HR magazine tries... Public speaking coaching with a musical edge
Jenny Roper tries public speaking and voice coaching, including breathing and positive visualisation techniques
Spare a thought for poor Beth Aarons, global director of the Dorchester Collection Academy. Checking to see how my coach for the morning (opera singer Dani Bernstein) and I are getting on in the Academy’s swish Beverley Hills room, she finds us lying side by side on the floor, knees up and hands by our sides… breathing deeply.
Not perhaps what she was expecting when she kindly offered to let us use the space for some public speaking training. And to be honest neither was I.
“I start all sessions slightly differently,” says Bernstein, once Aarons has been reassured there’s no medical emergency and leaves us to it. “You’re very lively and gregarious,” Bernstein adds. ‘So I can take a slightly zany out-of-my-comfort-zone exercise to start,’ I think slightly smugly.
“So we need to calm you down a bit,” Bernstein continues, bursting my bubble – but also proving her point.
Bernstein is a classically-trained mezzo soprano, whose early career included singing at the Royal Albert Hall, Sadler's Wells and Manchester's Free Trade Hall. She then moved into advertising, rising to director level but also continuing her music, voice training and coaching work outside the office.
Now, alongside running an executive search business, she’s founder of coaching and mentoring consultancy meTomorrow. As well as singTomorrow training – which works with both budding musicians but also corporate clients looking to ‘reinvigorate' employees and rebuild their confidence – the consultancy also works with clients in a more traditional voice-coaching capacity, seeking to help them ‘project an impressive voice in terms of tone, fluency of speech, appropriate language and confidence projection’.
Luckily for me it’s the latter I’m here to work on so singing won’t – I’m hoping – be on the agenda. And the latter, quite frankly, sounds great.
People always look slightly surprised when I say public speaking fills me with something not too far from dread. ‘But you’re so good at words, public speaking must come naturally…’
Wrong. What comes naturally is sitting behind a computer, on my own, possibly still in my pyjamas working from home, crafting perfect sentences. The very opposite to producing words – perhaps even spontaneously and off the cuff – to a room full of actual people.
I’m also, I’ve learned through various psychometric profiling exercises over the years at HR magazine, an introvert. Yes I’m gregarious and love talking to and finding out about people. But when it comes to relaxing and replenishing my energy it’s the hermit’s life (with added Netflix) for me.
So when Bernstein asks me to visualise, while lying on the floor, when I tend to feel most at peace, I immediately think of being on my own first thing on a Sunday morning engrossed in a book.
The trick, Bernstein explains as we progress through various breathing and sitting-straight (yes really) exercises, is to hold relaxing memories or experiences in your mind as you go into a public speaking situation. “Take a moment to just centre yourself in that happy place,” she says, advising me to look at a picture that does this before going onstage.
It’s a great thought, but I’m wondering if I need a ‘place’ more evocative of feeling relaxed in a social situation than reading a book…
Nonetheless the lying on the floor exercise is surprisingly useful. Bernstein makes me stay there long enough that my back relaxes into the floor, opening up my core and all the good projecting muscles there.
The other crucial thing besides mindset, posture and stance is breathing. Bernstein takes me through several surprisingly difficult exercises designed to get me inhaling more deeply from my diaphragm.
“It takes a whole lifetime to learn how to breathe,” she reassures me as I struggle to get this right both standing still and as we pace the room. Even professional opera singers have to regularly practise, she explains.
Fortunately for me (and Aarons and any other Academy team members potentially within earshot), the closest I get to singing is a humming technique Bernstein recommends for calming the jittery feeling that bubbles up shortly before speaking. But I’m not let off the hook entirely. Bernstein has asked me to bring my violin along and gets me to play a piece first sat down then walking around the room.
“You look so different when you play,” she says, taking pictures to show me. “You’re so absorbed and calm, you have such empathy with your violin, your posture is so much better.”
I explain that although I’ve always found performing in front of people nerve-wracking too (take the violin exam where my bow arm shook so badly I had to stop and start again), an instrument is at least something to hide behind and make me feel less exposed.
Standing behind a lectern or chair and sitting so I feel supported will be key for me, Bernstein concludes. And it’s amazing the difference an extra cushion behind my back makes to how much more confident I feel presenting from a chair.
Also important for me, we discover, is prep. Bernstein is amazed at the difference between my speaking voice when I’m trying to present and project to her off the cuff, and when I’m reading from a book.
But I mustn’t fall into the trap of over-preparing Bernstein warns – something I’m definitely prone to. Silence is incredibly powerful she advises, encouraging me not to try and say so much that I forget to breathe properly or think about what I’m saying.
There’s plenty of homework from our two-hour session. And there are lots of simple practical takeaways. For example: getting a laptop stand for working from home to improve my posture.
Perhaps most powerful though is Bernstein’s insistence on something she says is also highly relevant to HRDs: the power of finding regular moments to regain headspace.
“The problem with HRDs is that the speed of day they have to get through is unbelievable. There’s so much pressure… they almost need to learn to take time out,” she says. It sounds very akin to life as an editor; rushing so much between meetings and deadlines that being calmly in the moment when it comes to presenting can be tough.
“It’s about giving them permission just ‘to be’ for a moment,” Bernstein adds. And so I leave with a sense of the importance of creating space for myself in the run up to speaking, and to not feel guilty about this.
That evening I also hit on my more social being-with-other-people happy memory. It’s a photo of me and two of my best friends after perhaps one too many rums on holiday in Havana, grinning at the hilarity of not managing to find any dancing in ‘the city of dance’ on a night out, but deliriously happy anyway.
So if I’m grinning cheekily to myself next time you see me present, and perhaps sipping a hip flask of rum (instead of the lemon and honey Bernstein recommends), you will know exactly why.