A law school student worries that the monotone and hint of a Tennessee "R" in her voice could one day undermine her chances in East Coast courtrooms. She hires a speech therapist.
A federal agency wants to promote an employe to an executive position, but his heavy Chinese accent prevents him from effectively leading meetings. After six months of speech therapy, paid for by the government, he gets the job.
Forty-year broadcast veteran Curt Gowdy says he thought his mother "was the cruelest woman in the world" when she made him take elocution lessons as a child in Laramie, Wyo. Years later, when broadcasting Boston Red Sox baseball, Gowdy had another brush with speech therapy -- when he suffered a severe attack of laryngitis brought on by a node on his vocal cords.
But, said Gowdy from Toronto last week after broadcasting baseball play-offs for CBS Radio, what he learned in Boston about using and caring for his speaking voice has proven crucial to his long career.
Once seen primarily as help for stutterers and the speech impeded, voice and speech therapists increasingly are becoming career consultants, coaching professionals -- and not just those in broadcasting and acting -- who are out to stack their professional decks by polishing communications skills or eliminating idiosyncrasies and accents.
As owner of six radio stations, Gowdy says he regularly enrolls his young announcers in voice therapy sessions to round off rough accents, improve articulation and learn to avoid voice fatigue.
"Anybody who can get up on their feet and talk effectively, anybody who can communicate -- I don't care what profession they're in -- has a great asset," says Gowdy with a trace of Wyoming cowboy inflection. "My voice is better than it has been in 20 years. Young people who learn how to communicate effectively have a real head start on their careers."
Public awareness of the role the voice plays in creating a professional image has heightened, says David Blair McClosky, the Boston voice therapist who coached Gowdy and John Kennedy.
"In the last 10 years, there has been an increased attention in all of the professions to the value of the speaking voice," says McClosky, 83, from his office in Duxbury, Mass. "We're getting more and more aware that so much has to be done and can be done with the voice itself."
While teaching at the University of Boston in 1960, McClosky was called on to coach John Kennedy, who'd been struck with severe laryngitis following his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Kennedy, a man who was to help focus public awareness on effective platform skills, knew nothing about controlling his speaking voice on the eve of his presidential campaign.
"He was a dynamic man, but he had never learned how to use his voice correctly -- he had hurt it badly," recalls McClosky, who worked daily with the candidate at the Hyannis Port compound and on the campaign trail. "He would be giving as many as 18 speeches a day. To squeeze in time, he'd be taking a bath and I'd sit on the toilet seat and work with him on his voice.
"The one thing I wanted to do is have Kennedy relax his voice and be articulate -- be understood," says McClosky, labeling that the most important speaking attribute for any professional.
But the recent author of Voice in Song and Speech (Boston Music Co., $6.50), whose list of clients has included Al Pacino, Jill Clayburgh and Lyndon Johnson, balks when talk turns to changing accents -- unless necessary.
"I don't believe in stopping accents. Kennedy's did let down quite a bit just by relaxing the voice, because when that Boston accent gets tightened up in a knot, it pinches. He began to get much more warmth in the voice after that. Curt Gowdy's got that marvelous cowboy accent. I didn't want very much to lose that. I've said I wouldn't change the accent of a southern colonel because it is distinctive of him."
But in American business, locality has given way to nationwide and global interaction, making clear communication all the more vital; regional accents more often are obstacles.
"People judge your talents by your sound," says Dennis Becker, president of the Speech Improvement Co. Inc. The Boston-based firm appears to be pioneering the future of speech and voice therapy: Its 12 specialists cover the gamut of treatment and training, from therapy for physical difficulties such as lisps and overbites to coaching corporate executives in making presentations.
"You can control the impression you make, control the attitude people have of you, by controlling the sound of yourself -- and if that means controlling accent, so be it," says Becker, who also syndicates a weekly five-minute radio program called "Talking About Talking."
Most of his clients seeking career help, says Becker, are middle- and upper-management professionals who are expected -- and increasingly required -- to possess a "prowess with communication." He mentions a Forbes magazine survey that asked major corporations, "What do you look for in outstanding executives?" An ability to communicate ranked high.
