In the age of the PowerPoint presentation, media briefing and client meeting, the saying ‘It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it’, has never rung more true.
So says Darren Smallridge, a communication consultant at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. He argues the secret to good public speaking is understanding the effect that body posture and voice projection have on the message being conveyed.
He draws inspiration from the studies of American communication experts Mehrabian and Ferris, who developed the 7-38-55 rule in the 1960s. They found the success of a speech is largely determined by body language, which accounts for 55% of its impact, while the style of the voice accounts for 38%. They surmised that the actual content only accounts for a mere 7% of a speech’s impact.
“Presenting successfully in public is about connecting voice and body,” says Smallridge. “When people prepare for presentations, they spend most of their time working on the content, and neglect the voice and body – that is where they fall down.”
Smallridge and his colleagues use techniques honed in the theatre to help business executives and spokespeople from organisations such as the Environment Agency and the Police Force improve their verbal communication and the way it comes across.
The school runs one-day courses on improving voice clarity, pitch and range, and helps with breathing control and body alignment. It even has a course called Confident Communications for Business Women, aimed at women who want to increase their status within organisations.
This link between stage and boardroom has been reinforced by a new training enterprise called the Actors’ Centre in Business, launched earlier this summer. The initiative grew out of the renowned Actors Centre, a training school for professional actors, when the company realised its voice coaches were supplementing their work for the BBC and Hollywood with lucrative courses for the likes of Barclays, Vodafone and Gillette.
According to Tracey Thomson, a corporate training consultant at the centre, which offers bespoke programmes in effective pitching and media handling, techniques learned on stage apply equally to business. “Performers,” she says, “are masters of the spoken word.”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of call-centre workers but, if Annalize Cuthill, commercial director at Skill4 has her way, this will soon change.
The company runs a two-day call-handling course – a large proportion of which is aimed at helping agents recognise the importance of the voice. Through role-play and voice recordings, agents are taught how to structure their patter and alter the modulation of their voices to sound more engaging.
“If sales agents don’t connect with their clients in the first few seconds, they will lose them,” says Cuthill. “Tone of voice and pace of conversation play an important part in creating that connection.”
Connecting with an audience face-to-face is an area voice coach Stephen Fenner specialises in. He has taught solicitors and training professionals at his company Random Acts, and uses relaxation techniques and diaphragm exercises to help people put more passion into their public speaking.
“How many times have you sat through a boring, mumbled presentation, only to find the speaker has enormous passion for their subject when you talk to them over lunch?” he asks.
Fenner’s training concentrates on building confidence, so that people feel enabled to express themselves fully in public. And nowhere is confident public speaking more important than when facing the media.
“When you are in front of the press, you are potentially speaking to millions of people,” says Jackie Smith a director at Speak First, a consultancy that focuses on improving organisational performance.
Getting key messages across, anticipating difficult questions and even facial massage are skills taught by the company, which often holds courses in television studios to simulate the heat of a real media interview.
“As a spokesperson for your company, it is important that you appear credible,” she warns. “If you don’t, then neither will your organisation.”
Central School of Speech and Drama, www.cssd.ac.uk
Speak First www.speakfirst.co.uk
Actors Centre in Business www.actorscentreinbusiness.co.uk
Random Acts www.randomacts.co.uk
Case study: confidence with the media
One of the best ways to learn how to deal with interviews is to practice in a low-risk or simulated situation. Speak First recently helped a small team of top-level executives at a large US food manufacturing firm to handle the media.
Over two days, they were shown real-life examples of how the media operates, and how poor technique can lead even the most articulate individuals into dangerous waters.
On the first day, each person was interviewed four times on aspects of their company’s operations, with each interview becoming increasingly testing.
The second day focused on crisis handling. Delegates completed face-to-face, ‘down-the-line’, ‘live’, recorded, TV, press and radio interviews, with little time for preparation.