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Emotion up, gestures down; joke a lot, don't wear brown

By Anita MicossiSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1988


JACK KENNEDY was one of the first to do it. Jimmy Carter toned down his ``cracker'' image by doing it. The current President of the United States could write the book on it. And the next president probably won't get elected without it. This is the behind-the-scenes business of media training - a process that offers everything from political advice, message development, and acting exercises, to speech therapy, breathing techniques, and grooming tips to help candidates communicate more effectively through the electronic media.

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Like athletic coaches, media coaches work to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and maximize the innate potential of their charges.

Michael Dukakis, for example, learned to control his hand gestures - an expressive Mediterranean way to punctuate remarks, perhaps, but a distraction on TV. Richard Gephardt was told to relax and let loose some of the humor he shows in private. And Robert Dole was advised to tone down the sarcasm.

``Our job is to eliminate things that get in the way of the message,'' says political consultant Dan Payne, of Payne & Associates, in Boston. But media advisers, like acting teachers, attack the problem at different levels.

Dorothy Sarnoff, a former actress and founder of Speech Dynamics Inc., in New York, overhauls the costuming and conquers stage fright. She told Senator Dole to replace his baggy brown suits - ``a man looks less authoritative in brown, don't you think?'' - in favor of figure-fitting blue suits, pastel shirts, and natty ties. She also showed him, in a video playback, that his habit of sinking onto a lectern and leaning heavily on his crippled arm drew attention to his handicap.

``I pointed out ... that if he stood at the lectern straight shouldered, with upper torso held high ... we would not even notice his arm,'' she explains.

``Presence'' is a favorite Sarnoff word. It's the result of how you carry yourself physically, and it plays to the audience as confidence, authority, and ease. How does she get it? - with a variety of physical techniques, including the ``Sarnoff Squeeze,'' a breathing exercise designed to conquer every negative inclination from nerves to nausea to sweaty palms.

Sarnoff scoffs at people who advise a candidate to ``be yourself.''

``Just who is `yourself'?'' she asks. Sarnoff has no trouble with the idea that she ``repackages'' people, if the original ``package'' - however ``natural'' - is self-defeating. For instance, she adores Paul Simon's rich baritone voice but would like to rip off that signature bow tie, because, she says, ``it robs him of presence.''

Frances LaShoto, who teaches communications at Emerson College in Boston, is a speech coach who also focuses on ``the physical instrument.'' In 1960, she used vocal exercises with John Kennedy to deepen and ease the strain out of his high-pitched voice. Today she works with Michael Dukakis on modulation as a way, she says, ``to get the emotion that's in his body into his voice.'' Before a major TV address, Ms. LaShoto tells the Duke ``to imagine that he's talking to four people in a busy kitchen.'' After he does a dry run on video, the two analyze his voice and body language for flat tonality or errant gestures.

LaShoto also keeps an eye on the competition. She suggests that George Bush relax and lower his vocal pitch to eliminate the ``tight jaw, nasal, `snarly''' quality from his delivery. She, too, applauds Paul Simon's wonderful baritone but criticizes his monotone. She calls Jesse Jackson ``a marvelous communicator,'' but difficult to understand when, ad-libbing, he slips into dialect.

Like Sarnoff, LaShoto says that physical poise and vocal flexibility help people communicate more effectively, while bad habits interfere. ``I loved Bruce Babbitt,'' she says, ``but he had this habit of smacking his lips after every statement. That sort of thing draws attention to itself, and, I think, it got in the way of people hearing what he had to say.''