January 20th 2008

The Sunday Times

Speak easy: it's a skill you can learn
Voice coaching can help you to address large groups or communicate better with staff

Mick Nice has a cheerful, outgoing personality and a good sense of humour but lacked confidence when he had to address 600 distinguished guests at a black-tie event.

All the training he had received, as he worked his way up through the ranks to executive director and acting chief executive of Basildon district council, had left him unprepared for large audiences.

"As you rise up in your career you can miss out on whole areas of training, and public speaking was one of them," he said. "Some people can naturally perform, but I could see myself coming across as a stiff cardboard cut-out with a script."

The speech to the business-awards dinner went well after he sought coaching from Professional Voice, a company specialising in executive-level communication. "I was halfway through the training when I gave the speech and it made a big difference," he said. "I was more confident and comfortable - the more relaxed you are, the more you can be yourself."

Being able to communicate with clarity and authority is essential in the workplace of today, not only in formal presentations but in all business speaking situations, according to Marie Lester, a senior coach at Professional Voice.

Local authorities, several government departments, the Cabinet Office and the NHS all use the company's services...

...Voice coaches say they are seeing more clients from the public services, perhaps because of the target-driven pressure on central and local government, hospitals and quangos to become leaner and more effective. The public sector is increasingly in competition with private business for contracts, which takes officials outside their comfort zone and into the uncertain world of pitches and presentations....

...Many employees say they are embarrassed when they hear their own voices recorded. Professional Voice's Marie Lester said this was because what they heard sounded very different to the voice they heard in their ears. She teaches clients to relax and breathe diaphragmatically, which helps to relax the throat and free the voice so the speaker sounds more confident and authoritative. The high-pitched, tight-sounding voice some people experience when they are nervous comes from constriction in the throat, which restricts the movement of the larynx.

People think there are good and bad speakers when in fact the voice is a flexible tool, say the coaches. You can sound any way you want to. What then matters is what you say. Often it is not what you say but how you say it that matters. Research has shown that people retain only between 30% and 40% of even the most sophisticated speech or presentation.