In front of them stands Constance Lamb. A short figure dressed in leggings and a long jersey, her gestures larger than life, her big eyes snapping with life, her voice mellifluous and commanding. She is an actress - and you can certainly tell.
We are here today to sample Constance's one-day course in dynamic speaking and effective communication, and we are all pretty nervous. If you've ever had your voice criticised, you'll know that criticism of the speaking voice feels like criticism of the speaking person.
But not to worry. Constance Lamb is not in the criticism business. She is in the enabling business, to use a fading buzzword, and she is here to enable these hesitant middle-aged women with some of the actor's tools of the trade. Of course, in six hours, no one can master voice and body techniques which require years of practice, but identifying such basic utensils of communication as voice pitch, pause, pace, inflection, modulation and phrasing at least offers beginners the instruction sheet for DIY control of audiences.
It quickly becomes apparent that for this group, as perhaps for many teachers, a change in underlying attitude is at least as important as finding and developing technical skills. "Are you thinking of your audience?" Constance asks as Vera gabbles her way through her prepared speech. "Don't they need you to alter your pace?" Teachers, she enthuses, are sooo lucky. They have six hours each day in which to communicate - with pupils, naturally, but also with parents, colleagues and governors. Constance, as well as having been in the RAF (good for that voice power) and drama school (good for that personality power) has taught in a comprehensive. So she knows. If a few wry smiles are exchanged at this Samuel Smilesish version of shouting yourself hoarse to control unruly children, we take heart when Constance urges us to "play with your voice".
Is there some male colleague who is regularly getting your goat? "Play with him. Turn it around and sound really sexy to him. You have a lot of power in your voice - just release it and speak to him as a man. Resonate from the chest." There is something deeply satisfying about the vision of vamping the vicious bureaucrat and we all giggle.
Giggles apart, girls, it's not just a question of your speech (what you say) and your voice (how you say it). It's also projection and presentation (there do seem to be a lot of "p" words) which equates to WHO says it. Which is where Constance's bouncy good humour infuses into us all like a tonic, or possibly, to judge from the giggles, like a gin and tonic.
For example, to illustrate modulation and the different ways in which people can make the sound of their voices interesting, Constance takes a very stodgy sentence and trills out all manner of voice patterns with us, so effectively that I found myself humming this daft sentence all the way home: "So, you may be asking yourself, how can credit help with personal finance?" To teach vocal projection, she gets us to put one hand on our diaphragm, "think into your boots" and boom out "boots, boots, boots" as loud as we can. "Not loud enough!" We do it louder. "No, not in the throat, relax the throat, shake the shoulders, relax the throat and feel that power down in the boots." "Boots, boots boots," we chorus gruffly. "Better," says Constance in the tone people use when they mean "slightly less hopeless". "Now try it moving round the room, bending your knees, like this." And she stalks round the room like Groucho Marx, booming "boots, boots, boots". We stalk after her, booming likewise. "Better. Now, stand over there and tell me, look at me, MAKE me really listen to you , come on , BOOTS, BOOTS, BOOTS." So, one at a time, we tell each other, "Boots, boots, boots," And the second time, not louder but with more projection, "BOOTS, BOOTS, BOOTS". Do you know, it sounded HEAPS better.
With our boots sorted out, we can tackle our scripts. All kinds of tunes start to dance out of the merest educational platitudes, enhanced by the patterns of different ethnic origins. For Vera, who is Irish, and Razia, from the Indian sub-continent, the advice is "keep the accent".
"I love accents," enthuses Constance, "they add character; but control the breathing, use emphasis and stress to build the pattern of meaning and emphasise the end-consonants to help your audience to hear your words."
So many of the tricks of this trade are quite simple: looking out at the audience rather than down at your hands, pausing at the end of phrases. Taking the time to deliver the message instead of just posting it into space. But others are more abstruse and less expected: using the telling anecdote to illustrate your key point, building "trees" of meaning. This is not so much projection as presentation (keep working on those "p" words). As the afternoon wears on, we all become quite intoxicated with pizazz. Nothing breeds success like success, of course. I don't know what the others did afterwards, but I took my "boots" off to our junior school drama group and got 30 ten-year-olds to walk round the hall booming, "BOOTS, BOOTS, BOOTS". Not only did they love it, their projection increased 100 per cent. "How did you get them to speak so clearly?" asked the parents after our show. "Oh, I just borrowed some boots from Constance Lamb," said I.
* The workshop run by Constance Lamb was organised by the Teacher Placement Service at the North West London Training and Enterprise Council. For more information on Dynamic Speaking ring 0181-699 1940