Interview: Impact coach and actress Leonie Mellinger discusses her work with Newnham College, Cambridge
Impact coach and actress, Leonie Mellinger, who has a long-standing connection with Newnham College, has an event coming up that she helped organise with the Women of the Year and Newnham entitled ‘The She-cession: Why we need women at the helm of the post pandemic recovery’.
The Newnham College and Women of the Year Summer Event is only for Newnham Associates, students and Women of the Year alumni and is taking place online on June 12. Leonie says: "When the whole pandemic happened, everything stopped.
"I’d been very busy travelling all around the world, as usual, and then slowly people started to ask me was I able to do it online - and although I had rehearsed some clients occasionally online, it was not at all my norm. So I thought, ‘Okay, let's give it a go’.
"And to my surprise, I am absolutely able to deliver the coaching very effectively online. I’m working with people all over the world and in some ways it’s given me lots of flexibility. It’s working very well and I’m sure that in the future I will now do both."
Leonie says she’s been part of the Women of the Year "for a very long time" and notes that Julie Etchingham, from ITV News, is the organisation’s president. As an alumna of Newnham College, Julie asked if anyone would be prepared to go and talk to the students on a variety of subjects, including public speaking. Leonie was happy to oblige.
"So I went along and did a talk for the students," recalls Leonie, who as an actress has appeared in a number of films, television programmes and theatre productions (she was previously a member of the RSC), including Sons and Lovers, Memoirs of a Survivor (alongside Julie Christie), Bergerac, The New Statesman (memorably playing alongside the late Rik Mayall) and Maigret, "and the principal, Dame Carol Black, was sitting in the audience.
"She came up to me afterwards and said, ‘That was absolutely fantastic, I'd like you to come back and run a seminar for the Fellows’. So that began my whole relationship with the college, and it snowballed from there."
On ‘The She-cession: Why we need women at the helm of the post pandemic recovery’, Leonie says: "For the last five years, Newnham associates and Women of the Year have had a joint event to celebrate women and discuss the challenges of the 21st century.
"In the past, it was in person at Newnham College, and it would have been this year but for the fact we were too worried about the situation. So this year because of the ongoing challenges, we're online." Leonie continues: "This year the topic is going to examine how the pandemic has disproportionately hit the lives of women around the world, both at home and in their working lives.
"But also looking at the part that women are going to play in creating a better society as we come out of this crisis - and what opportunities should we seize at this critical point. Our main speaker is Dr Terri Apter, whose a psychologist and writer, and former senior tutor at Newnham College.
"She’s spoken and written about how women’s lives have been directly affected by the pressures of the pandemic, and then there will also be other people joining the panel - for example Kudsia Batool, head of equality and strategy at the TUC, Professor Maria Misra, who’s a lecturer on modern history at the University of Oxford, Victoria Kimonides, director of strategy at Microsoft, Joely To, winner of the Innovative Young People Award 2020, and it’s going to be chaired by Julie Etchingham."
Other work Leonie has undertaken at Newnham include a couple of four-hour seminars for the college’s Fellows - which resulted in three of them signing up for one-to-one coaching - and helping Dame Carol herself to prepare and rehearse a TED Talk.
Elaborating on the kind of coaching she does, Leonie insists that it is much more than just ‘presentation skills’. The idea came from a belief that she could utilise her performing skills she’d honed as an actress over the years to help people from non-performing backgrounds.
"That’s where it started," she explains, "but when I then thought further, I thought, ‘I don’t want to teach people how to act, I want to help them to be authentically able to perform the best version of themselves’.
"So I started to look at people who were talking and communicating, and the first thing I realised was that when people presented, in terms of the old-fashioned idea of making presentation, they went into this false, unnatural way of talking. I thought, ‘I don't want to teach people to do that, because I don’t like listening to people talk to me like that - it switches me off’.
"I’d like people to be able to talk to me just like we all talk to each other in real life, and to make it natural - and I realised that actually to do that was a skill because when people are uncomfortable, they fall into this ‘presentation voice’.
"I asked myself what makes presenting different from what I want people to do, which is talking, and I realised that the big difference was down to emotional connection - which is that if I feel something about what I’m saying, then people will understand that feeling and that emotional connection - and then they will feel connected with it too."
Following this "big realisation", Leonie set about teaching people how to "emotionally connect with content, how to bring it to life, and how to start and engage an audience immediately" - "so my coaching involves teaching people first of all the physical and vocal skills," she notes, "how to look comfortable in your skin and recognisably you, and not tense and rigid, and how to speak in a way that is not cut off.
"I teach my clients never to say, ‘I’m making a presentation’, but to say ‘I’m going to talk to these people; whether it’s one or hundreds, it’s the same’."
Leonie also strives to get her clients away from using PowerPoint slides - she refers to them as ‘PowerPointless’ - and also tries to teach people how to finish their presentation in a strong way and not just "fizzle out".
She adds: "So that’s what the coaching is about and that’s how it differs from ‘presentation skills’, which I think people are taught a bit more in the old-fashioned way. Often people come to me and say they were told that they shouldn’t use their hands, and I say, ‘That’s a bit strange because in real life, we all use our hands when we’re talking in an animated way’, so why shouldn’t you use your hands?"
Leonie has now been teaching clients all over the world, and from all different types of industries - including CEOs, politicians, lawyers and academics - for more than 20 years. To find out more, visit mellinger.co.uk.