"Speaking in front of people is usually seen as a predicament and not a situation you want to put yourself in," says a 39-year-old electronics systems engineer. Four years ago, while consulting for the U.S. Navy in Suitland, Md., he decided he'd had enough of the jitters in the pit of his stomach whenever he made a presentation. He knew his stammering "ahs" were verbal banana peels on his career path. He couldn't afford professional slips of the tongue.
Increasingly, professionals are expected to take personally Marshall McLuhan's principle that "the medium is the message." The capacity to deliver the goods has become as crucial as the goods to be delivered. Megatrends author John Naisbitt calls it "a new competence in oral communication" and says it is "necessary for survival in this revolutionary age of information."
For the soft-spoken engineer, the answer was a local chapter of Toastmasters International, an organization that for 62 years has been promoting the practice of effective public speaking. "They gave me two weeks to come up with an 'icebreaker' -- an introduction you make of yourself, what you've done and what brought you to the point standing up before a group and trying not to make a fool of yourself," he recalls. After about a year of giving monthly speeches, he became more confident and effective in speaking to both audiences and individuals.
"The higher you go in an organization and the more you climb that career ladder, the more people expect you to be very articulate," says Toastmasters president Helen M. Blanchard, the first woman to head the 122,000-member organization (4,500 in the Washington area) that spans 48 countries.
Blanchard says she is an example of what effective oral communication can do for a career. In 20 years, the San Diego grandmother has advanced from clerk at the Naval Oceans Systems Center to head the Center's technical information division.
"I primarily attribute it to the visibility and the comfort in speaking I gained in Toastmasters -- and when the opportunity presented itself, I was ready," says Blanchard, who, in cahoots with her local club members, joined the organization under an assumed name in 1970, three years before it accepted women as members.
"A lot of people think they are unique in not being effective speakers so they simply avoid doing it," says Blanchard, who promotes Toastmasters as priced reasonably -- $12 to join and $24 a year, plus "a few bucks to the local club" covers all publications, technique materials and meetings. "Because we can communicate with so many people so easily now," she says, "more of us need to be able to speak well publicly. It's not just the platform orators anymore."
One platform orator decided even his skills weren't good enough. In 1978, George Bush was preparing to make a run for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination when he received a copy of one of his recent speeches that had been critiqued by professional speech coach Lilyan Wilder.
"He wasn't focused . . . on the key elements . . . , " says Wilder, author of Professionally Speaking: Getting Ahead in Business and Life Through Effective Communicating (Simon and Schuster, $16.95). Since 1969, Wilder has tutored talk show hosts, business execs, authors and politicians -- among them, Apple Computer CEO John Scully, TV host Oprah Winfrey, and former basketball star and sports commentator Oscar Robertson. Bush, she decided, needed some help.
"Like every executive, he felt 'I know what I'm talking about, therefore why do I have to do anything to make it more palatable in a verbal sense?' " says Wilder, who gave the vice president-to-be bad marks for being verbally excessive, lacking proper emphasis and, generally, projecting an if-you-want-it-come-and-get-it attitude.
He also didn't want to spend time developing his speaking skills, says Wilder. As a result of her tutoring and his determination, Wilder says the vice president "has improved 50 to 75 percent . . . struggling orator."
Wilder says the revival of oral communication is forcing many professionals to recognize the same:
"Why does a professional financial analyst or an engineer or a librarian need to be a good communicator? Because we live in an age when we are constantly being compared with a 30-second television commercial . . . All of us need to be professional communicators. We get bored with communication that, in a sense, is not MTV."
For recorded information on membership in local Toastmaster clubs: (301) 249-6964. Scratching the Surface
Would-be and amateur archeologists take note: National Park Service chief digger in the mid-Atlantic region, Stephen Potter, is again taking volunteers at several historic sites in the metropolitan area. Last fall volunteers helped Potter and his staff uncover an unexpected foundation and artifacts thought to predate the 1723 Georgian manor house, Harmony Hall, near Broad Creek in Prince George's County, where they were excavating. Call Potter at (202) 485-9818. Pressing the Issues
Twenty-three years ago, Robert Calvert Jr. left his job as career director at the University of California at Berkeley to counsel returning Peace Corps volunteers on their careers. Today, as managing editor of Garrett Park (Md.) Press, Calvert still helps people plan their careers. Besides publishing Career Opportunities News, a six-issues-a-year newsletter, the company recently released its revised fourth edition of the comprehensive Directory of Special Programs for Minority Group Members: Career Information Services, Employment Skills Banks, Financial Aid Sources ($22.50 prepaid). Another useful professional guide Calvert offers is Careers in Mental Health: A Guide to Helping Occupations ($9.95 prepaid).
For more information, write Garrett Park Press at P.O. Box 190W, Garrett Park, Md. 20896.