Let’s set the scene. Prince Andrew has faced criticism over many months for his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein who died in prison, apparently having taken his own life. There is no argument over the fact that the Prince had a friendship with Epstein. For reasons known only to him, Prince Andrew gave a sit-down interview to the BBC and I was watching.
The Duke of York intended for the interview with Emily Maitlis to clear his name and win over the general public. Instead, it caused a lot of embarrassment for the Royal Family and cast further doubt over his relationship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
But why was the interview such a car crash? I was of course watching in fascination. Normally I don’t focus on what someone says – more about how they say it and their body language. For it is body language and tone which are more powerful in communication than words alone.
Here are my eight takeaways from his communication style:
1- He had a clear MO but it was the wrong one.
The beginning of the interview arguably set the tone of the whole exchange. His opening was, I think it would be fair to say, a disappointment. If we were expecting authenticity, sincerity, a facing up to the real issue at hand - then that was clearly the last thing on his agenda. What was clear is he wanted to clear his name, protest innocence and end the whole affair. Given the context I found it staggering that, with all of the support at his disposal, he wasn’t given just a bit of a steer in terms of something very basic in communication.
2 - Own your stuff and sacrifice your pride.
He said he had many, many times questioned himself about his behaviour during that time yet he wasn’t really willing to give a really straightforward apology. Another basic communication error.
3 - If people have been hurt, if there is pain anywhere, acknowledge that pain.
He showed an extreme level of self interest in his language, seemingly showing no regard at all for other people except for Epstein himself. The fact Epstein was convicted for abuse seemed to have missed him. He mentioned being 'honourable' several times, but bizarrely, only in relation to Epstein and his public position.
4 - If you are there to make amends reflect your position with your body.
Physically his whole body position displayed a kind of arrogance, he looked relaxed, his body took up space and there was something 'splayed out' about his position. That is very similar to the ‘power pose’ and some believe this releases chemicals from the brain to help you feel powerful. He’s in a powerful position, he’s not playing small in his physicality. Given the setting of his interview - it would have been appropriate for him to show regret and sincerity. This is difficult to do with an arm laid over the back of a chair.
5 - Avoid distractions, be still and maintain eye contact.
Prince Andrew did make some clear eye contact. However, at the points when he was making an important statement expressing his innocence, his relationship with Epstein or his lack of awareness of what was going on - he kept shaking his head vigorously. If we want to really assert something, we need to be still and direct and maintain eye contact to ensure people have received our point.
6 - Bringing colour and emotion into your voice lets people in.
Tonally his voice had little range. It was calm, controlled with repetitions of ‘no’, and shaking of the head. This made him appear as a practised speaker, politician-like in his adeptness at spinning and re-framing and ultimately keeping people at bay.
7 - When people want honesty, smugness will get you precisely nowhere.
The situation called for authenticity and the British public would probably have been satisfied with authentic remorse, relative to the magnitude of the situation. If Prince Andrew had been given the right guidance, he would have realised that if there was a place for regal smugness and entitlement, this wasn't it. Had he looked at the bigger picture and thought about not just his agenda but the needs of an upset public, then perhaps he would have behaved differently.
8 - Decide what is really important in the communication and be prepared to deliver on this.
Prince Andrew went in with an agenda but had not done the work on himself to really understand where he went wrong, what he could learn and what kind of public responsibility and apology he needed to make. In pursuing his own agenda, he shut people out, with his voice, body language and words. When you communicate in this way, your audience will simply observe you, rather than connect with you. They won’t emotionally engage, they simply watch.
The interview was a masterclass in weak communication - strange body language, poor wording, and a lack of chemistry with his interviewer - all worked against him.
What can you learn from it?
Any leader or manager who has dealings with the press or an important meeting coming up can learn from his mistakes. Before you try to break bad news, apologise for mistakes, or explain why events took place - you need to be prepared and plan in advance.
Here are my top tips on how to get it right.
Establish your modus operandi
Have a clear idea of the three key things that you want them to take away from your meeting. This gives you a framework around which you can steer the conversation.
If you walk into a meeting or interview thinking “I’m going to screw up” then that is bound to come across. His central thought was, "I want to clear my name and show everyone I’ve done nothing wrong", so everything he said was defensive.
If he’d gone into the interview with three clear goals - I want to take responsibility for what I’ve done, apologise for my association with that man, and express compassion for his victims - the outcome would have been very different.
Take care with your body language
The way you sit can speak volumes, expressing defeat or overconfidence. Prince Andrew’s posture did him no favours: He looked too comfortable. He was leaning back, spread out, with his legs crossed, and his head on one side. Compare this to Emily’s body language: she is very upright. This is a seminal point in her career so she is leaning forward.
It's a lot to do with the spine. Slouched forward and you seem unsure and underprepared, leaning back on a chair and you are distancing yourself and playing on your seniority, or lack of interest. Sitting forward and upright, you're engaging in the conversation.
Think about how you present yourself and make sure your physicality is in accord with those around you. If in doubt, sit with your spine straight, shoulders back and smile - this will serve you well is all situations.
Engage with your audience
Dealing with the press, especially in a face-to-face interview, or walking into a meeting to discuss a contentious issue can be highly pressurised. To keep you on track take the time to really listen to their questions and forge a meaningful connection.
The Duke kept sweeping questions away and shaking his head. If he had said, 'I understand why you are asking me that’, or 'I get why you want to know this’, it would have helped build a connection.
Good leaders listen and engage, and show humility and dignity.
Emma Serlin is the founder of London Speech Workshop which supports individuals, business owners and teams to communicate with clarity and confidence through one to one training and workshops.
Emma also consults for CEOs & companies on how to handle specific communication issues - feel free to get in touch if you need an expert opinion.