As the commercial director of one of the country's largest book-wholesaling companies, Annette Burgess makes an unlikely Eliza Doolittle. At the age of 44, she is responsible for a sales team that supplies books to the National Trust, Hamleys and hundreds of garden centres. Yet this successful bookseller shares one thing in common with the cockney flower-selling heroine of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady: she has taken up elocution lessons.
"Communication is a very important part of my job and has always been something I felt could be improved upon," she says. "Probably my biggest challenge was the speed of my delivery, so I was very interested in looking at some form of elocution lessons to help me with my presentation skills. But I also wanted lessons to help me do away with my Devonian accent. I originally come from Plymouth, so there is a Devon twang to some of my speech that I would like to lose. I felt it was holding me back in terms of forward progression within my career. I also felt I could get my point across so much better if only people were able to keep up with me. I have a tendency to talk very fast and sometimes I can leave people behind. So it was all about slowing down what I was saying to people and making more effective use of the messages I was trying to instil."
A study of more than 500 people who sought elocution lessons through the UK's leading private-tuition website, thetutorpages.com, in 2011, reveals a mixture of reasons why many Britons are turning to voice teachers for help. The reasons most commonly cited by people include a lack of confidence in their voices, fear of public speaking, and dissatisfaction with accents.
Many of those seeking help from elocution teachers are business managers and professionals. They include company directors, doctors, lawyers, teachers, university lecturers, NHS managers, barristers and even ministers of religion. Others include students and recent graduates looking for their first step on to the careers ladder, and parents looking to help their children prepare for oral presentations and university interviews.
The depressed state of the jobs market appears to be fuelling this demand as even established professionals are increasingly turning to elocution teachers to help them to develop interview, communication and presentation skills in the hope of gaining promotion or a new job. Many fear they are being hindered in their search for jobs or held back in their careers because of their regional accents, or because they struggle to speak clearly.
Since Annette Burgess began her elocution lessons last autumn, she feels she has made huge strides and has ambitions to discard her accent completely. "I don't find my accent embarrassing particularly, but I felt it was holding me back in some of my dealings with high-profile customers. I would like to lose it altogether, which is why I have been working now with my tutor for a good few months and I think it has improved tremendously. It's all about practice and the more I practise, the better I become," she says.
Unlike Eliza Doolittle, who received her elocution lessons face to face with her rather formal phonetics tutor, Professor Henry Higgins, Annette's lessons are delivered in a thoroughly modern style; over the internet, using Skype. Once or twice each month, she sits down in front of her home computer in Northampton and links up with her teacher, Pauline Midwinter, in Ashford, Kent, via a webcam.
"Pauline has been a tremendously good teacher. She is very patient and has made the lessons very interesting. I was a bit dubious, being nearly 45 years old and having left school at the tender age of 16. It was a long time since I did any formal education. She was very encouraging. The lessons are a mixture of repetitive work, working on improving my pronunciation; but there's also occasions where we read together and act out passages from plays and other texts. The lessons have really progressed over the months. She has a huge ability to enable you to learn things without realising that you are learning, through tongue-twisters and reading different kinds of articles from the media as well as famous poems. She makes it all very light-hearted and it's not at all like the days of My Fair Lady."
Pauline Midwinter trained as a drama teacher and studied voice production as part of her arts degree. When she started to offer elocution lessons three years ago, hardly anyone was teaching it, she says. "I have definitely noticed an increase in enquiries and in the past year there has been a peak of interest. At one point I was refusing four enquiries per week because I can't fit everybody in," she says. "People come to me for a variety of reasons. In Kent, where I live, a lot of people come in from abroad to work and are looking to soften their accents so they can be better understood."
In what we like to think of as an increasingly classless society, and at a time when the distinctive regional accents are gradually being melded and lost, it seems a shame that there are so many people anxious to lose their accents. "I get a lot of requests from people looking to reduce their regional accents, Midwinter says. "I think as long as people speak clearly, if they have an accent, that's OK, as long as they can be understood. But there are times when a voice with less of an accent might be an advantage, for example at an interview, or if you are speaking to a large group of people, when it helps to have a voice that is loud and clear. Most people have very specific needs that they want to correct. Very few come to me and say, 'I want to speak like the Queen.'"
Another of Pauline's students is Melissa Ednie, who lives in Greatstone, Kent. Three years ago, she retrained as a holistic therapist after working in an accounts office for 13 years. She decided to take elocution lessons to improve her confidence when speaking to clients. A major goal, she says, was to drop her Estuary English accent – a mixture of Essex (inherited from her father), south London and north Kent. "Pauline went right back to scratch with me. She's taught me how to breathe, how to pronounce words and project them properly, and it's really working."
With rumours that Education Secretary Michael Gove also wants to see the return of traditional speaking and listening methods in a revised English curriculum in schools, emphasising Standard English, it looks like elocution lessons could also be on the political agenda. Annette Burgess would be the first to approve.
"I do think that if this could be offered in some way to children from a young age, it would be so much easier to learn and become part and parcel of their everyday life. The older you are, the harder it becomes having to start from scratch. I would absolutely agree that there should be some form of elocution lessons taught within the day-to-day of school life," she says.
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