At 6pm UK time a new era in world history began – King Charles III made his first formal speech as sovereign. Closure and commencement were neatly combined, the conclusion of his much loved mother’s life and public service opening out into the beginning of his tenure as monarch. The weight of history was everywhere evident.
Aside from the historical and constitutional significance of this moment, King Charles III’s message also embodied many of the elements of effective public speech. It is this aspect which I want to dwell on in this brief post. As a preacher I am fascinated by the dynamics of effective verbal communication, intrigued by the capacity of human language to successfully reach the heart and mind. The United Kingdom has been awash with speeches in the past 24 hours, not least in the House of Commons, but the new King’s speech is a great example of words used well to convey feeling and fact. Here are two things I admired in his speech:
Simplicity of language paired with transparency of emotion
King Charles III is renowned as a well educated and thoughtful individual, with many of the ideas he championed over 20 years ago only becoming part of accepted public discourse in more recent times. His speech, however, betrayed no showiness and contained not one word of jargon. Words were few in syllables, and at key points he evidently opted for common speech rather than floweriness or ostentation. This simple language allowed his authentic emotion to express itself in plainness and with unadorned power.
As a preacher this is instructive. I love words, and in certain contexts enjoy the lyricism and ‘hard work’ that poetic language can bring to us. Speaking to the public or to a congregation is seldom the forum for that kind of embellishment, though. Words which are high in frequency, plain in meaning, and devoid of show allow the heart to speak in direct and affecting ways, building a strong connection between speaker and hearer. This is worth aspiring to and sticking to.
Genuine investment in his subject without interposing himself
There is a lot of talk in contemporary culture about ‘centring’, of putting oneself at the heart of events, or making one’s own needs paramount even when the concerns of other should take first place. This is a behaviour to which most of us are apt to engage in unconsciously, but it greatly detracts from effective communication or genuine connection. The opposite of this is to so distance oneself from the subject in hand that we can sound unconcerned or insincere.
The King avoided both of these perils. His alternation between ‘Queen Elizabeth’, ‘the Queen’, ‘my mother’ and ‘my darling mama’, showed an awareness of his mother’s formal and public impact, and her private and personal place in the heart of her family. This careful choice of words allowed us as hearers to feel something of what this moment meant to the new monarch without feeling that the Queen’s memory was being hijacked or commodified. King Charles could easily have used his speech to exercise early leverage on the public in terms of sympathy and support, but instead fully honoured the extraordinary life his mother lived, and kept her character and conduct to the fore. It was clear that these things mattered to the King, but his language allowed them to remain objectively true while being subjectively important. This balance is much harder to strike than it may at first seem.
Preachers walk a tightrope between personal testimony and objective truth, between a message which is not about them but involves them. Emphasise personal investment and the message becomes untethered from Scripture and testimony to Jesus; overbalance into depersonalised speech and the gospel sounds like a theory, the Saviour seems like an avatar, and the reality of what is preached is obscured. As a preacher I need to pray for wisdom about how to preach so as to express my personal bedrock belief in the things I speak of, while making sure that I am not the message.
It is, of course, possible to over-analyse the personal speech of a new King, but the directness and dynamic of this first communication has some important lessons for those of us charged with speaking about our heavenly Father, of extolling the King of kings. My prayer is that God might allow me to harness the potential of clear speech, genuine emotion, and God-centred exaltation in humble dependence on God to perfect his strength through my weak words. Aiming for plainness, speaking from the heart, and making God the main thing from a soul earnestly trusting in him are the basic components of good and glorifying communication.