Impress your clients: speak like Robbie

Kate Hilpern

The Independent on Sunday, 1 October 2000

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine Posh Spice hosting Radio 4's Today programme. Or David Beckham chairing a conference. Doesn't quite work? According to voice coaches, that's not because we associate them with celebrity parties but because of the way they speak. New research claims that over 50 per cent of business people feel their voice is a liability in helping them influence others.

Julia Haddon, a speech therapist, says accent remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks in business. Consider Brummies. According to research, if you got Jasper Carrott or Lenny Henry to make a company presentation to potential clients, they'd be more likely to snigger than sign. "Like the West Country accent, studies show that Midland tones are regarded by many as unintelligent and socially inept," explains Ms Haddon.

Paul Coggle, senior lecturer in modern languages at the University of Kent, says a better bet for fronting a company pitch would be the likes of Robbie Williams, from Stoke-on-Trent, or Big Brother's Liverpudlian star, Craig Phillips.

"The bottom line about accents is that some are more desirable and marketable than others," says Mr Coggle. "Accents go in and out of fashion according to how 'trendy' the area is. The Liverpudlian accent was hugely discriminated against in the workplace until the Beatles brought it kudos. It's gone out of fashion a bit since, but the Manchester accent has gained enormous approval since the city has become the 'scene'. I predict Leeds is the next up-and-coming accent because it's the next up-and-coming area, whereas Newcastle, Hull and Birmingham will remain frowned upon."

Nevertheless, our attitudes towards accent are changing. While received pronunciation (think Brian Sewell) used to be considered essential in sectors such as the law, banking and medicine, estuary English (think Jonathan Ross) is now gaining popularity.

"Although we're still a class-conscious society, we are far less so than in the past. In fact, that's also why differences between accents are slowly reducing," says Mr Coggle.

Voice coach Joan Adams believes a further reason for the shift in attitude is that children's peers now tend to come from more varied backgrounds and peers are proven to be more influential in affecting accent than parents. Television has also had an impact: regional accents have become increasingly popular, particularly among presenters of youth programmes.

But Mary Spillane, chief executive of the Image Works consultancy, believes that accent is not the most important factor in how you speak. "Being understood, with powerful and vibrant projection, is far more important in today's business world," she says, adding that more common complaints include "My voice is boring" and "I speak like I've got a rocket up my bottom".

Her advice is to loosen up. "When people feel uneasy, they tense up and their voice stays on one level. Tones gets trapped and they sound dull and lifeless. Audiences, not surprisingly, stop listening." Meanwhile, people who speak quicker than they think should work on depth. "A low voice sounds more authoritative and it will help you slow down," says Ms Spillane. Simple, compelling, unhurried tones will eliminate the risk of people leaving your meeting unsure about what you've said.

Madelaine Cannon, principal coach at Professional Voice, believes one of the new, but self-defeating, trends in using the voice is lifting it at the end of a sentence. You might think you have the fashionably Aussie tones of Kylie Minogue, but it also seems to suggest that what you're saying has no value. "Swallowing the end of sentences is also on the up," she says. "By articulating more clearly and speaking more slowly, we can avoid replacing the end words with a glottal stop. Which leaves the tongue ready to start the next one."

General advice from voice coaches includes working on varying the pace (speeding up when you want to enthuse and pausing for impact), using all your facial muscles when speaking and eliminating the ums and ahs. "Don't work on changing your voice beyond recognition because a voice should partly be a reflection of personality," says Ms Cannon, "But in a work situation, it is also your authority. It is, in other words, a business tool."

* 'Branding Yourself: How to look, sound and behave your way to success', written by Mary Spillane, is published by Pan at 12.99.

Placed on the Estuary English website by JCW 2000 10 04

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