That, Becker adds, means good articulation and pronunciation, good presentation skills and strong interpersonal skills that range from making small talk to overcoming the fear of public speaking. "Some companies call it 'executive stature,' " he says. "Others call it 'corporate communication effective.' If you are incapable of it, you are not going to go forward."
Becker says the challenge of his job is that each person, every corporate client, is "a little bit different." When his firm worked with branch managers and "people who interact with the public" at Chase Manhattan Bank's offices in New England, New York, Tampa and Texas, "they talked differently; their life styles were different."
"I have clients in the South who want to retain their southern accents. The same is true in New England -- in Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- where there is a regionalism tradition, sort of a linguistic old-boy network. One way you tap into it is sounding like you belong . . . When the client says, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' we don't fool with it."
When Rabbi Harold Kushner came to Becker in 1981, he anticipated his new book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon, $3.95), would propel him onto television and radio talk shows.
"Here was a guy who had a lot of technical skills, but just didn't feel comfortable about how he came across . . . for the TV shows," recalls Becker. "We were a little concerned with the . . . accent. We didn't want people to be prejudiced against the sound. We didn't want it to get in the way of the message."
After three months of once-a-week coaching, Kushner had learned to organize his message for interviews, how to sit on TV, where to look on camera and how to pace answers, among other skills. Since then, he has appeared on national and local TV programs and continues to lecture about once a week.
"Basically I wanted to be a more effective communicator on television," says Kushner, 50, who says he had used voice therapy years earlier to help minimize the sound of his Brooklyn origins and improve diction and timing.
"In my one life as a rabbi, I'm giving sermons, delivering funeral eulogies, and in the other life, I'm an author and lecturer. My voice is what I make my living with."
Kushner's speaking voice now is what therapists call "General American" -- the sound, says Becker, of most network news broadcasters. No discernible accent or regionalism. It's one of the abilities Becker is teaching corporate representatives of Soft Sheen Products Inc., the Chicago manufacturers of black beauty aids and hair products for excessively curly hair.
"The bottom line is we're a manufacturing company and we have to be able to sell," says Olive Benson, Soft Sheen's director of education. "It is mandatory that we have good articulation and diction and professional image and presence at all times. In this line of business, the speaking voice is everything."
Becker says that while Soft Sheen's top platform presenters are all effective in their local communities, they can't afford to take accent or regional characteristics with them. "Their presenters are 99 percent black," says Becker. "They have grown up with a certain black sound. The company wants to be sure that it doesn't come across as ghetto, as uneducated, as only black -- because their clients come from many backgrounds."
When Becker eliminates an accent, does the client sound like he grew up in Idaho? "Naw," says Becker, pointing to what he calls his toughest accent changes -- Oriental to American English. After a year of therapy, "most retain a certain Oriental quality to their speech. But they are clear and articulate to the point of good communication."
Gloria Bartholomew Nelson, director of the Nelson Center, a speech and voice therapy clinic in Annandale, compares changing regional, black or foreign accents to expanding an actor's repertoire -- "They can use it when they want to."
In eight years in business in the metropolitan area, she says she has seen more people who want to: "I think the increased awareness of effective speaking and voice use is not just in professionals but in the general public," says Nelson. "I have seen housewives who want to present a different image in social settings. It generally is now considered another form of self improvement."
Becker agrees that the self-improvement movement has helped remove some of the stigma that once clung to voice or speaking change as it did to facelifts and personal fitness. "Only in the last 15 years have people been able to deal with this openly," says Becker. "If you had speech therapy, it definitely . . . had a hush-hush aspect to it."
But Becker says lingering difficulties still can make voice and speech improvement a sensitive proposition. "We never begin by telling people they've got to get rid of an accent, for instance, because you are messing with a tremendous personal tradition -- family, background, et cetera," says Becker, who grew up in Reading, Pa. Switching back to his Pennsylvania Dutch accent, he adds: "It's not so much a question of getting rid of it -- rather, just put it on a sliding scale, control it."
Another problem clients often face, says Becker, is when family members question their new speaking style and skills. "They'll say, 'Whaddaya tryin' to hide your heritage for? Aren't you proud of your heritage?' Or 'Hey, Charlie, too good for us now?' . . . That becomes a serious concern. We encourage them not to make fast changes at home."
Reminds Becker: "Speech is a habitual, learned behavior. When you change that sort of thing, it has to take a while."