Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
The Queen’s Christmas message is almost a religious ceremony in some households. At 3pm GMT, British families (and many others, especially in the Commonwealth) stop and gather to listen to what she has to say. It’s part of their Christmas ritual.
This is the only time the Queen speaks publicly for herself, in her own voice, without advice from Ministers. Pre-recorded somewhere interesting in one of her residences (the location varies), she takes up to ten minutes to reflect on recent events, both personal and public, and to provide perspective and insight into what it all means.
The Queen’s speeches are grounded in ethos, or good character. They’re important because of who she is. From her unique position she manages to provide an engaging blend of the personal – anecdotes and stories from her own experience, and the public – commentary on the world events that have shaped the year. She is always serious, and indirectly the speech reminds us of her role as a focal point for unity.
Her long reign means the Christmas Message is a fascinating chronicle of major events, year by year, since she came to the throne. (There’s a summary overview here). Because the speeches have been recorded since 1952, and she uses and reuses many of the same expressions, she has also (accidentally) given linguistic researchers a superb data set to study.
Has the Queen’s pronunciation changed over time? Yes, it has. A 2000 study by Jonathon Harrington of Macquarie University (published in Nature) proves the Queen’s vowels have moved away from that ‘cut glass’ tightness, where house is pronounced hise, and home becomes hame, toward the more ‘normal’ version heard daily on the BBC.
Questions arose: did this happen naturally, because pronunciation changed community-wide? Or was it a deliberate PR ploy to make the Royals more accessible? Did the Queen adjust herself for the TV cameras, adapting to cues from her environment as any good communicator should? The answer is we don’t know. But you can hear for yourself how dramatic the shift is.
Here’s her first televised broadcast in 1957. “Heppy Christmas” she begins, the accent declaring her social superiority. And then, because TV was new, nor many people had one, so many viewers would be visiting TV-owning friends …. “My ern femily orften gather round to watch television….” she continues, in the stilted twang that comics impersonate so well.
By 1984 she sounds authoritative and confident, speaking clearly and quickly to camera. ‘Happy’ rhymes with cat, not pet. (Diana alert …this speech has cute footage of a new born Harry and his toddler brother Wills.)
By 2011 (a year in which Australia is her focus) her voice has deepened with age, and she again speaks slowly and meditatively, but the pronunciation seems unchanged.
Looking at these three examples, you’d have to say that the Queen is a good speaker. Her material is well scripted and these segments are well produced (by David Attenborough from 1986 to 91).
But despite the upper class accent, and her remoteness from ‘real’ life, she manages to create strong connections between herself and her audience. Each year she sympathises convincingly with those afflicted by natural disasters, famines, wars, civil and political unrest. She talks often of technology and its advances, and of other major social changes. She records the year’s events in her own family – whether sad or happy, with feeling. She speaks of moral, Christian and family values, of service and the need for strength in adversity. She comments on her travels, how impressed or inspired she is by them; the importance of the Commonwealth, and the brotherhood and affection that can sustain peoples.
She also speaks with great clarity at an easy, listenable pace. Her eye contact is steady – even in the pre-auto cue days when she was reading from a script. The technician in charge of that first broadcast says “The Queen was extremely accomplished with the teleprompter and read the message brilliantly. She is a stickler for detail.”
She seems to like to be positive, to speak of the goodness and generosity of people, and the love of family – it brings on a smile. Most of all, her voice is well modulated, rising and falling in a way that sounds interesting and engaging, though she herself is quite still.
The idea for a Christmas message from the sovereign began with the ‘founding father’ of the BBC, the brilliant and visionary Lord Reith, who used it to inaugurate what is now the BBC World Service. In 1932 King George V read the first one from a temporary studio at Sandringham.The broadcast was introduced by a 65-year-old local shepherd, there were carols from the church choir and the bells from the town church, and in what sounds like a technical and PR triumph, it reached an estimated 20 million people in Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, South Africa, and the UK.
Since then the speech has always been broadcast by the most up to date technology: radio gave way to TV, colour TV, Ceefax, Internet, podcasts, and this year – we’re told, it can be seen in 3D TV.