So hectic is Robin Kermode’s schedule, when we do find time to talk it’s on his car Bluetooth and he drives round Knightsbridge between clients. ‘Hold on, let me just pull into this parking space so I can talk to you properly.’ A face you would almost definitely recognise, Robin Kermode has forged a successful career as an actor in films such as ‘The Iron Lady’, TV and on the London stage. Yet 15 years ago, he decided to leave the acting world behind, and start working as a communication coach. Working with politicians, CEO’s from some of the UK’s biggest companies and nervous best men prepping for wedding speeches, when it comes to public speaking, Robin has seen it all. Easy to talk to, enthusiastic and inspiring, I hang up forty minutes later believing that anyone can connect to an audience if they know how to.
So Robin, what made you decide to stop acting and start coaching?
Well, having been an actor and helped a few friends it became clear there was a market for it. I realised that the skills needed to hold an audience are quite specific, so I started working for a company that ran three or four courses a week for five years or so. I came across lots of different people with lots of different needs and worked out my own way of explaining it.
Actors are used to holding an audience, but holding an audience as a character, not as themselves. One of the things I was very interested in is how people can walk out and have instant rapport with an audience as themselves. I believe most of us know how to do it, but things like nerves, the pressure of situations or job interviews get in the way. This affects the brain and often people will find themselves using a different voice. It was a question of how people can stay themselves under pressure and that’s what I suppose I’ve been teaching for the last 15 years – I’d say I have the best job in the world.
So would you say acting and public speaking are quite similar then?
Definitely; when I was asked to be a best man in my late twenties I was doing plays in the West End, but got really nervous doing a speech at the wedding. I realised of course that it was because it was me standing there as myself, not me standing there as a character in a play. If the audience hated the speech they hated me, not the character – I felt more exposed. It was really trying to work out why that happens and to try and demonstrate and show people how they can be themselves.
Do you think anyone can be a good public speaker – is it something you can learn?
Yes absolutely. What you can’t teach is the extra bit that makes some people amazing; the bit that makes Michael McIntyre very funny or Bill Clinton a God, that sort of level I can’t teach. But I can teach everyone to be a lot better than they are, and to actually enjoy it as well.
I know you’ve written a book on it, but in your opinion, what are the steps to delivering a good speech?
The most important thing is to use your own voice. The second thing is to not make it about you but make it about the audience; you need to make the audience feel included – an audience needs to know why they are being told stuff. Have a clear structure so there is a logical sequence to what you are saying. It needs to end with a call to action which is normally either think differently, behave differently or buy my product. Those would be my top three.
When clients come to you, what is the most common thing they are usually doing wrong?
Most of the time people have been doing it for so long they can’t see the woods for the trees and are just doing what they have always done. I have three sets of people – CEO’s of big companies who want to look and sound more like a leader. Then there are sales teams who need to be more effective, so I teach them how to have instant rapport with anyone they meet. Then there are one to one meetings and conference calls. All these forms of communication require that you are focused on what you are saying, make it about the audience and you sound and feel comfortable. So I suppose if I was to encapsulate the whole thing it would be making someone sound and feel comfortable, and that will vary from person to person.
When it comes to combating nerves, can you give us a top tip?
My favourite one which is very simple but works well is to combat the physical shaking that happens as a fight or flight response. The body goes into flight mode and thinks ‘I need to start running’, so adrenaline shakes the legs and arms. Of course you can’t run because you are standing and talking to an audience, but if you stand there and squeeze either your thigh or buttock muscles it’s physically impossible to shake.
That’s a good tip! How much of a great speech is in the preparation and how much is in the physical speaking?
Well they are both important, but without the structure it’s just rubbish. It’s very hard to make a speech that isn’t structured work, however smooth you are, so I would say it’s probably 60-40. The worst thing to do is to read a speech that somebody else has written for you, because it won’t feel like your rhythms. I often work with politicians to help them turn a script into their own words. The trick is to sound like it’s spontaneous but actually it’s rehearsed – that’s what good acting is. You’ve got to seem like you are almost making it up as you go along, it can’t feel like you are reading off a page or the audience will not feel a connection.
Looking back over your career, what is your biggest success story?
Well the one I am personally proudest of it a German CEO who I worked with. He sent me an email on Christmas eve last year thanking me for the training, but also telling me as a side benefit to my coaching he had a better relationship with his children because he spoke to them differently. Moments like that make it beyond business, this is about how somebody is in their life and how they talk to waitresses, their family and colleagues – how they begin to feel comfortable in their lives. It’s a very privileged position to be a coach and I take it very seriously. It’s incredibly reward to see people be amazing.
What made you decide to write your book?
Really it was because clients kept asking at the end of the session if I could give them some notes to re-read and revisit – I thought the easiest way is to put it down in a book.
Finally, if you had to pick an example of a great public speaker, who would it be and why?
For me, Bill Clinton is pretty tops, certainly for men. He’s comfortable and relaxed, he doesn’t rush and he makes you feel very special. He’s got that extra something that is just amazing. I work with lots of politicians and his name is one that lots of people say ‘can you give me a bit of that?’, and I know what they are aiming for. It’s a relaxation that comes with not having to prove something.
If you’ve got a speech on the horizon and want some help, why not take a look at the public speaking courses listed on Hotcourses? With plenty of options available, whether you are a best man or business CEO, say goodbye to sweaty palms and get ready to give the best speech of your life.