Caroline Goyder is a leading voice coach and author whose Ted Talk The Surprising Secret to Speaking with Confidence has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube.
“I have written a couple of books,” she tells Weekend Review. “In the old world, that would be the thing that made the big difference. But actually the Ted Talk has had a considerably different kind of effect on my life than the two books combined. I think we live in an age which is about the power of number. You know the number of likes, the number of clicks — and four million and rising views is quite a phenomenal thing. YouTube and Ted are a force of nature. They truly are.”
The founder and creator of the Gravitas Method credits a number of factors for the success of this phenomenal video. “I think there are two things that make people curious. One is that the title is ‘The Surprising Secret’ and I think people’s curiosity is a bit piqued by that. I think lots of people want to know about speaking with confidence. It’s a very common problem, so I think people are googling it. And then they see on the first screen as they open up the talk is a chest of drawers that looks like a man — and probably they are just a bit curious.”
Drawers in the self
Goyder has used a human-shaped set of drawers as a prop to illustrate the talk. “It was funny,” she says. “I was speaking with a speaker coach in America — we worked from Skype actually. She said I was talking about opening drawers in the self, why don’t I look online and see if there are any images of drawers in the self? It was such a strange thing. Within about two minutes of googling the drawers, I found someone in south London who created this chest of drawers that looked like a man’s torso.”
But it wasn’t just the prop that made the video such a success. “I think it taught me the power of a good title, the power of a quirky prop and, above all, the power of YouTube. I think with YouTube once you hit a certain number of views, YouTube actually promotes you. They push you up the algorithm. And that creates its own momentum.” There is a demand for long-form content. “I think YouTube wants popular talks. Someone told me that YouTube loves any content that is over about 10 minutes. They want long-form content.”
Goyder read English Literature at Oxford University. She trained to be an actor but confesses to not being very good at it. “I discovered that I really didn’t have the temperament to be a good actor. Acting is about taking someone else’s creative direction. I didn’t really want someone else’s creative direction. I quite liked my own. Hitchcock said good actors are sheep. You need to take instructions and I wasn’t good at that. I decided I was much better off being a coach in theatre.” So she worked on a Master’s of Art in Voice Studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
As a voice coach her clients are a mixed bunch. In the last few months she has worked with a couple of large London hospitals, a few major global corporates, an ad agency and a museum. “It is incredibly diverse. I have worked with a political party, I have worked with a monarch. I have worked with a famous magician. The monarch was not in the UK, I hasten to add.”
On the world stage is there any leader who has impressed her in terms of their voice skills or their gravitas? “I miss Obama,” she laughs. “I miss his self-awareness and his grace on the public stage. I think it is better to comment on the current incumbent by omission.”
Is someone like Barack Obama naturally a fluent speaker or did he work on it? “Oh, certainly he has worked on it. There is no such thing as a natural speaker. No, Obama was taught. When he was training at Harvard they told him that he would never make a politician because his oratory wasn’t good enough.”
How about in the UK? “In the UK, I would say there aren’t very many good people at the moment.”
She tells me about one of her clients who is a senior businessman. “He was absolutely phobic about making speeches to the extent that he was the boss but he would always send someone else to speak [in his place]. He had trouble in pitches and all sorts of things. And over the last year or so, he has got much more confident to the extent [that] he doesn’t really need me anymore.
“You know he is not perfect. Nobody is. But he feels so much more [at] home in himself — [that] he is able to stand up and speak at a party or in a pitch for his company in a big meeting. It is watching people like that, realising that they have a good speaker within — they just have to find it. Most people who can’t do it feel they will never be able to speak publicly and that it is something that it is just not for them.”
Does she ever get clients who are so hopeless they can’t be helped? “Oh, that is interesting. Anybody can transform if they want to. So, I suppose the problem comes if someone has been sent and they don’t want to change. But I tend to ask [them] before I start coaching. I tend to find out how much someone wants [to do] it. And if I find out they don’t want it, then I won’t do the coaching. I suppose I have got more savvy over the years. But I suppose when I started, I probably worked with people who just didn’t want to do it and then they won’t change. And these days I find out. I ask more difficult questions.”
She tests them beforehand? “Yes. I always want to talk to someone before I start coaching and I want to know how much they want this? Where do they want to get to? What is success going to look like for them? And if someone isn’t motivated, then I will suggest that they don’t do it.”
So, she turns clients down? “Yes, because if someone doesn’t want it, it is a waste of their time and money.”
Voice coaching has been around since Roman times. “In a world where there were no microphones, TVs, the human voice was even more important,” says Goyder. “Leadership was all about the human voice because you had to fill the assembly. You had to be able to speak to fill a great space. And so, people, like from Aristotle onwards... I don’t know writing before that but I remember reading about writers who were writing before Aristotle on speech — and I am sure in the Arabic tradition, I know it is a different kind of rhetoric but I am sure people were writing about it even before Aristotle. I can’t believe that he was the first. So, I think it is a very ancient tradition.”
I point out to Goyder that people with good oratory skills don’t always use them for good. “I suppose where I come in and what I do is that it is about revealing who you are,” she says. “It is about being really present to how you are showing up, and self-aware about how you are showing up. So, in lots of ways, it is actually revealing you more. If you have something to hide, what I do won’t be helpful because it is showing people who you are. It is revealing you more powerfully.”
She acknowledges someone who is self-aware and persuasive could use that to bad ends. “But that is true of anything isn’t it? Anybody can take something good and use it for ill because their intentions are bad.”
There are examples from history of such individuals. “I take your point that Hitler was a good orator, wasn’t he? And look where that got him. So, you have to hope you are training the good people.”
Goyder is prepared to turn down clients from questionable backgrounds. “If someone came to me from a party or a business that I didn’t believe in, then I would say no.”
Her first book, The Star Qualities, focused on building confidence and included interviews with A-list celebrities such as Kate Winslet, Gael Garcia Bernal and Susan Sarandon sharing their tips. Her more recent book, Gravitas, includes methods and techniques to help with situations such as presentations, pitches and meetings. She is working on her next book. “I am... slowly. It is work in progress.”
Goyder describes herself as a “bold introvert”. She wasn’t always a great speaker and had to work on her voice. One method which particularly helped her was the Alexander technique.
“Alexander was an actor or a reciter who was having trouble with his voice. He kept losing his voice. And so, he created a system to help him feel freer and to have a better sound. And it is all about self-awareness and understanding how we use our bodies and how we show up. It is a really powerful system for voice work, and also for confidence and relaxation.”
She draws a parallel between voice training and learning to drive. “I think everybody should learn to speak in the way [they learn] how to drive. It’s really useful to know how to speak well too. I think it should be taught at school.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.