Theresa May might be stocking up on cough remedies after battling through a croaky voice during her Conservative Party conference speech – but could the prime minister have done anything to fix her faltering voice?
Mrs May had to stop several times to drink water during her party’s annual conference address – at one point being handed a lozenge by Chancellor Philip Hammond.
To make matters worse, a heckler handed the PM a joke P45 before being bundled out of the hall, after which the slogan written behind the lectern fell apart.
Fellow politicians praised Mrs May for carrying on – with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisting she did a “fantastic job” while Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: “This was the speech of a brave prime minister struggling on.”
But Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former aide and a public speaker, insisted that her pre-speech prep was “shocking” – claiming that doctors could “sort” a croaky voice for an hour.
BBC Radio 4 announcer Neil Nunes also offered his voice tips – tweeting that the PM should have spoken more softly, suggesting: “Take a moment, pause, drink and it’ll come back.”
Prof Neil Tolley, a head and neck surgeon at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London, insists “no quick fix” could have covered up Mrs May’s tired voice.
“She’s had a very heavy workload,” he says. “Life’s tough for her at the moment.”
Arguing the case for Brexit, shouting in the House of Commons and chairing cabinet meetings have all taken their toll, Prof Tolley explains.
He says many politicians suffer from voice problems, but they can combat overuse by practicing breathing techniques to help them vocalise more effectively.
“I would change my delivery technique by speaking more slowly to take tension out of my larynx [voice box], rather than trying to shout my way through a presentation,” Prof Tolley says.
But he adds: “In the House of Commons she’s got to overcome a wall of noise, and that can be particularly challenging.”
‘Bend your knees’
Confidence coach Anne Walsh says Mrs May’s body language also impaired her voice – saying she was in “fight or flight” mode.
“The cough will have thrown her off, but she wasn’t breathing regularly,” she says. “She doesn’t fully extend her height and is exerting a lot of muscle tension.”
Ms Walsh says the PM could have benefitted from simple voice exercises, like humming, to warm up her vocal chords.
“The best thing to do is to release your shoulders, ground your feet, and slightly bend your knees.”
But what if you have to deliver a speech with a spluttering cough you really cannot suppress?
Some have expressed their sympathy for Mrs May’s inability to stifle her coughs – including BBC Scotland’s political correspondent Nick Eardley, who had a coughing fit at the SNP conference last year.
“We’ve all been there,” he said.
“The show must go on, so there’s no choice but to acknowledge it with the crowd,” suggests dialect coach Elspeth Morrison.
If a speaker really cannot hold their cough in, it is better to make a joke about it rather than to overlook it completely, she says.
“The same goes for a heckler – the worst thing is to ignore it because everybody knows it’s happened and it’s a chance to win over the audience.”
After being interrupted with a fake P45, Mrs May got cheers from the audience for joking that the only redundancy notice she wanted to give out was to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
If you have a cold, Ms Morrison says drinking a hot beverage or inhaling steam can help, adding: “It might sound unsavoury but if you’re feeling a bit phlegmy then swallow rather than cough to prevent further irritation.”
She advises avoiding highly caffeinated drinks like coffee, as well as sugary foods, which can dry out the mouth.
And one final tip? “If your mouth suddenly goes dry, take a bite of a green apple – it will make your salivary glands go!” Ms Morrison says.
“If you act confident in the body often your voice will follow.”
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