In some select circles, the general election was the hottest ticket in town on 8 June. However, the UK’s diverse and thriving freelance community descended en masse to King’s Place in central London for the glittering Freelancer of the Year Awards ceremony – at the culmination of which, speech and accent coach Luke Nicholson was crowned Britain’s best freelancer.
Alongside a stellar cast of co-stars, it was the former leading man – whose business, Improve Your Accent, has taught students from 70 countries how to master the spoken English language – who left the stage as IPSE’s headline act.
Both personally and professionally, there is an inherent impressiveness about Luke and his business. From the way he has exploited a niche in the market and established himself as a leader in his field, to the number of people he has taught and the grandeur of his vision for the future.
Luke embodies all that IPSE is proud to represent in the freelance community, yet interspersed through his success and hugely impressive business offering – from tutoring to online pronunciation games and phonetic translator tools – he has a compelling sense of modesty, which was entirely visible in his reaction during and after the awards ceremony.
“I spent the whole day telling myself I hadn’t won, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Luke told IPSE a few days after the dust had settled on his stellar night.
“Especially after talking to the other freelancers during the day and hearing about all their successes and their interesting jobs.
“I was shocked and completely speechless when Ellie Taylor (comedian and host for the day) asked me how it feels – there were no words. It was a mix of shock and complete excitement having won.”
Despite his recent successes, Luke admits he almost stumbled into his career by chance five years ago.
He grew up with a passion for languages and the spoken word, and went on to study German and Italian at the University of Birmingham. Simultaneously, he also led the university’s drama society and went on to study at East 15 Acting School.
During this period, he was approached by a friend who needed help to master her spoken English. While tutoring her, Luke realised two things – he was both good at it, and loved doing it.
“While I was training at drama school, one of my Belgian friends was asking me to help her with her English accent,” Luke added.
“She knew I was reasonably good with accents; I started helping her and I realised I was good at it and really enjoyed it, so I had an idea that maybe this could turn into a proper business.
“After drama school, I started buying lots of books on phonetics and teaching English – prior to drama school I’d done a month teaching English as a second language, so I had a qualification in that as well. I advertised online and started getting clients in.”
Luke had found a niche in the market, and soon set about creating a business where he broke down the spoken language to its simplest form. Starting by listening to the way a student constructs their sentences, Luke then teaches them to physically retrain their mouth muscles to create the right sounds.
“It soon became clear that there were lots of people who had studied English at an advanced level but weren’t understood when they were speaking.
“Their grammar and vocabulary were perfect, but they were using their native language sound system when they spoke English, and didn’t know how to physically create other sounds.
“In lessons, we look at how the mouth muscles work, how sounds work in the student’s native language, how to move towards what English sounds like. But it’s not just sounds; it might be the way you hold your muscles when you speak to create a particular sound quality or tone, and it might also be intonation – the ups and downs of pitch – or rhythm.
“I taught a maths teacher from Nigeria. She’d actually been to her GP because she thought she had a speech impediment. Her issue wasn’t actually a speech impediment: she was just pronouncing sounds in different ways to English people.
“In her native dialect, she would make sounds like ‘l’ and ‘t’ with her tongue protruding out of her mouth and touching the lip, which, of course, we don’t do in English. Once that was explained to her, I gave her some practice worksheets and she has improved considerably.
“She’d been teaching for 20 years and her pupils hadn’t really been understanding her, so it was a huge breakthrough moment because suddenly she found it so easy to communicate to her class.”
Unlike many businesses, Luke can measure success almost tangibly, in the number of people he has helped. But as his business grew, both in terms of turnover and the number of people he was helping – and even when he rented an office space in central London – he was still being gently teased by friends who said he didn’t have a real job.
“I entered IPSE’s awards to show all those people who’d asked me, ‘when are you going to get a real job?’ that being a freelancer is a valid alternative to 9–5 employment and routine.
“I wanted to show them that a freelancer can be successful – that they can inspire other people to follow their passions, find business ideas and take risks.
“There are not many people in the world who do my job. Part of the reason might be that not enough people had thought of it, or people have thought of it but didn’t think going by themselves was a good idea.
“There must be so many good business ideas out there in the world that can serve a niche in the market, but people just aren’t taking the risk. Awards like the Freelancer of the Year Award really show that it’s possible.