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Why your voice and image can be more important than words

The call came at about 9 am. The local radio station wanted to do a live interview with one of the executives of AEA Technology, of which I was an executive director. The company had been split out of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and was soon to be floated on the London stock exchange under controversial circumstances. The Tories wanted to press ahead with privatization, the Labour Party was opposed, unions and many staff were opposed. The local radio chat show host wanted an executive to defend the privatization live on air in the next 30 minutes. No one else was available, so I accepted the invitation. I was to go to the local community centre, where the station had a room that was used for ‘down the line’ interviews.

I arrived at the community centre and was walked to the room. We passed the main hall, where a group of some 30 women were in the middle of an aerobics class. The sound of their feet on the wooden floor was definitely going to be a problem. I was put in the room and an engineer did sound tests. The noise from the aerobics class was too great. ‘Go and tell them to stop,’ he said.

‘Not a chance,’ I said, envisaging having to confront 30 hot and sweaty exercising women next door. ‘You send someone.’

A few minutes later, rather ominously, the thumping stopped. We were ready to commence the interview. I was sat in a small room in a comfortable chair, and the microphone was on a small coffee table lower than my knees. I had to lean forward and down to ensure my mouth was close to the microphone. I had a pair of headphones on so that I could hear the radio show host, and the people phoning in with questions. The interview commenced and I was live on air. The chat show host and the phone-in guests gave me a tough time, but I knew my stuff, I had a crib sheet in front of me, and I stuck to my guns. I was respectful of everybody’s views, but assertive in putting mine forward. I used stories, I had a burning platform to talk to about why the changes were necessary, and I painted a picture of a future in which all of us would thrive, to the benefit not only of staff but also of local communities.

At the end of the half hour I left feeling pleased that I had delivered all the key messages and acquitted myself well. (I have to admit, I did slink past the aerobics hall so as not to have to confront any of the irate women who had had to stop their exercise.)

When I got back to the office I asked my press and publicity manager to get hold of a transcript of the interview. It arrived the next day and I gave it to my then CEO, Dr Peter Watson, a no-nonsense northerner who was leading the organization through the change programme into a new commercial future. He was pleased with the interview and suggested that I circulated it to all other Executive Directors so that they could learn from it. He also asked me to get a tape of the interview and circulate that as well.

The next day, the tape of the interview arrived and I was horrified. I sounded just like a chipmunk, my voice tremulous, high-pitched and squeaky. There was no authority in that voice at all. The tape has never been seen again, but my lesson was well learned.

By leaning forward in my chair to get close to the microphone, I had stretched my neck and put myself in a cramped position where I couldn’t breathe properly. The effect on my voice was disastrous. The more passionate I got, the more high-pitched was my voice. I was mortified.

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