hownowbrowncowIt might be the most famous speaking exercise of them all. Unfortunately, “How now brown cow?” may have long outlived its usefulness.

Speaking coaches often focus on the qualities of a speaker’s voice: rounding out vowels or developing mask resonance, working on diction and enhancing clarity. There are a whole set of tools and techniques to achieve this. Some of them do involve phrases designed to exercise certain elements of the voice.

“How now, brown cow?” probably shouldn’t be one of them.

One of the most damaging assumptions new speakers make about public speaking is that there is a “good” way of talking – a particular kind of voice which all the best speakers should have. The BBC was once awash with newsreaders and presenters who spoke in an exaggerated form of “the Queen’s English”, a very strict form of speaking which has since given way to many more regional dialects.

The reason for this change is that the “received pronunciation” (RP) of the 1930s BBC was quite an artificial way of speaking – it was invented as a “standard,” and isn’t found naturally in any location in England. That means that it can sound remarkably inauthentic if someone tries to speak in that way without it being part of their identity. In the mouth of Jacob Rees-Mogg, RP makes sense; should Sir Alan Sugar try to ape the accent, he would sound silly.

“How now, brown cow?” is an exercise that can be dated to 1926 – the high-water mark of RP. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that it was once considered appropriate to pronounce this phrase as, “hai nai brine kai”. So you see, even RP changes over time.

Here’s the key: how you speak on stage should reflect who you are, and few of us are now the sort of people who would say “hai nai brine kai”. Diversity in accent is now far more acceptable – indeed, even more desirable – than it was in 1926. Parroting artificial phrases is not the best way to train your voice for the contemporary environment.

In many ways, exercises like “how now, brown cow?” actively discourage speakers from improving – because they set odd and artificial targets that most of us can’t, and shouldn’t, aim for.

The best thing most speakers can do is optimise their ordinary speaking voice for public performance. Audiences will like you better for it – and you will feel both more natural and more relaxed as a result. Leave that brown cow alone.

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