Speak your way to the top. Speech coaches' ranks grow as they help go-getters

When Marina Meier studied civil engineering, she never expected her career to include any public speaking, much less television appearances. But there she was one day last winter, uncomfortably giving a community presentation on her work, when TV news cameras suddenly rolled in. ``I was already nervous, and they came in right in the middle and made me even more nervous,'' recalls Ms. Meier, who works for the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston. She managed to get through the talk, but her lack of self-confidence eventually led her to take a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking.

She has plenty of company.

Speech is a hot area for self-improvement these days. Communications consultants say record numbers of businesspeople are seeking professional help to polish their public image and get rid of such stigmas as a whiny voice, stage fright, dull delivery, or - the worst - a deez-dem-and-doze accent.

To meet the demand, the number of speech courses and consultants is growing apace, and publishers are pumping out new books with titles like ``PowerSpeak'' (Prentice Hall Press, $17.95) and ``Talk Your Way to Success'' (Simon & Schuster, $8.95).

Toastmasters International in Santa Ana, Calif., an organization founded in the 1920s to help people improve their communication and leadership skills, reports that its membership has more than doubled in the last decade, from 70,000 in 1978 to 145,000 currently.

Dale Carnegie & Associates in Garden City, N.Y., which has offered speech and personal relations courses for 75 years, reports that its yearly enrollment has increased more than 50 percent in the last five years, from 100,000 in 1982 to 160,000 in 1987.

``Our society has become dominated by the obsession with communications,'' says John MacKinnon, president of Leadership Training Inc. in Waltham, Mass., which has quadrupled its business in the last five years. ``Whether we focus on the media or electronic worlds, whatever, we talk about communications.''

Why all the fuss about a human skill that is as basic as speech?

International competition could be one reason, says J. Oliver Crom, president of Dale Carnegie. ``Companies recognize that they have to be more efficient with fewer people, and one of the ways to do that is to improve the communications.''

The slimming down of corporate structure may also be a contributing factor, suggests Kevin Donohoe, manager of training program operations at General Electric Aerospace. ``With more delayering and decentralization,'' he says, ``people who might not have been up in front of the general manager or even department-level managers until they'd been in their jobs quite some time are now thrown into the fire at an earlier part of their career.''

But the most powerful force fueling the fascination with communications - the one most often cited by speech gurus, trend-watchers, and corporate training managers - is television.

``Television has changed forever the way we communicate with each other,'' contends Sonya Hamlin, a speech consultant and author of ``How to Talk So People Listen'' (Harper & Row, $17.95). A majority of Americans get their news from TV, where the reports are very short and fish constantly for the viewer's attention, she says. ``We therefore expect something to be given with alacrity, in an already digested form.''

Roger Ailes, the media wizard behind George Bush's presidential campaign, agrees. ``As a result of TV, people today expect to be made comfortable in every communications situation. When someone speaks to them, they want to relax and listen just as they do when a TV professional entertains them in their living room. So when you and I communicate, we are unconsciously judged by our audience against the standards set by Johnny Carson and Dan Rather,'' he writes in his recent book, ``You Are the Message: Secrets of the Master Communicators'' (Dow Jones-Irwin, $19.95).

``Television has concentrated so much on the visual impression that maybe [Abraham] Lincoln might not have made it in his day if he'd had to cope with television,'' muses Dorothy Sarnoff, an early pioneer in the speech consulting industry and author of ``Never Be Nervous Again'' (Crown Publishers, $16.95).

Small wonder that businesspeople of all sorts are feeling pressure to upgrade their communications skills. Where speech course enrollees of 25 or 30 years ago were likely to be managers and salespeople, today they could be almost anybody - computer programmers, lawyers, authors, accountants, students getting ready to go on job interviews.

And where most course takers paid their own tuition a decade ago, today their employers usually pick up the tab - anywhere from $300 to $1,000. Private coaching (a must for stubborn accents) can range from $25 to $250 an hour.

Does it really pay?

John Olmstead, a New York-area investment consultant, answers an enthusiastic ``yes!'' His throat used to feel tired and strained after a workday of addressing both small and large meetings, and sometimes he would even lose his voice. There were complaints that people in the back rows couldn't hear him. ``It seemed to me that there must be something professionals did that I didn't know about,'' he recalls.

Two years of weekly sessions with New York speech consultant Ralph Proodian helped him achieve a complete voice makeover. ``I can hear the difference when I listen to tapes of myself five years ago and now. It's quite a remarkable difference.'' He's getting many more positive comments on his presentations now, too.

Meier, of the EPA, says the benefits of her 12-lesson speech course have been modest, though well worth the $795 her employer paid. Before the course, she had felt her lack of poise in the spotlight was holding her back on the job. ``I work on cleaning up Superfund sites, which tend to be very controversial sometimes. ... And I wasn't getting my ideas across, because I was so nervous about just speaking in public.''

After 10 weeks in the Dale Carnegie course, she says, ``I haven't seen a dramatic increase in my self-confidence, but I think I've learned tools to continue to work on it once the course is over.''

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