NOT LONG AGO the pollsters got around to

asking Americans what scared them the most. Crime? Commies? Nuclear war? Nope. At the head of the list was --"Speaking before a group." Anyone who's had to knows that beside giving a speech, all other mortal terrors pale. This explains why every year people write books about how to get through the wretched ordeal. With 26 million Americans attending 250,000 conferences a year, during which thousands are called on to speak, no wonder. One of these three books is a very useful addition to the literature.

Mortimer Adler is chiefly known as the editor of The Great Books of the Western World and The Syntopicon. He is the author of some 30 books, including the popular How to Read a Book, has had a lifelong association with the University of Chicago, and has been giving seminars on more or less everything for 60 years. He is an institution. Adler writes on page 96 that "The essence of being a good reader is to be a demanding reader. A demanding reader is one who stays awake while reading. . ." By this standard, being a demanding reader of this book is hard work.

Dr. Adler is troubled by the intellectual indolence of modern conversation, and for good reason. Most of us do not speak clearly (because we do not think clearly) and very few of us are good listeners. As a result, many of our conversations meander instead of aim, fail to reach conclusions, rely on emotion instead of logic and sound argument. His book is an admirable attempt to get us (a) to think before we speak, and (b) to shut up and listen. That's putting it bluntly, but more vividly and much more concisely than Adler has.

In order that a conversation or a speech should arrive at a meeting of minds, to use Adler's phrase, it should be directed and disciplined. His approach is professorial and classical: Aristotelian and Socratic. He discusses ethos, pathos, logos, taxis, lexis, ethymeme, and uses Antony's funeral oration as a text. There are some practical bits of advice about public speaking, illustrative anecdotes, and tricks of the trade--but not many. In general, the book suffers from an advanced case of academic rickets. The prose is soft, repetitive, unnecessarily didactic. One sentence (on page 195) ran on so long I had to shoot it in order to put it out of its misery.

Some of the advice seemed a bit out of touch with the world outside the university. "We have half an hour or an hour in which to catch and hold the attention of our listeners," he tells us. In my (much briefer) experience, it seems more like five minutes. I also doubt we need instruction in how to have a heart-to- heart talk, but we get it nonetheless. In order to make dinner party conversation more "instructive," he suggests that hosts turn them into seminars, asking a question and soliciting answers from everyone present. This may be educational, but it may also not strike every reader as his idea of a fun evening.

The epilogue is--mystifying. He argues at some length that computers will never be able to converse as human beings do. (But who's arguing?) Then Adler proceeds to make his case for one world government. Well, okay, but why here? What's the connection? Well, because it is when nations stop conversing that they go to war. He concludes with a somber, chiliastic warning that unless we adopt the University of Chicago's 40-year-old Preliminary Draft of a World Constitution, civilized life as we know it may soon disappear. At this point the good reader--certainly the demanding one--is overcome by the quite convincing suspicion that he has been had.

By contrast, Speak the Language of Success and How to Speak Like a Pro are--titles aside --more than what at first they appear to be.

The former is essentially not a book about speech-making but a self-improvement- through-better-communication manual, with a little pseudo-literary gloss thrown in: "Be willing to reach toward your unknown future, as Cervantes did." But it is full of good, solid advice: how to shut up and listen to what's being said; how to retain (the average person absorbs only 30 percent); how to remember someone's name; how to break the ice at a dinner party if you're not feeling especially brilliant that night; how to avoid getting angry. The chapter headings have a breathless, Helen Gurley Brown quality --Chapter 17: Listen to Learn the Interests of Others (He's Brilliant! He Talks About Me!). But so what if it's rendered in a cross between Reader's Digest and Cosmopolitan prose. This is useful stuff--and maybe not a bad gift for that certain someone in our lives who never tires of the sound of his own voice.

How to Speak Like a Pro is a bargain at the price ($2.95). Anyone who lives with the fear of knowing that one of these days he will have to give a speech or a talk should buy this book. The author, an instructor in public speaking, has left nothing out. The tips he offers are concise and concrete, and these are liberally supported by examples and anecdotes from the real and terrifying world of speechmaking. Fletcher tells us how to bounce back if we start to screw up at the podium; how to use statistics; how to plot out a speech; how to use index cards instead of a fully written out speech text; how to size up an audience.

Some of the tips tend toward the obvious, such as his admonition not to forget the name of the speaker you're introducing, but in the throes of topophobia (stage fright), stranger things have happened. A few of the anecdotes are ancient history; by now everyone has heard about Lady Astor and Winston Churchill and the poisoned cup of coffee. And some readers may not have access to the kind of teaching tools Fletcher has in mind, such as watching a videotape of yourself practicing your speech.

But on the whole this little book is first-rate, and I can't imagine anyone, facing the podium for the first time, not being grateful to him for having assembled so much helpful information in such a readable way. There's even a chapter on how to handle disruptions. While Fletcher does not explicitly advise us to imitate George McGovern's response to a heckler in Battle Creek--"Kiss my a--!"--there it is, and we may always break the glass in case of emergency.