IT’S been said that people fear public speaking more than death. Not so for Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, founder and CEO of The Voice Clinic.
"Public speaking always came naturally to me, especially when it was unprepared," says Rissen-Harrisberg, who attended drama classes from the age of six. "I struggled more with prepared public speeches, or remembering lines from a script or play, and have always been a better impromptu or spontaneous public speaker."
Rissen-Harrisberg studied at the University of Cape Town, finishing with an honours degree in theatre directing. She also completed diplomas in speech and drama teaching from the Trinity College of Music in London.
"I honed my craft from all aspects of presentation," she says. "I learnt the art of performance in all scenarios, and the art of teaching and directing others to produce their best performance, both vocally and visually."
Her first job was teaching future schoolteachers how to use drama as a tool to teach other subjects. Most of them mumbled and couldn’t project their voices. How would they stand up in a classroom and make themselves heard?
"One day I was driving to work and had a true lightbulb moment," she says.
"The words The Voice Clinic popped into my brain, and by the time I arrived at the college, I had already planned the first two courses that The Voice Clinic would offer."
Though her colleagues thought her idea was great, she was 22 at the time and had no business experience.
Also, in the late 1980s no-one thought that communication, speaking skills or voice training were important.
"I visited the Small Business Association for funding, but they told me it was a ridiculous idea," she says. "When I approached one of the big four banks, they declined me funding. So I used my credit card and started the business with R400."
Rissen-Harrisberg designed some brochures, had them printed for 20c each, and posted them to 50 companies. Ten organisations responded and The Voice Clinic was born.
The clinic has four branches around SA and outlets in Sydney and Melbourne.
When it comes to public speaking, Rissen-Harrisberg says that "the fear of being exposed and making a fool of oneself" is the number one stress factor for executives. But The Voice Clinic addresses this, as well as technical aspects such as accent neutralisation and proper pronunciation.
"I receive at least five letters a day from clients whose lives have been transformed as a result of this training," she says. "We are 100% successful at what we do, and if we can’t get an individual or company right with regard to these skills, no-one can."
Besides voice coaching, the company offers training in writing, sales, negotiation, empowerment, mindfulness, customer service, office management and more.
And for busy executives who need help in a hurry, The Voice Clinic offers express workshops that include the popular "Women’s Empowerment" and "Make Yourself Heard".
"We had a female client in Sydney who was being emotionally abused by her boss, and was ignored and not taken seriously during board meetings," she says. "She learnt how to put him in his place and take charge of the situation, and moved on to a better position in a new company. Had she not attended the training she would not have had the confidence or assertiveness to stand up for herself and take charge."
Rissen-Harrisberg cites this to show that there is no longer much difference between the needs of male and female executives when it comes to communication. We all need to feel "confident and empowered".
"The voice counts for 38% of communication, so most of us need to project a voice that conveys credibility, confidence and authority, but without being aggressive," she says. "It’s a fine balance, but an essential tool in today’s world."
More than that, Rissen-Harrisberg believes that every time we communicate with someone, we should make them feel better about themselves. She also describes herself as old-fashioned in the sense that she believes all people should be spoken to "nicely, eloquently and with respect".
"People should not shout, or be aggressive or abusive towards others," she says. "I long for a civilised world where people can treat each other with respect and communicate with emotional intelligence (maturity), care and concern."
Over the past three decades, the company has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals, from politicians and CEOs to television presenters and sports stars.
"We have trained motivational speakers such as Victor Vermeulen, a quadriplegic who came to us with the inability to breathe easily without aid," she says. "He became a successful motivational speaker by accessing his voice and learning to speak professionally."
The Voice Clinic has also helped people with paralysed vocal chords to speak again, and assisted with stuttering, language issues and stress management. But most satisfactory for Rissen-Harrisberg is the knowledge that the business has helped people to take charge of their lives.
She hopes to offer etiquette and eloquence training in the future. It’s all part of her goal to make The Voice Clinic a "one-stop shop" for all training in the communication skills, voice and public speaking industry.
EUGENE YIGA, AUGUST 13 2015, 07:04