Winning Women: Voicing confidence

2013-06-02 14:00

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A quarter of a century after opening the Voice Clinic with an answering machine in her bedroom, Monique Rissen-Harrisberg has six clinics on two continents, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

We enter this world as newborns yelling our lungs out, and that, in a manner of speaking, is how we should continue.

Yet many people have, by the time they enter the workplace, lost most of that lusty voice-power.

“This is hugely detrimental in our interactions, whether we are corporate leaders, teachers, nurses or radio and TV hosts,” says Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, the CEO of The Voice Clinic.

She founded it 25 years ago this year and has trained more than 100?000 people on two continents since then.

“Research shows that 38% of every communication is attributed to the quality of our voices,” she says in her own well-modulated and perfectly pitched tones.

“How you speak and the manner in which you do so impacts on your professional image and your ability to enthuse, motivate and influence others.

“Only 7% of what you are trying to convey is absorbed in terms of content and 55% of it is conveyed through the image you project and your body language,” she says.

Conversely, on a telephone or a cellphone, 99% of your message is conveyed in terms of how, and not what, you say.

Pretty terrifying stuff this, in a world where communication via some sort of device is the norm, and less and less the face-to-face method of old.

No wonder, then, that so many people, ranging from medical doctors whose increasingly assertive patients want to know the full reasons for their malady, to police officers who should convey instructions clearly and firmly without being aggressive, are turning to the Voice Clinic.

“How people speak and use their voices has been the same for thousands of years,” says Rissen-Harrisberg. She then quotes Latin writer Publilius Syrus, who said back in the 1st century: “Speech is a mirror of the soul. As a man speaks, so is he.”

Rissen-Harrisberg explains how we “lose our voices”.

As little children we tend to speak loudly and clearly because we have urgent demands to convey. By the age of eight we’re being told to speak more quietly and behave, “so our voices become suppressed”.

By puberty, she says, “parents are bringing up pimpled adolescents who are mumbling along with their peers, and by adulthood we have to unlearn bad habits. We have lost our natural voices”.

The clinic sees children as young as seven years old, speaking with a stammer, and by the age of 12, they’re winning school debates.

“We can change people’s lives in eight weeks because of the way our courses are structured, and in some cases we even see change in one hour,” says

Rissen-Harrisberg, gesticulating expansively in her lovely ­double-storeyed clinic on Oxford Road, northern Joburg.

It has crystal chandeliers, beautifully laid out gardens and it imbues those who enter with a sense of peace and confidence by the time they leave.

“I can tell that someone’s being abused the moment they step in here, by their body language and the tone of their voice, usually a monotone, which emits little emotion.”

The clinic facilitators may, in some cases, teach such people how to speak and act with a confidence they do not yet possess, “and that, in time, becomes a self-empowering device that leads to genuine assertiveness,” she says.

She studied English and drama at the University of Cape Town, and went on to obtain her Licentiate Diplomas in Speech and Drama Teaching from Trinity College in London.

It was while she was lecturing at the Bellville Teachers’ Training College in Western Cape, “using drama to teach maths”, that she couldn’t hear what her students were saying. “So I went to an ENT specialist, who pronounced me perfectly healthy,” she says.

It was a light bulb moment for the 22-year-old woman, who printed circulars that she sent to 50 top corporations.

She then installed an answering machine in her bedroom, “advertising courses that didn’t exist for a clinic that wasn’t there”.

Enquiries poured in and now, a quarter of a century later, this enterprising woman has clinics in Cape Town, Pretoria, Joburg and Durban, as well as in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.

But it wasn’t a smooth ride.

“At one stage I had to sell my car to pay salaries. Banks were not interested in giving me loans all those years ago, to teach people, ‘what they already know’.

“And, in order to get the bond for this Oxford Road house in the early 1990s, I had to sit in the bank manager’s office and watch him until he made it happen. This house is in a brilliant position, and, position is everything,” she says.

By the time the Voice Clinic’s clients leave – one nurse paid her entire month’s salary to self-fund a course here – they can “negotiate better salary packages, get promoted faster, assume more responsibilities and have better relationships with their spouses and children”.

Rissen-Harrisberg’s new goal for her clinics, staffed by 60 people, is to give new and better voices to “everybody in South Africa”. She wants to “empower the nation”.

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