The speaker, evidently nervous, steps shyly toward the podium. A Sony video camera monitors his distracting twitches, while a microphone amplifies any oral blunder. Here is every speaker's nightmare: a stage set for anxiety.
The audience, in the form of a faceless doll, slouches in a chair doing nothing to disguise its boredom.
More and more companies and government agencies are discovering that speakers who communicate effectively with audiences are valuable for business, especially in a city that routinely gets an earful at seminars, television talk shows and conventions. And because there was a need, several area entrepreneurs stepped in to fill it.
The speech-giver's torture chamber described above is at one end of Virginia von Fremd's Bethesda office. As owner of Professionally Speaking-Vocal Impact Programs, she uses high-technology equipment -- plus doll -- to coach clients out of their speaking fears and foibles.
"Video is a great teaching tool," von Fremd says. "It cuts through the time element," allowing her clients to critique their appearance and speaking habits during tape-cassette replays.
Another pair of speech and media counselors, Ellen Miles and Louis Hampton of Hampton, Bates & Associates Inc., in Arlington, teach government and corporate clients "how to deal with the media" and how to communicate more effectively on TV and radio, in seminars and in general speeches. Among their clients: Marriott Corp., Exxon, attorneys, engineers, Virginia Republican Party members, Department of Energy contractors and State Department staffers. The duo charge $150 an hour for individual instruction with video critiques; $1,750 per instructor per day for group programs.
Turning sharp questions into cream puffs and avoiding the "shotgun interview," in which microphones are thrust in the face of an unwilling subject, are among Miles' and Hampton's specialties. "The first thing is to depersonalize the hostile question," Miles notes. "Be prepared, know what the nasty question's going to be, be honest and try to turn it to your advantage."
Jim Fleckenstein, coordinator of field staff for the National Rifle Association, says Hampton, Bates conducted an effective speaking workshop for 16 NRA staffers last year. When fielding reporters' pointed probes, Fleckenstein says, "The lesson is to maintain your cool, know your material, don't get overemotional and deal on a professional level."
Before addressing a group, "lots of people think back to the seventh grade, a lighted stage and a book report they gave with no preparation that was a terrifying experience," Hampton says. He claims it's fairly simple to change bad speaking habits, to direct a speaker toward a more conversational style.
Hampton, a media consultant since 1976, has the poise and looks of a talk-show host (he was formerly an actor and teacher at Landon School in Bethesda and St. Albans in the District). He notes that while "Reagan may have brought charts back in, there's a danger in using any visual aid." He cites one firm that produced an expensive and ultimately distracting slide show and forced a speaker to build a speech around it. "Let the speaker be the main visual," he advises.
Hampton finds his political clients are "the worst as far as not wanting people to know they've had training." And once elected, they wrongly assume they don't need help, Hampton believes.
Miles and Hampton recently worked with Susan Davis, president of Successful Woman Inc., an executive recruiting firm, simulating a seminar Davis will lead next month on the subject of pregnancy among women managers. After watching herself on videotape, Davis noted, "When I'm really thinking, concentrating and looking straight at the interviewer, it's much easier."
Ken Tomlinson, senior editor of Reader's Digest in Pleasantville, N.Y., was a reluctant student of Hampton's last year, prior to hitting the talk-show circuit for an article he'd written on welfare reform.
"I thought I could handle it without training, but the magazine sent me, and I was amazed when I saw the first replay of the videotape," he says. "It was really terrible."
His hands dangled, moving aimlessly, "making me look quite silly," he recalls. And he rambled. "Hampton told me to know the important points I wanted to make, almost regardless of the questions," and to speak as concisely as he writes. It worked. Now, Tomlinson says, he watches politicians on television and thinks they'd do well to take lessons.
Von Fremd's fee of $300 for three 60- to 90-minute sessions has been underwritten by corporate clients such as General Electric and Washington Gas Light. In her five years in the business, she has coached businessmen and women, a religious leader, local and national candidates for both political parties, and local and network television talent. (A talk-show set is simulated, with casual sofas and coffee table in the adjoining room.)
Von Fremd also has donated time to help poets make video archives for a D.C. Community Humanities Council workshop on black history.
A former radio talk show hostess and character voice on Art Buchwald's radio show, von Fremd's reputation spread through local television stations by word-of-mouth.
She coaches Stuart H. Loory, managing editor of the Cable News Network Washington bureau, for his on-air reports, interviews and discussions with anchormen and women.
After 25 years of print journalism, Loory came to CNN with no television background. "She's trying to get me to be more conversational on the air and to raise my energy level," he says. "She said I 'keep tight custody of my smile.'
"Your colleagues don't have the time or inclination to tell you as boldly, rudely and necessarily as somebody being paid to provide that service," he adds.
Washington Gas Light hired von Fremd as a consultant for the company's customer relations department. In two five-week morning sessions, personnel were videotaped. Their diction, speech patterns, mannerisms, noisy jewelry, distracting clothes and other problems were reviewed on-screen.
Terry Shaw, an accountant with Washington Gas Light, learned the basics of breathing, diction and projecting in von Fremd's January course. Shaw was coached to vary the pitch and pace of his delivery.
"She made me feel comfortable getting up in front of a crowd," he says. "If you prepare for it and learn to reduce the tension in your body, it can be kind of interesting."
Architect Edward Noakes of Noakes Associates in Bethesda makes presentations to prospective clients in groups of eight or 10, holds one-on-one marketing conversations and sometimes addresses gatherings of as many as 100 persons. To tailor his style to each situation, he's coached by von Fremd for an hour once every two or three weeks. "She hones your skills," he says. "She felt, for instance, that I should not read from notes, and she was right. I get along perfectly well ad libbing. Her emphasis is on being natural: if you're worth listening to, they'll listen."
Von Fremd studies speakers with a professional eye, sitting through more than her share of conference, luncheon and talk-show spiels. Along the way, she has established a few basic rules:
* If you're bored with the audience, they sense it within seconds.
"Don't pull down that curtain of formality," she says. Successful speech-making is dependent on "how you feel about yourself and how you feel about the audience. A genuine enjoyment of the audience comes through, whether around a conference table or an auditorium."
* Shy people make the best communicators, according to von Fremd's law of overcompensation. "Through the years, they've listened well, they have empathy and understanding. When they finally do open up, they bring an interesting element to it."
* Eye contact is absolutely necessary, she says, although it's counterproductive to think, 'Now I'm making eye contact.' Tricks such as looking at the middle of the forehead of someone in the front row are wasted energy. That kind of advice to nervous speakers is "ruinous," she says.
In the end, she adds, "No charisma can take the place of doing homework."
Miles and Hampton agree that, especially on TV, gimmicks such as gazing just above the camera lens or over the interviewer's head end up looking "shifty-eyed." Hampton suggests focusing on one person "for three to five seconds, for one phrase, and then move on." Miles, a former talk-show host and interviewer on WJLA-TV, adds, "I see the camera as a character. When I'm talking about food, the camera is my mother."