No more tight throats, sweaty palms

2010-09-23 00:00

DO you want to gain confidence, to become more self-assertive? Then speak up. Literally. Your voice and the way you use it could be the key to self-empowerment.

“People who have got far in their careers often find they need to address how they communicate and present themselves,” says Philippa Savage, branch manager of The Voice Clinic in Durban. “The Voice Clinic is for anyone who needs or wants to improve their communication skills. It could be the tea woman who has become a receptionist and needs upskilling or it could be the company general manager who needs to improve his presentation skills.”

“Improving one’s speaking voice involves using the same techniques that an actor or singer would use to maximise his or her voice,” says Savage, who has a drama degree and a degree in psychology.

Free assessments are offered to potential clients. “We first ask people what they think their needs are. Then we ask them a series of questions. Do you think you mumble, do you think your voice is monotonous or irritating, for example.

“We then ask them to read something aloud to see if there are any technical problems — maybe their jaw is tight or they are not breathing properly.”

Depending on the outcome, the client might be pointed towards an individual voice programme or a two-day power-speaking course which looks at presentation skills, eye contact, body language and how to deliver presentations that will have an impact.

The individual voice programme involves hour-long one-on-one sessions once a week as well as practical exercises. “These apply what clients are learning to the real world,” says Savage, “using what they have learnt here back at the office.

“It’s like building a house,” she says. “First come the foundations, we look at relaxation and stress release. Then we build the walls with breathing techniques and voice projection. Finally, we paint the walls, putting colour, variety and expression into the voice. Resonance is especially important, developing the richness of the voice. Giving command to the voice.”

Resonance is particularly important when it comes to assertiveness, says Savage. “Assertiveness skills are particularly useful for people working in customer and telephone service areas. Some people don’t have a rich enough voice to assert themselves. For example, a tiny voice is unassertive, while a booming voice comes across as aggressive rather than assertive.”

Being assertive involves the voice but also includes listening and verbal skills. “Rather than accuse someone else, saying ‘you make me feel’, you say ‘I feel ...’ You take ownership of your emotions, opinions and feelings.

“You move from the role of victim to one of empowerment. You stand up for your rights without compromising the other person’s rights. You also need to look at your listening skills and be open to another’s point of view. When you are looking for an outcome you go for a compromise or the ideal: a win-win solution.”

Toastmasters International is another organisation offering tools to help people empower themselves by improving their speaking skills.

According to the international organisation’s mission statement, it “helps men and women learn the arts of speaking, listening, and thinking — vital skills that promote self-actualisation, enhance leadership potential, foster human understanding, and contribute to the betterment of mankind”.

“It’s also an awful lot of fun,” says Ruth Varrie, a Distinguished Toastmaster, treasurer and vice president: education of the local branch. “Toastmasters is a club, you join for whatever reason — to boost your confidence or to improve your public speaking.”

Toastmasters was founded in 1922 in the United States and there are now over 10 500 clubs worldwide, 124 of them in South Africa.

On joining Toastmasters you are given a Competent Communicator manual and a Competent Leadership manual. “These give you the basics,” says Varrie.

The Competent Communicator manual provides you with guidance to deliver the first 10 speeches. “Each speech has specific criteria,” says Varrie. “For example, speech eight is about getting comfortable using visual aids. Each speech builds on what you have learnt before and adds another facet. By the 10th speech you should be a Competent Communicator.”

The first speech is known as the ice-breaker. “You have four to six minutes to introduce yourself to the club,” says Varrie. “It’s your chance to say who you are. You know more about you than anybody else, so you should be able to talk for four to six minutes without the wheels coming off too badly.”

Speeches are evaluated according to whether they meet the required criteria. Other elements such as vocal variety, eye contact and body language are also taken into account and coaching is given. “Teaching takes place in a fun environment,” says Varrie. “There’s a caring safety net — you are doing what we have all done, so it takes place in a supportive environment with everyone willing you to succeed.”

People who join Toastmasters come from all walks of life. “Many people come from the business world and do the basic Competent Communicator, they get what they want and leave, while others stay on and go to the top.”

This involves completing communcation and leadership courses at different levels, and eventually becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster like Varrie.

Toastmasters also offers youth leadership courses to schools — “they are ideal for prefects” — and Speechcraft, a crash-course aimed at middle management.

Learning to speak well in public can have a transforming effect on an individual says Varrie. “When you realise you can you hold a lectern in front of people and not be laughed off the stage, it’s most empowering.”

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