“Whenever we open our mouths, people assess us, judge us, formulate opinions about us.” Think about that for a minute.Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, founder and CEO of The Voice Clinic, understands precisely how poor communication skills, an inability to present yourself or your business properly, or even something as simple as having a squeaky and irritating or monotonous and boring voice, can impede the success of a company.“You need to make sure that your voice is pleasing to the ear, confident and commanding so that when you pick up the phone to call a potential client, you don't lose them the minute you open your mouth.”
Rissen-Harrisberg started The Voice Clinic in 1988 at the age of 23. With a BA in English and drama and an honours degreein speech and drama, she is also an associate of the Trinity College of Speech and Drama in London, and was admitted as a licentiate of the same institution. While lecturing soon-to-be-teachers on how to use drama as an educational tool at the Bellville Teachers Training College, she realised the enormous business need for voice training. “These were future teachers and I could never understand what they were saying,” she says. “One day when I was driving into the college, the idea of The Voice Clinic came to me. When I arrived at work I quickly outlined on paper the concept of a clinic with individual voice and public speaking programmes.”
At the time, there was nowhere in South Africa offering voice training and when Rissen-Harrisberg took the idea first to the Small Business Development Corporation and then to her bank, she was told it was “ridiculous”. Undeterred, she used the R400 budget plan on her credit card to fund the business, writing and printing 50 brochures at 20c a copy and sending them off to various corporates. “From that, I got about ten calls and that's how it started. Every time a client paid me, I would go and buy a couch or a typewriter or whatever the business needed. I had a three-month lease on-premises and thought I’d give it a chance.” Business was initially slow and Rissen-Harrisberg lists finding the right people as the biggest challenge; staff at The Voice Clinic undergo a rigorous training programme and have to hold a degree in voice, speech and drama, communication or psychology.Initially, Rissen-Harrisberg, as a young woman trying to convince 45-year-old male execs that she could improve their communication skills, had only her voice to sell her idea. But it’s a voice that’s rich and modulated and incredibly pleasing to the ear – and one that turned out to be extremely convincing as well.
So in spite of the challenges and whether she realised it initially or not, Rissen-Harrisberg was onto something big.Today The Voice Clinic employs around 56 people, has five branches throughout South Africa and one in Sydney, Australia, and is the leading authority on voice training, presentation and communication skills for corporates and individuals alike.In 1999, Rissen-Harrisberg’s husband, ophthalmic surgeon Cyril Harrisberg, opened up the Stress Clinic, a medically-aligned holistic lifestyle division of The Voice Clinic. The obvious cross-pollination potential between the two entities has paved the way for even greater success, with over-stressed businesspeople deriving benefit from interaction with both.
The corporate landscape has changed and people are far more aware now of how presentation and communication can make or break a business than they were when The Voice Clinic started. The organisation sees everyone from CEOs to receptionists, teaching them breathing and relaxation techniques first before developing the voice in layers, paying attention to vocal resonance, pitch, variety and pauses. Some might argue that the voice you are born with is the one you’re stuck with, but Rissen-Harrisberg would disagree –and she has 18 years’ worth of case studies to back up her position. “The voice is a flexible instrument. It can be developed and changed and if people learn how to use it properly they will be able to establish a rapport with whomever they speak to in whatever situation – whether they are launching a product, addressing the board, managing a sales team or speaking at a PTA meeting,” she explains. Rissen-Harrisberg has identified the powerful contributions the voice has to make as a tool. “Some say that the pen is mightier than the sword,” she says, “but I think the voice is even mightier than the pen.”