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Last Updated: Monday, 7 August 2006, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Got a boring boss? Print this out
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Voice coaching
Too many people talk fast and flat when speaking in public. How can a voice coach help, now everyone from call centre workers to politicians use vocal training?

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, Ineverlookforwardtohavingtoaddressagroup. I get nervous, tense, speak too fast and lose any semblance of intonation.

Nor am I alone. Too many people turn a presentation into a droning "brain dump", rattled off at speed while staring fixedly at the back wall. This is a problem in schools too - last week a teachers' union said vocal coaches were needed as being able to speak in a strong, interesting voice is the main tool for getting children to learn.

Teacher in Grange Hill
A sea of bored faces
There is an art to public speaking. But all too often those called upon to speak have little idea how best to engage with their audience, be it co-workers, a classroom or members of the public.

Caroline Goyder, a voice coach at the Central School of Speech and Drama, has worked with office staff, a best man, call centre workers, refugee doctors and Big Issue sellers as well as aspiring actors.

"People often start their working lives in offices doing lots of computer work. That gives you tense shoulders, and takes your breathing into your chest. Then they get to a certain point in their career where someone says 'now you have to present to your team'. Because they have the wrong breathing patterns, their voices aren't very strong."

Another common pitfall is to gallop through words, barely pausing for breath or thought.

Fight or flight

So what tips can a voice coach offer to those wanting to speak confidently? Liz Banks, the director and co-founder of Skillstudio Ltd, agrees to put me through my paces. In my untutored voice - the only intonation my rising inflection, courtesy of a New Zealand upbringing - I read aloud this website's article about teachers needing voice training.

It's all going down - you want to lift it. Pick out key words you want to emphasise
Voice coach Liz Banks runs Megan Lane through some important points

She pulls me up for speaking too fast: "When we're nervous we tend to speed up, rush through our words, because we produce all this adrenaline. Speak at a slower pace than you do in a one-to-one. The way to slow down is to draw out the words, stretching the vowel sounds.

"And there's no punctuation in it at all. As a crude rule of thumb, for comma you'll pause for one second, for a full-stop, pause for two, and when you want to enhance a meaning, pause for three."

I try again, pausing for what seems like an unusually long time over each comma, dash and full-stop. "That's better, you're keeping the energy up now. It may seem slow to you but to a listener it sounds more natural."

She encourages me to try again, this time emphasising key words. "That's much easier now to listen to. Before it all came out at the same level, rushed through. Now you've got ownership of the words, they sound like you mean them."

Kylie and Jason
Beware of rising inflections
Ms Goyder agrees that in trying to curb my rising inflection, I over-compensate and speak flatly.

"I'm a Geordie, and Geordies go up at the end of sentences as well, as do Australians and Glaswegians. But that can sound hesitant. There are lots of accents where it's worth remembering to place a brick at the end of a thought. The intonation pattern in English is to go down when stating a fact - that says credibility, that's the newsreader pattern."

She has recently done a lot of work with Indian call centre staff, who have a different speech pattern again.

"When they speak to an English person on the phone, the English person often doesn't understand because they stress all the words in a sentence. An English person doesn't know which are the important words and so tunes out."

Now breathe

And there are numerous exercises to help the unaccustomed public speaker improve. But unlike the stereotype of the luvvie actor running through scales backstage, most are fairly unobtrusive.

Breathe slowly and deeply
Warm up by pulling faces, yawning, eating pretend toffee
Slow down first six words - that helps set smooth rhythm
Emphasise key words
Focus on individual faces in audience, making eye contact
Cast yourself in role of storyteller
"My clients can't spend half an hour lying on the floor getting in touch with their diaphragm - it just doesn't happen if you're an accountant and you've got to present the figures," says Ms Banks.

"I encourage them to breathe more deeply because it supports the voice. Focus on the out-breath - breathe out through your mouth for as long as possible, then in through the nose. That really helps to calm you down as well. You can do it sitting, standing, walking down a corridor."

She also recommends reading aloud regularly, to build vocal stamina and confidence in hearing your own voice.

To encourage people to modulate their voices, Ms Goyder suggests throwing a ball - or punching or kicking - on key words. Obviously it's not done to punch your way through a Power Point presentation, but practising in this way encourages the speaker to throw important words out.

"If they overdo something, make it too big, when they go back to normal, they've made a few steps without even noticing."

To make public speaking less scary, she suggests imagining friends dotted about the audience. This helps the speaker relax, which in turn warms the audience towards them. And remember to make eye contact.

"When you make a point, keep it to 10 words and look at one person while you send them that thought. Watch it land, watch them process it, then take the next thought and send it to someone else. That gives your speech a more natural pace, makes it more of a conversation."

New York mayor on 12 September 2001
Rudolph Giuliani: Measured tones
So who, in their professional opinion, is a good public speaker?

Ms Banks rates the former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. "After 9/11, his voice had a confidence and a reassurance at a time when it was very hard to reassure people. He took time over his words. And Chris Tarrant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He says the same things week in and week out, but he always does it with enthusiasm."

Ms Goyder opts for Mr Charisma himself: "Bill Clinton. What he says may not always be elegantly expressed, but he's very good on connecting with people, making eye contact."

