By Gussie Fauntleroy
Sandra McKnight once spent 20 minutes trying to convince 10 men and women at a Denver telephone company to say hello when they answered the telephone.
They didn't want to do it. It took too much time, they said. They were computer technicians, more comfortable with a keyboard than with talking to people, and their employer had hired McKnight to help expand their communications skills. Which meant, among other things, offering a cordial greeting when they answered the phone.
What they were used to saying instead was one word — the name of their department — as quickly as possible, in a monotone and sometimes in a mumble. "I wanted them to say, 'Hello, this is Sandy in systems. How may I help you?' " McKnight said, her own voice animated and strong as she spoke over herbal iced tea in a downtown coffeehouse. She finally got the Denver employees to agree to change their phone greeting, she said, but only after she passed on a warning from their boss: Do it or else.
Underprojecting and speaking in a monotone are two of the most common voice problems McKnight encounters when she works with corporate clients who have hired her to help increase their company's effectiveness by changing how employees project themselves through voice, body language and presentation.
As a voice/communications consultant and actress, McKnight believes strongly in the positive power of projecting the right image — both in person and on the phone — and she sees voice as a very important part of that image. Through her company, Voice Power Studios, she offers training to individuals, small groups and businesses in developing presentation and communications skills and taking control of non-verbal messages conveyed through body language, tone of voice, breathing patterns and facial gestures.
She also leads seminars in what she calls creative expression, aimed at developing creativity, spontaneity and charisma, and teaches voice-related courses at Santa Fe Community College and the University of New Mexico.
McKnight is fond of saying that the way you sound at (any given time is who people think you are, no matter what may be going on inside you. She learned that lesson first-hand a number of years ago when her own voice underwent a dramatic transformation, and she's seen it happen with other people many times since then. After growing up in Pittsburgh, McKnight went to New York as a young woman to break into theater but instead found herself breaking down in tears when a director cut her off in mid-audition and bellowed that she had to get rid of that voice. He meant the voice's gratingly whiny, tight,
|Photo by Alan C. Taylor
Sandra McKnight, right, says of her communication skills workshops like this one: "I'm in
the business of helping people articulate their own drama."
|nasal sound, which until that moment she hadn't even been aware of.
McKnight took his advice and spent two years in voice training at the Juilliard School, learning things like proper diction, enunciation, breathing, rhythm, phrasing and projection — and replacing her nasal voice with a rich, authoritative-sounding one.
'I started sounding resonate, articulated and authoritative, and people started treating me that way.'
— Sandra McKnight
She went on to enjoy an acting and singing career in theater, television and commercials. But the most dramatic difference she experienced was in how other people related to her.
"I started sounding resonate, articulated and authoritative, and people started treating me that way," she said. "Even when I felt like a whiny little girl inside,
they were treating me like I knew what I was doing in life."
|Photo by Alan C. Taylor
Sandra McKnight: "You create things through
your body, your voice, the choices you
make — as an actor in your own life."
After a number of years in acting, McKnight decided to switch tracks about 10 years ago rather than continue fighting the competition for parts. She began offering voice consultation to individuals and corporate clients, and her business grew from there. She moved from
|Southern California to Santa Fe about four years ago.
When she first started giving voice/communication training, most of those who came to her were women. Many were shy and needed help learning to project themselves and to feel empowered. Now, McKnight said, many of her clients are in positions of corporate power and want to learn to make better use of their positions.
Particularly in business, a voice that conveys confidence, authority, persuasiveness and trustworthiness is an important asset. And these qualities are helpful not only for corporate leaders but for those in customer service, telemarketing and other aspects of business as well.
In many cases. McKnight uses elements of theater in her training, but she doesn't always call it that. In order not to scare people off, especially when dealing with technologically oriented companies, she sometimes refers to the play-acting, trust-building aspects of her work as "simulation."
In other contexts, however, she is exuberantly open about being an actor. Aside from doing seminars, teaching and consulting, she helps produce theatrical works and is developing a series of short monologues she hopes some day to present in Northern New Mexico and elsewhere. She calls her monologues — which are based on moments in her life and her experiences in Hollywood — "Oops. That's Life!"
McKnight is also working on something she calls Dream Theater, which involves manifesting dreams that originate in either the waking or sleeping state.
"You have a dream, and then you have to create it," she said. "It all gets back to the same thing: You create things through your body, your voice, the choices you make — as an actor in your own life.
"Because we all live in a drama, we can write our own drama. I'm in the business of helping people articulate their own drama."