Stop an embarrassing coughing fit (like Prime Minister Theresa May's) with these public speaking tips

Theresa May's cough derailed her speech at the Tory conference
Theresa May holds up a cough sweet and glass of water during her conference speech [Photo: Getty]

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s keynote address at the annual Conservative Conference was overshadowed by an uncontrollable coughing fit earlier today.

For several minutes, the Tory leader struggled to get her words out as she rasped into the microphone. At one point, Philip Hammond got up to hand the Prime Minister a lozenge before she sipped a glass of water.

Coughing may be a nervous reaction
The cough derailed her speech to the Tories [Photo: Getty]

She joked: “I hope you noticed that, conference – the Chancellor giving something away for free.”

May’s coughing fit certainly didn’t go unnoticed, and many took to social media to mock the speech.

With many of us working in professions that require giving speeches or presentations in front of a large audience, it’s easy to empathise.

Do you have an intimidating conference coming up? Or have you been asked to give a presentation in front of your colleagues? Whatever is causing concern in your career, take note of these coping mechanisms suggested by experts in the public speaking field.

Understand the cause of the coughing

London-based Voice Coach Alan Woodhouse believes Theresa May’s coughing fit was as a consequence of fatigue.

He told Yahoo Style UK:I heard her on Radio 4 yesterday morning and thought that her voice sounded tired. Coughing fits can happen to anyone but are more likely to happen if a voice is being used a lot during talks and speeches. And especially, where the stress level is – one would expect – pretty high most of the time.”

He added, “Voices need exercise, rest and looking after. Just like the rest of our body.”

President of the London Debaters Toastmasters Club, Paul Carroll, agrees, as he revealed the cause behind many speech blunders: “Some people cough nervously, as some people laugh nervously.”

According to the NHS website, coughing fits can also be caused by an upper respiratory tract infection such as the common cold or allergies.

Take Theresa’s lead

As the Prime Minister struggled to get her words out on stage, she was briskly handed a glass of water, while Philip Hammond took it upon himself to offer May a cough sweet.

And she couldn’t have handled the situation better in the moment, according to advice from Carroll. “l like to pop a honey-drop into my mouth. Some voice coaches recommend glycerin drops, rather than anything sugary.”

He adds, “Stay hydrated and stand straight. Hunching scrunches up your whole breathing system, including your voice.”

Practice breathing exercises

In the run-up to a board meeting or presentation at work, Woodhouse recommends preparing to impress with breathing exercises.

“Good breathing is crucial to good healthy use of voice. When doing breathing exercises focusing on the out-breath is a good first move,” he explains. “I have a saying, ‘if in doubt, breathe out’. If the breath doesn’t flow freely neither will your voice. If your voice gets stuck in your throat you might cough and then you’ll definitely feel uncomfortable.”

The NHS also recommends breathing exercises on its website to help combat stress and anxiety.

Don’t be afraid to use your voice

Make sure to take the time to warm-up ahead of your big speech. Woodhouse advises singing in the shower to prep for the day. (Like you needed an excuse.)

He adds: “Try and find a space where you can give voice. Noisy tube platforms can be useful! Hum a song you really like. Enjoy the tune and the rhythm. You’ll be getting your voice ready for action.”


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Read more from Yahoo Style UK:

The real reason you’re tired all the time

11 signs you’re more stressed than you think

21 ways to give anxiety the heave-ho

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