And those who need a tune-up? Ms Banks, ever the diplomat, says: "In terms of people who could do with lifting their voice, Gordon Brown - he could do with more energy in his voice. He often sounds rather tired."

Some of your comments on this story:

I thought Megan sounded better than the voice coach!
Philip Meaden, Edinburgh

Syntax metre style are all very well but as Goethe once said 'speak that I may see you'. Content is what remains with the listener.
Maurice de Ville, Chesterfield - England

It is natural to be nervous giving presentations if you are not used to doing it. The advice to make eye contact when talking is right, however it is also probably one of the main things that scares nervous speakers. My advice for this is not to focus on any one person's eyes, but close to the edge of their faces. It is much less nerve racking this way and it gives the impression that you are making eye contact with your audience. Once the presentation gets going and you relax, then try and make direct eye contact.
Fiona, Cambridge

If you are a nervous speaker it can help to develop a technique or two to 'ground' you which will help to calm nerves and help you to gain control. Many experienced public speakers do this, HRH Prince Charles for example fiddles with his cuff-links or signet ring. Many sports people have 'little routines' like this in order to ground and focus them. Cricket batsmen and tennis players about to serve are good examples. Try holding a pen, a highlighter perhaps, even a favourite pebble, or some other talisman. Always use the same object. Try a conscious routine, along with the slow breathing, such as briefly touching your ear lobe before you start, or removing your jacket, rolling up shirt sleeves etc. A particular favourite is taking off your watch and making a 'thing' out of placing it in front of you - on the desk. The key thing is, this is all done consciously and so already you're in better control of your nerves. Try it and see if it helps. Build on success by repeating what worked last time and you'll soon master the nerves. Good luck!
John Adams, Westbury, Wiltshire UK

I'd suggest keeping fit will help too as it'll enhance your lung power. As for eating pretend toffees, I think I'll have the real ones instead. I have no idea where you can buy pretend toffees anyway.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

I found the information very interesting and following it should help me to improve my public speaking
Mr Peter Kinght, Cobham surrey England

As a regular speaker at international conferences the best advice I can give is let your enthusiasm show, this raises any presentation from being 'boring' no matter what you are speaking about. Furthermore, use your nerves to your advantage, ask any actor about using nerves and they will often tell you that 'once the first minute or two has elapsed you will start to relax and that nerves improve their performance'. Engage the audience, use real life stories and anecdotes to get a point across. Don't be afraid to use humour, just ensure that your steer clear of anything that is likely to offend. Finally, if you forget what you wan to say, do not fill the space with ums and ers, retrace your steps in you mind and use your slides to prompt you. If I can do it anyone can as inside I'm a nervous wreck when presenting, but to the audience I look confident, calm and enthused when I'm presenting.
Martin, West Sussex

Call centre staff may get voice training, but what they really ought to do (after introducing themselves and their company), is to allow a long enough pause for me to say that I'm not interested. They might also accept what I'm saying, apologise for the inconvenience, put the phone down AND NEVER ME RING BACK...
Grahame Bristow, Hereford, UK

There is no great secret to public speaking. The vital ingredients are:
1/ Having strong feelings or belief in your subject
2/ Wanting to communicate this belief/enthusiasm
3/ Determining that vocal expression is the best medium rather than memo, e-mail etc.
Even with poor technique you will be effective, but experience and well-meant critiques of your performances will continually improve your delivery. Your improving performance will give you time to relate more closely with your audience with added benefit to your messages. Having the ability to open your address with a relevant quip/story will help to relax you and help banish the initial nervousness.
Bill Gregory, Naval, Biliran, Philippines

.....Sorry were you were saying?
Clackers, Thatcham

Or, instead, you could search for 'speakers club' in the UK and find yourself a local and very encouraging club to help you with all aspects of public speaking. As President of Speakers of Felixstowe, I could not let this opportunity to go by to make a mention!
WendyB, Felixstowe

I very often talk too fast while I am talking to other people. Even in some very important meetings I still talk to fast. That doesn't help me at all because sometimes I am saying things that I wish I had never said in front of everyone.
Bashkim Krasniqi, Lewisham London

A friend of mine used to have to make speeches once a year and hated it (and it showed). Now that he's a qualified teacher in his second job, his "presentation" voice is significantly improved, and he is much more confident about speaking to a large group of people. His groom's speech this weekend was therefore a triumph. Perhaps practice counts for more a checklist.
Lucy Jones, Manchester

So true, when I am nervous, I am incoherent! Could I develop a Cut Glass accent with the help of a voice tutor?
Lorraine French-Skinner, London, UK

Interesting article with some excellent points. Public speaking is so important these days. I frequently help deliver seminars in other countries and speak regularly at all sorts of events. People say that though my voice is relatively low they can hear every word. It is a pity we don't teach diction and intonation at school level. Is it also to do with the demise of school amateur dramatics which I is where I learned to speak up and relate to an audience?! I hear so many speakers who can't deliver and especially can't use a microphone properly. The point about breathing is so important both for clarity and to calm yourself down before going on. The other thing that frustrates me beyond all measure is the almost statutory apology when someone stands in at short notice and explains that to the audience. Groan! Seize the opportunity I say! Make a name for yourself! Roger
Roger Lincoln, Ipswich

How voice training can help teachers in the classroom

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