"I remember being on stage with 15 other people, all of them with really interesting, brilliant businesses. I didn’t think I stood a chance. Then my name was called, and I was in shock. I felt my legs carry me to the front of the stage, and my brain was just thinking ‘what on earth is going on?’ I was overwhelmed – somehow, I’d won! I was completely speechless…”
The irony is not missed by speech and accent coach Luke Nicholson, who won the 2017 Freelancer of the Year Award. Now one year on, I caught up with him to find out what he’s been up to since then.
“Winning the award has brought me an enormous amount of recognition over the last year – not just from people in the media, but from clients too.
“It’s been really nice to get a new student who I’ve never met before coming in and congratulating me on the award. Maybe because they’ve seen it on my website or maybe in an email or some other publicity.”
Being Freelancer of the Year has also given Luke’s business, Improve your Accent, a serious boost “from an awareness point of view”.
He tells me: “It put me on the map, letting people know that a speech and accent coach actually exists.”
Speech and accent coaching is not the type of job you get a brochure for on careers day at college or university. So why don’t we go back to the beginning: how did Luke get into this niche area?
Where it all started
Luke has always had a passion for languages and the spoken word. While studying German and Italian at the University of Birmingham, he also cultivated his passion for acting, leading the university drama society.
Then when he graduated, the theatre bug took him to East 15 Acting School. While he was there, a new path started to open up.
“A Belgian friend of mine at drama school was struggling with her English accent,” he explains. “She knew I was reasonably good at accents and asked me if I could help her.
“So I started coaching her, and it was then that I realised I wasn’t just good at it: I really enjoyed it too. I then had an idea that perhaps I could turn it into a proper business.
“After drama school I started buying lots of books on phonetics and teaching English. I’d also got a qualification to teach English as a second language before drama school, and that helped a lot too. I advertised online and started getting clients in pretty quickly.”
After that, things started to snowball, he adds.
“It soon became clear there were lots of people who had studied English at an advanced level but just weren’t being understood when they spoke. Their grammar and vocabulary were perfect, but they were still using their native language sound system to speak English.
“So in lessons, I taught them how mouth muscles work, how sounds work in a student’s native language, and how to move towards what English sounds like.”
From there, Luke’s business blossomed. He taught students from all around the world, soon building up a regular enough stream of clients to rent out some very impressive offices in central London. Then in 2017, he felt he was in a strong enough position to apply for the Freelancer of the Year Awards and the rest, as they say, is history…
Top of the tree
For the last year then, Luke has been not just at the top of his industry, but the leading figure in freelancing: the Freelancer of the Year 2017. It’s an accolade that he says has brought his business on in leaps and bounds.
“It’s massively increased my recognition in my industry and beyond. I’ve had interviews in the Evening Standard and on BBC Radio, my YouTube channel has picked up enormously, and my profits have doubled… which is great!
“I think the thing is that suddenly you’re not seen as just somebody trying to run a business – you’re suddenly seen on a different level. It really fast-tracked me to a position that I wouldn’t have otherwise been at this stage of my career. Not to mention giving me the confidence boost I needed to keep going!”
The £5,000 prize money wasn’t, I’m told, too bad either…
“It allowed me to invest in different areas of the business. And because the money was basically risk-free, it allowed me to push areas I couldn’t have otherwise,” he says.
One big project Luke developed through the prize money was his online learning platform.
“It’s really for anyone who wants to communicate more easily in English. If they can speak English but are struggling to get people to understand them, they can buy my online course, choose their native language and get a guide to what to study.
“Then there are lots of video lessons of me explaining things, practice worksheets and audio guides they can go through.”
He goes on to add: “Obviously a big part of it was giving people the means to study by themselves, away from one-to-one teaching. But it was also a way to address a problem I think a lot of freelancers have: fluctuating income.
“Sometimes you have lots of work coming in, and sometimes you have a lot less, which can make regular expenses quite difficult. So for me, it was also a way of addressing that and ensuring I had regular income each month. And I’m really pleased to say the online platform has seen a massive increase in popularity this year.”
Tongue twister tube stops
Holl-Born. Green Witch. Lice-ester Square. We’ve all heard London tube names pronounced with far too many small insects and magical evil women. But one of Luke’s biggest successes this year was an innovative tool to help newcomers to London navigate its more tongue-twistery tube stops.
“I basically recorded all the tube station names in London and transcribed them into phonetics and put them on my website. It’s a tool that people can use for free to learn how to pronounce them properly.
“The idea came up because every so often I’d been having conversations about how to pronounce Marylebone and things like that. I also used to live near a really weirdly spelled place on the Central Line called Theydon Bois.
“And often students come to me and ask how to pronounce a particular station they live or work near. So I just put it together in my spare time, and it went live last year on my site.”
The tool was a major success for Luke and secured him high-profile interviews both in the Evening Standard and on BBC Radio.
Luke-ing into the future
So, what does the future hold for the Freelancer of the Year 2017?
“Well, I’ve been working with an illustrator to create lots of designs for a revamp of my website, then once I’ve done that I’m going to start redesigning my online course.”
That’s where another of the big benefits of the awards comes in actually, he tells me.
The awards are a “great networking opportunity”, and this is where Luke met Rich Daley, another finalist. Rich is a software developer, who is now helping Luke completely redesign his learning platform.
He adds: “We’re creating another project already too, which hasn’t gone live yet. It’s essentially a tool where the user can type any English sentence or phrase and get it transcribed into phonetics.”
So, from half-a-million viewer videos and a booming online platform to tube station translators and a transcription tool, it’s clear the future’s bright for the this London-based speech and accent coach.