Resilience in the face of adversity

It’s such a cliché to talk about Theresa May’s resilience these days, but there’s no doubt her ability to keep on keeping on is impressive. Watching her over the last few weeks has given us cause to think about resilience in terms of public speaking.  

We work with people all the time who have had knocks in their past which have completely de-railed their ability to give a speech or a presentation or even to speak up at a meeting. Equally, we have worked with people who’ve had those knocks, and have emerged the other side more robust than ever.

So how can we learn from people like the latter? And what differentiates their experience and allows them to grow from hardship rather than be toppled by it?

Here are four things I’ve observed that unite the most resilient (and popular I might add) people I’ve worked with:

  1. They bring an element of objectivity to how they see their own development: they don’t beat themselves up about areas they need to improve. They just accept that no-one’s perfect, and instead focus on getting to the bottom of what they need to do to improve that aspect of their communication. They are proactive about getting the right support, and they are open-minded about improving.
  2. They don’t see exceptional communication as a box ticked, they see it as an on-going process of continual exploration. They’re not afraid to challenge themselves to take steps that stretch their ability. In the same vein, they appreciate that great, natural communication is effortful, so they work hard to understand how to apply their effort consciously and effectively.
  3. They have a good sense of humour: they take their work seriously, not themselves. They can also translate that into a playfulness about their content and demeanour, not necessarily in a joke-cracking way, but in an ability to flex and adapt, and approach things from a fresh perspective.  Here’s an interesting example of this not quite working out for Adam Boulton in a 2011 interview with Alastair Campbell: 


  4. They don’t go on the defensive, put themselves down or get aggressive. That doesn’t mean that they’re not vulnerable or open, quite the opposite. They stay open and strong, even when, especially when, they are wrong. A lot of people I work with underestimate how physical great communication is, but there’s much more to being at the top of your game, especially when the chips are down, than being a talking head. The BP oil spill is a case study in how to do this badly, in contrast to CEO Dido Harding being interviewed after the cyber attack on TalkTalk…


Ultimately, resilience is embodied by those who do not let their mistakes define them, but are instead defined by how well they rise from them. If things go badly when you’re behind a microphone or in front of a screen, take comfort from the fact that, generally speaking, an audience responds well to things going innocently wrong. So, if you fall of a stage or forget your words, it’s all about how you deal with it, not the fact that it’s happened. Try not to run away (as below) just apologise or crack a joke and I’d put money on it being the most memorable the audience will have seen for ages!