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02.26.11

Today's King's Speech Guru

Like Geoffrey Rush in Oscar favorite The King’s Speech, Michael Sheehan is the go-to communications guy for Democrats (Obamas, Clintons) and CEOs (Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt). He tells Sandra McElwaine how he helps his VIP clients, who his favorites are—and how he overcame his own stutter.

Lionel Logue, the wily Australian speech coach played by Geoffrey Rush in the Oscar favorite King’s Speech, and Michael Sheehan, Washington’s hyper-connected media tutor/trainer, have a great deal in common. The former taught royalty how to communicate and overcome a crippling stammer; the latter instructs presidents, vice presidents, and other VIPs from Washington to Hong Kong on how to overcome their inhibitions and get out their message. Sheehan knows firsthand exactly how tough that can be—he is a stutterer himself.

“It took many years of speech help, on and off, to get a handle on it,” Sheehan says in an interview in his office, which is filled with photos and framed book jackets of his many high-profile clients, including the Clintons, John F. Kennedy Jr., and many elite business figures. “And if Bertie [King George VI] came to me today, the first thing I would do is set him up with a modern-day Geoffrey Rush, a licensed speech pathologist and stuttering expert. We now know that stuttering is of neurological origin.”

Message development, however, is Sheehan’s metier. Very quickly after founding his communications firm in 1981, the soft-spoken, unassuming 60-year-old sound-bite expert, who eschews interviews and prefers to work behind the scenes, became the go-to guy for journalists, corporate heavies, and Democratic politicians who needed to create or change an image, and most important, learn to spruce up, speak up, and speak out.

The key to success, he says, is “the desire to do it and really liking it. A lot of people ask if that’s why President Clinton is so good. Yes, he enjoys it. As long as he’s with other people or crowds, he’ll do just fine.”

Sheehan has been so successful that his daily rate has soared upward of $15,000, and he travels more than 17,000 miles annually to help out such diverse clients as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Eric Schmidt of Google, and the CEOs of Mitsubishi, ExxonMobil, and Pfizer. For corporate types, he deals with crisis counseling and hostile takeovers and defenses, and sets up confrontational interviews and debate preps. Sheehan has also worked every Democratic National Convention since 1988, reviewing texts and rehearsing all the speakers for all their nationally televised appearances.  

John F. Kennedy Jr. was a hoot to do at his first convention,” Sheehan says. “He was petrified and didn’t want to do it. He was young, maybe 17, but he had promised his uncle. I said, ‘Just keep your head up, just let them look at you, that’s all they want. Don’t worry about it. The bar is extremely low.’ He was a delight to work with. I can’t tell you what a wonderful person he was.”

Hillary Clinton, who says Sheehan taught her to use a Teleprompter, is another favorite. “She doesn’t quite enjoy [public speaking] as much as much as her husband. She’s great to work with, he’s fun,” Sheehan says.

“I get more work done with [Obama] in two hours than I would with others in eight,” Sheehan says.

He has also spent a lot of time with President Obama on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office, although he prefers to downplay the subject. “I get more work done with him in two hours than I would with others in eight,” Sheehan says. “Because he just has that ability to focus. I only get two hours on the schedule, but you’ve got every second, every drop, every piece of information for that period of time.”

Michelle Obama, he adds, is equally attentive. “If there’s a speech we were preparing for, I would give her 10 things to remember. If she did six, she’d do fine,” he says. “But she got all 10 out of 10 every time. She remembers everything.”

For stutterers, there are tricks to overcoming the affliction, he says, some of them utilized in The King’s Speech—not jumping up and down on the king’s chest, however—that Sheehan learned early on and which helped him.

One of these is avoidance, or word substitution. “If you’re having trouble with the word pasta, you could use spaghetti or ziti to cover what you are saying,” he says.

Probably the most effective remedy is the one Sheehan continues to employ. “If I’m having a bout, in order to break the lock, you say the consonant, you exhale some breath, and then you say the rest of the word,” he says. “So let’s say the word is butter and I know that I’m going to stutter—I can get the consonant out, ‘B,’ I breathe out, which relaxes the vocal cords and the muscles, and then I follow with ‘utter.’ I think Bertie does it once or twice in that final speech. So it just sounds like there’s a little slur in the middle of the word.”

Changing voice tone up or down is another tactical maneuver. In high school, Sheehan joined the debate team and discovered that when he spoke in a different voice or sang, he was miraculously stutter-free. “I now understand that when you alter your volume or sing, you’re accessing another part of your brain that bypasses where the neurological disorder is,” he says. “We don’t know everything about stuttering; sometimes we have to try stuff and see what works.”

The confidence Sheehan gained through debating was a crucial step in overcoming his speech impediment and led him to Georgetown University and the theater. There he and a close friend wrote and starred in a musical, which received such raves that he was accepted at the Yale School of Drama, where his classmates included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. After graduation, he headed back to Washington to become an associate producer at the Folger Theater Group, and as a sideline began punching up speeches to help out congressmen he had met on the Hill. He also used his acting and directorial skills to liven up dreary hearings. Ultimately he became so popular he decided to open his own communications firm in 1981.

For more apprehensive public speakers, he offers what he calls “assuredness along with technique.” With video and audio, he qualms their fears. “Ultimately, positive feedback comes when people see themselves and hear themselves on the tape and say, ‘That’s the way I want to look and sound,’” he says.

The technique part of the equation involves repetition in order to provide what he calls “muscle memory.” Like an athletic coach at batting practice, he breaks down the words and phrases, teaching clients when, how, and where to take a break and emphasize a point. “Then they know what to do, in what order to do it,” he says. “They know what it feels like and can replicate it when they are giving a talk. That’s what gives them confidence.”

Sheehan works solely with Democrats, he says, because over the years he has become the keeper of their secrets. “In the political world, people have to feel free to say anything in front of me and be comfortable with that,” he explains.

Much like Lionel Logue’s relationship with Bertie, Sheehan fulfills the role of friend and confidant for many.

“I was raised Roman Catholic,” he says. “It’s the seal of confession—you can tell me anything, they can torture me, but it’s going to the grave with me, unless you tell me it’s OK to talk.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.