June 30th 1998

Financial Times

Now You Hear Me at the Back!

What's it like to have voice coaching? We sent newly appointed chief executive David Harker along to Professional Voice to find out.

A few months ago I became a chief executive for the first time. I had done a fair amount of public speaking and media work before but this was on a different scale. Within the first few weeks of my new job as head of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, I was interviewed for the Today Programme, and spoke at fringe meetings at all three party conferences and the TUC. Most challenging of all, I had to give the keynote address to 1,600 delegates at the Citizens Advice Service's own conference. It was exciting and, by all accounts, went well. But when I got the chance of professional voice coaching, I jumped at it. My coach was Madeleine Cannon, from Professional Voice. She is a business voice coach, whose clients include managers, politicians and MBA students at some top business schools.

I had three one-to-one sessions at Professional Voice's EC2 coaching venue. Privacy is essential: one feels self-conscious, anyway, and it is so much worse if people keep popping their heads round the office door.

The first session began with my objectives. My self-assessment was that on a good day, on an issue I felt passionately about, I was a good speaker. But I know that I sometimes drone on and risk losing my audience. I wanted to be able to perform consistently well. Breathing was the key, Madeleine explained. Many of us speak from the top of our lungs, with hunched shoulders and tense throat. It's little wonder that what comes out strangled.

I barely spoke an intelligible word to start with. We worked on breathing, as I learnt to use my lungs to the full, feeling the expansion of the diaphragm and relaxing the shoulders and the face. What came out were sounds rather than words. I was taught to yawn deliberately before speaking; using breath from right down in the abdomen, without tension in the face and neck, felt powerful and strong.

The second session introduced the "pitch stairs". The speaker who is able to make full use of their vocal range is able to command and retain the attention of listeners, she explained. At the bottom of the range, the low pitch is used for the dropped aside which has the speaker's full weight behind it. High pitch is used to catch the listener's ear.

For the third session I marked up a speech I had already given. I could hear and feel many ways in which I could give exactly the same speech with much greater impact.

Voice coaching is not new. Most politicians have used it during their development or in preparation for a big role. Perhaps the most famous politician to use it was Baroness Thatcher, who radically changed her voice and delivery as a result.

For business and organizational leaders and managers it is still relatively new. Managers, who are proud of investing time and money in learning many new skills, may feel that speaking is a normal, spontaneous activity which should come naturally. Many people have now done courses in presentational skills. Voice coaching goes further and is a very useful complement to the tricks and techniques that such courses teach.