Speech consultant comes to the aid of technical experts

Many of the engineers, business executives, and other professionals who walk through the door of Susan Almazol's office are among the most highly educated people anywhere. But what they seek is advice of the most elementary sort: how to speak and write competently.

Recognizing that high-technology wizards are often the ones most baffled by the mechanics of a simple sentence, Ms. Almazol opened her Communications Training Consultants in the heart of the San Jose area's ''Silicon Valley'' last year. Although most of her clients are from the surrounding technical firms, including entire companies and professional groups such as Sylvania and the Society of Women Engineers, they have included a sprinkling of teachers and lawyers as well.

''Everyone, it seems, is afraid to get up and speak,'' laughs the petite, dark-haired Ms. Almazol when asked why her services have found such a varied demand.

On a more serious note she attributes her success to the growing importance of effective communication in career progress. ''Business, for example, is using more visual presentations than ever,'' she says. ''Many firms are now more people conscious than they once were. Electronic companies are now sending their engineers out to speak to groups of their sales people. It's a way of teaching the sales people about the technical products they sell and thus equipping them to answer questions out in the field.''

The need for better communication has also sprung from the explosion of information that has occurred in many fields, she adds. ''The more there is to know, the more important it is for technical employees within one company to share their knowledge.''

But despite the growing importance of clear writing and effective speaking in even the most technical of professions, communication skills are still all too often ignored by graduate schools and other training programs. ''I am constantly talking to engineers who tell me the math and design courses they had were simply not enough,'' says Ms. Almazol. ''Having to write reports and make frequent oral presentations was not something many of them bargained for.''

Whether her clients are engineers, business executives, or lawyers, Ms. Almazol uses seminars and individual consulting sessions to help provide what their education did not. Clients most frequently seek advice on speaking before a group, advice that often begins with learning to get nervousness out of the way.

''When people learn to control their nervousness by using certain simple techniques, they find that they actually are less nervous,'' says Ms. Almazol. Some of those techniques include learning the correct way to stand before a group and, the most common problem of all, what to do with the hands. Ms. Almazol advises clients to keep their feet pointed toward the audience, a means of ensuring that they will face the people they are speaking to rather than a visual aid or other object. As for hands, she recommends keeping one hand in a pocket and the other out.

''If it sounds a bit like choreography, it is,'' she says. ''I help people plan their movements because the correct use of hands, eyes, and feet are all important elements of giving an effective talk. Even knowing when to smile makes a difference.''

Men and women seem to be equally troubled by nervousness, but women show it much more, says the consultant. ''Men who are nervous tend to get wooden in front of a group, and so they don't show it very much. But women grow more and more flustered. Men often need to learn to appear more lively, whereas women often need to tone themselves down.''

Many of her female clients face other speaking problems that men usually do not. ''Women often have to learn to say things more assertively,'' she says. ''They don't use their voices as powerfully as they can and should. They also have a tendency to swallow the ends of their sentences.''

In any case, Ms. Almazol tells her clients that a touch of nervousness is all right, even preferable. The worst thing is to be so relaxed and blase that you look bored. ''Then what choice does the audience have?'' she asks.

During her consultations Ms. Almazol considers her videotape equipment to be an indispensable tool. By recording her clients in speaking situations, they can see how they actually look and sound. ''It is quite an eye-opening experience to see how you come across to others,'' she says. ''People have images of themselves that are often quite different from what they project. Often they imagine themselves to be as they were five or six years ago. Sometimes a client will make a simple change in hairstyle after seeing a tape; at other times the change is more complex, such as striving to appear more authoritative and mature.''

A common problem Ms. Almazol encounters in both the speaking and writing aspects of her service is that clients tend to use sentences that are much too long and convoluted. To get them to use shorter, more concise sentences, she often has clients work with a partner who repeats everything the other has said. ''What happens is that, if you have expressed more than one idea in a sentence, the other person has a hard time repeating it back to you,'' she says. ''It is an indication that they aren't able to understand and follow what you are trying to get across.''

Along with encouraging conciseness, she often teaches clients to translate their technical jargon into language their audience or readers will more readily understand. ''Many times people don't even realize that the words they are constantly using are jargon words. I advise them to explain technical situations by using analogies, often humorous ones. At first many technical people balk at the idea because they are afraid the audience will feel they are talking down to them. But the feedback they get is that most people enjoy the analogies. It is surprising how a complex idea can be phrased in quite a simple way.''

Another service Ms. Almazol provides is to get clients to use their voices in ways many have never attempted before. ''People often get into the habit of speaking in a single monotonous tone,'' she says. ''They don't begin to tap all the variations that can make speech more vital and interesting to hear.''

To develop a variety of tones, she often has her clients practice simple drills such as reading nursery rhymes aloud. ''Anything in which the meaning is chiefly derived from the way in which it is read is good practice,'' she says.

Despite the success her firm has so quickly found, Susan Almazol is a newcomer in the field. A former newspaper reporter, she entered a graduate program in speech communication at the University of Michigan, where her husband was also a graduate student. Entering it chiefly out of curiosity, she emerged in 1976 with a master's degree and a desire to make communications consulting her career.

After she and her husband, Dr. Octave Baker, returned to her native California, Ms. Almazol found work teaching technical communications courses at the Stanford University and University of Santa Clara engineering schools. A combination of teaching and employment at a consulting firm preceded the founding of Communication Training Consultants early last year.

Since then her positive approach to a subject often dreaded and misunderstood has won a variety of enthusiastic converts. ''Part of it is getting rid of the notion that speechmaking is a very formal, rigid activity,'' she says. ''Speaking to a group doesn't have to be that way at all. In fact, it can be quite conversational and relaxed. What does count is doing it in a competent way.''

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