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Speaking in a business-like way just takes a bit of training, writes Meg Carter

If you've ever worried about how you sound at work, help is at hand. Madelaine Cannon, actress and voice coach, is training a small but growing number of business professionals, not to alter their accents, but to improve the way they speak.

It's about posture and it's about breathing, Ms Cannon explains as she takes me through the basics of the personal assessment on which her voice training is based. "There's no such thing as a voice that's `right' or `wrong'. It's about helping it to work better - allowing it to truly reflect who you are by letting it come from deep within."

Effective vocal communication is vital for anyone in business. Yet it is often overlooked in standard presentation and media training. Which is ironic, as content and appearance can count for little if your voice lets you down.

Ms Cannon begins by asking her clients to give a short, work-related speech or presentation after which, she asks: "Tell me exactly how it felt." Having spent the past few minutes shifting my weight self-consciously from foot to foot, speaking quickly with a feeling of tightness in my neck and jaw, the answer could only be awful.

How you stand dictates the support you body lends to your voice, she says. Ensuring your weight is balanced, with legs straight - though not so rigidly that you knees lock - is vital. If sitting, try to follow the same principle - keeping your body untwisted, back straight and head slightly raised.

"Under pressure you have to work to relax into a deep breath," Ms Cannon explains. "But many people breath only shallow breaths. Take the air down low and feel how it expands within you, horizontally against your rib cage." This adds weight and timbre to the voice.

Shallow breathing results in a more youthful, girlie-sounding voice, Ms Cannon says. This is a common problem for women who wish to be taken more seriously in business meetings. "If you start out with you voice too high you can find you have nowhere to go - particularly in an argument." Men, meanwhile, often face problems with monotone.

"The danger is cutting off the voice from the body resonance," she says. "Most people, when they feel uncomfortable, tense up and their voice tends to stick to one note. They add hand gestures to compensate for this and quickly hit an impasse: the voice is trapped. They start to sound dull, and lifeless. And people stop listening."

Coaching also addresses clarity of speech - articulation and enunciation, voice dynamics - pitch, pace and power, speech preparation and projection of the voice in different physical environments.

Many of us swallow the ends of our sentences, 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. Equally important is fighting the Nineties trend for lifting the voice at the end of a sentence. "This may give a relaxed, Australian feel to what we're saying, but it also seems to suggest it has no value," she says.

The voice is part of your personality and, in a work situation, your authority. Which is why Ms Cannon does not advocate toning down regional or national accents. Instead she suggests modifying certain "problem" consonants if they make you difficult to understand. But only make this change while at work, she adds: "Use the moderation of your speech as a business tool."

Madelaine Cannon is principal coach at Professional Voice, a voice coaching service in London. For more information contact Marie Lester on 0181- 579 6662.

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