.
The evolutionary process against hierarchy -- started in 1215 with "the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot", otherwise known as the Magna Carta, and advanced greatly by our own Declaration of Independence from the Royal hierarchy of King George III and the United States Constitution articulating the inalienable rights of Americans - continues today in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt.
But it has always run up against the belief that some people -- Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, religious leaders, billionaires, Hollywood stars, etc. -- are somehow different than we are and, thus, in some political or social way, deserve to be held up high on the pedestal of different rules.
The commercial success of "Entertainment Tonight", "E!", "The Insider" and especially the tabloid shows and scandal websites such as TMZ and Perez Hilton is achieved because they too raise a curtain and reveal the real, common humanity of, in this case, our own American "royalty". Why else would every major news organization in the country flock to the Beverly Hills Courthouse to cover an alleged $2,500 necklace heist?
But unlike the shallow insights yielded by the tabloid news and 8 second clips of a sexy starlet walking into and out of a courthouse, "The King's Speech" goes deep, delicately probing the fascinating nuances of this primal dichotomy between public superiority and private commonness and even inferiority.
Paradoxically it has been moments such as Princess Diana's famously poignant BBC TV interview about the breakdown of her marriage, FDR's "Fireside Chats", Ronald Reagan's avuncular whimsy, Hillary Clinton's tears in New Hampshire, Barack Obama's emotional speech in Tucson and countless other displays of non-hierarchical, vulnerable leadership that have forged the deepest bonds between those on one side of the supposed hierarchy and those on the other. Even in this electronic era there is nothing as powerful as the revealing of one's naked humanness, be it in speeches or through the one-on-one relationship so beautifully portrayed in the film. All politics may be local, as Tip O'Neill so famously said, but politics and all human communication is, even more, so simply human.
In a world where the masses still bow to the authority of monarchs, political leaders, doctors in white coats and even husbands in families where gender hierarchy still exists, the film powerfully raises the notion that no king is as he pretends to be, no king is inherently different or superior to those he reigns over and that we all, each and every one of us, have our strengths and weaknesses.
Diana's magic and gift was in how she brought her deep humanity into her daily life. From the the greeting at the doors of Kensington Palace and throughout our time together, she let her guard down and transcended hierarchy. She was as real and down to earth as anyone I had ever met.
And that too is the gift of "The King's Speech". It highlights the historic struggle of another who was forced to face his own vulnerability and embrace his own humanity. At its core "The King's Speech" is not about stuttering and not even about royalty. It is one of the most accurate and penetrating portrayals of the true nature of all leaders and the anti-evolutionary fiction of human hierarchy. Realizing the human-ness and vulnerability of our leaders is disconcerting. It is like telling a child that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are not real. But once we do realize that all of our leaders -- royal, elected or self-selected -- are as human as the real-life character portrayed by Colin Firth, we can begin to grow up as a culture, have more compassion for our leaders and, more importantly, take more responsibility for our own destiny.