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The Voice Clinic: Monique Rissen-Harrisberg

How a dynamic young woman cornered the market as the leader in communication training

Juliet Pitman

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Monique Rissen-Harrisberg of The Voice Clinic

“Whenever we open our mouths, people assessus, judge us, formulate opinions about us.” Think about that for a minute.Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, founder and CEO of The Voice Clinic, understandsprecisely how poor communication skills, an inability to present yourself oryour business properly, or even something as simple as having a squeaky andirritating 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 andcommanding so that when you pick up the phone to call a potential client, youdon’t lose them the minute you open your mouth.”

Rissen-Harrisberg started The Voice Clinicin 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 Speechand Drama in London,and was admitted as a licentiate of the same institution. While lecturingsoon-to-be-teachers on how to use drama as an educational tool at the Bellville Teachers Training College, she realised theenormous business need for voice training. “These were future teachers and Icould never understand what they were saying,” she says. “One day when I wasdriving into the college, the idea of The Voice Clinic came to me. When Iarrived at work I quickly outlined on paper the concept of a clinic withindividual voice and public speaking programmes.”

At the time, there was nowhere in South Africaoffering voice training and when Rissen-Harrisberg took the idea first to theSmall Business Development Corporation and then to her bank, she was told itwas “ridiculous”. Undeterred, she used the R400 budget plan on her credit cardto fund the business, writing and printing 50 brochures at 20c a copy andsending them off to various corporates. “From that I got about ten calls andthat’s how it started. Every time a client paid me, I would go and buy a couchor a typewriter or whatever the business needed. I had a three-month lease onpremises and thought I’d give it a chance.” Business was initially slow andRissen-Harrisberg lists finding the right people as the biggest challenge;staff at The Voice Clinic undergo a rigorous training programme and have tohold a degree in voice, speech and drama, communication or psychology.Initially, Rissen-Harrisberg, as a young woman trying to convince 45-year-oldmale execs that she could improve their communication skills, had only hervoice to sell her idea. But it’s a voice that’s rich and modulated andincredibly pleasing to the ear – and one that turned out to be extremelyconvincing as well.

So in spite of the challenges and whethershe 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 communicationskills for corporates and individuals alike.In 1999, Rissen-Harrisberg’s husband,ophthalmic surgeon Cyril Harrisberg, opened up the Stress Clinic, amedically-aligned holistic lifestyle division of The Voice Clinic. The obviouscross-pollination potential between the two entities has paved the way for evengreater success, with over-stressed businesspeople deriving benefit frominteraction with both.

The corporate landscape has changed andpeople are far more aware now of how presentation and communication can make orbreak a business than they were when The Voice Clinic started. The organisationsees everyone from CEOs to receptionists, teaching them breathing andrelaxation techniques first before developing the voice in layers, payingattention to vocal resonance, pitch, variety and pauses. Some might argue that the voice you areborn 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 voiceis a flexible instrument. It can be developed and changed and if people learnhow to use it properly they will be able to establish a rapport with whomeverthey speak to in whatever situation – whether they are launching a product,addressing the board, managing a sales team or speaking at a PTA meeting,” sheexplains. Rissen-Harrisberg has identified the powerful contributions the voicehas to make as a tool. “Some say that the pen is mightier than the sword,” shesays, “but I think the voice is even mightier than the pen.”

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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