In 1939, a nervous 44-year-old monarch sat behind a microphone. Millions of people were waiting at their radios to hear what he had to say. The subject was the survival of civilization. The man was George VI, the king of the British Empire. He was about to prepare his subjects across the globe to go to war against Nazi Germany.
Nicknamed “Bertie” by the royal family, he ran the gauntlet of childhood disabilities from being knock-kneed to having uncontrollable stammering. Painful splints straightened the bone deformities, but the stammering dogged him into adulthood.
Bertie never wanted to be king. The title was thrust on him when his brother abdicated. But now that he wore the crown, George VI was determined to become an effective leader. His goal was to use mass communication to inspire courage, hope, and the commitment to a fight for freedom. Stumbling on his words would have the opposite effect.
Authenticity and Direct Communication to Hook an Audience
Long before the speech, the king began working intensively with a voice therapist in London. As he faced the microphone, he was certain his message was true. The question was whether he could deliver it clearly. He knew that in this moment, his people needed to see him as the courageous and confident leader that he was. There was no time for stammering and fumbling his words, as everyone knew he did. On that day, they needed to see him as a leader who could carry them through a terrible situation that they weren’t able to face on their own.
As the king began to speak, there were long pauses and a few minor mumbles, but his confidence grew with each word. His opening sentence was simple and from the heart. Instead of speaking to the masses, he spoke to each listener individually.
In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.
Courage is More Impactful than Perfection
Now, I want to be clear that giving a speech, especially on radio, is very different from appearing on video, but there’s still so much to learn from Bertie’s iconic broadcast. To start, the world thought Bertie was nearly incapable of speaking publicly, so by the time he successfully uttered the last words of his message, the king’s courage turned his subjects into followers. His actions told the story of a leader who people now saw as someone they could trust.
Everyone knew how hard he had worked to simply be able to speak through that microphone to reach them. It was a major stride in earning influence with his people. By exposing his own humanity and vulnerability, George VI rallied his empire and proved he was a true and authentic leader.
Confident Leaders Master the Methods of Communication
George VI’s speech is also one of history’s first examples of what can happen when a leader leverages the power of mass media to connect with his or her people. Bertie didn’t just stand at a podium and give a speech. He went to the place where his audience liked to hear stories. In 1939, that place was radio.
In 1960, JFK knew it was critical to connect with people through their television sets. And today, we need to meet our audience where they’re looking the most: online videos. Bertie figured out, decades before others, that the best way to rally your tribe is to share your story wherever your people go to listen.
Bertie’s famed broadcast reveals another great lesson in authenticity: It’s important to know which side of yourself to show in a given situation. We all have different sides to our authentic selves that we can manage and project depending on the specific communication goals.
To be authentic doesn’t mean telling people everything about yourself or ticking off a list of vulnerabilities. You can share, instead, the one side of yourself that is most appropriate for the specific video. In Bertie’s case, he knew his call to war didn’t have room for stuttering, so he worked to address the issue to allow his other qualities—confidence and courage—to shine.