Guide on the Side - Is There a Speech Coach in Your Future?


Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.

People generally know which type of professional to look for when faced with a situation beyond their ability--be it dentist, plumber, architect, dietitian or locksmith. Fewer know that there are professionals whose business is to help individuals further their communication goals and navigate unfamiliar speaking terrain. While a person can get by without a coach--either by avoiding the speaking situation entirely or doing it "blind," the result is often like cutting your own hair. At best it is obviously a do-it-yourself effort and at worst a really bad hair day.

There are far too many and too varied opportunities for most professionals to have their communication skills so well honed that they are ready for any presentation situation they might encounter. Preparation for one speaking engagement is not necessarily preparation for another. For example, teaching a legal research class to first year law students is not the same as delivering a keynote speech at the Annual American Bar Association meeting. A TV interview is unlike moderating a panel. Addressing members of another profession is often more of a challenge than speaking to your colleagues.

What are your alternatives for help?

Many people are too sensitive to ask friends and colleagues for feedback. It is just as well as friends and colleagues are often not communication mavens nor do they have coaching skills. Toastmasters International (see Guide On the Side, column no. 2), which I recommend heartily, provides excellent foundation skills but gives limited experience with handling hecklers, longer presentations, larger audiences and specialized formats. A speech coach is your best choice. It is like having a human being answering the "help" button. A coach provides individualized attention specifically for your needs. Coaching is private, fast and results oriented.

How do you know when you need a speech coach? Ask yourself three questions.

  • Are panicked by what you know is a great speaking opportunity--to the point of turning it down?
  • Are the presentation stakes high for you and/or your organization?
  • Is it vital that you succeed?
If the answer is "yes" to any of the above, start looking for a communication professional. Pinpoint your reasons and objectives in engaging professional help before you begin looking for your coach. It will help you focus and select the best person for your needs. Some of these might be:
 Add polish to existing basic skills  Gain high-level stage skills
 Establish a commanding presence  Learn to reveal your real persona
 Master how to tell your personal stories  Help organizing presentation content
 Improve your voice and vocal production  Relax and use gestures
 Add humor  Learn to work with technology
 Prepare to be video taped  Develop media skills
 Present before an international audience  Speak when the audience is unseen (radio & TV)
 Be interviewed on TV  Run for public office
 Handle a press conference  Deal with an hostile audience
 Persuade the audience to specific critical action      Improve your visuals
 Stand out over your competition

How do you find a communication coach?

Unlike the legal profession, there is no Martindale-Hubbell directory. Use search techniques similar to finding any expert.

  • Look in the yellow pages (print and online) under "Public Speaking." Caveat: Depending on the specific location, the Yellow Page information may be incomplete. For instance, I found five times as many listings in Santa Monica and Pasadena (smaller cities adjacent to Los Angeles) and than in Los Angeles.
  • Surf the Net, using several browsers and a variety of terms to search:
             presentation coach
             speech coach
             speech consultant
             communications consultant
  • Contact any communication specialist you already know.
  • Ask friends, family and colleagues for recommendations.
  • Call the communication, speech, or drama department of the local college or university.
  • Whenever you meet a communications professional, get a business card. Ask questions. Is this a person you would like to work with? Get on any mailing list.
  • Find one before you are in critical need. A crisis situation is a poor time to seek professional assistance of any kind. Your judgment is likely to be impaired by urgency considerations and it is difficult to schedule time on short notice. Some coaches consult at a distance, using technology. Sometimes they can combine their travel schedule to bring them into closer proximity to you.

Can you afford it?

The real question is can you afford not to. Speech coaches may charge by the hour or the project. People who have worked with them feel their fees have high personal value. Keep in mind they know how to achieve results fast. At the TRIPLL (Teaching Research in Private Law Libraries) conferences, Spring Asher worked with private law librarians. One person self-diagnosed herself as speaking too fast. It took Spring only a few minutes to illustrate the power of the pause and to drill the person on how to add pauses to her speech pattern. Pauses completely modified the perceived speaking speed. Instead of coming across to the audience as being hurried and nervous, the speaker came across as assured and quick.

At a training workshop, a speech coach worked with Jane, an experienced corporate trainer. She was preparing an important presentation to industry executives. The first run through of Jane's speech was stilted and frankly uninteresting. The coach asked Jane how she would "train" the same audience on her subject. Immediately, she made eye contact with the audience, relaxed, used interactive techniques and humor and proceeded to deliver a dynamic presentation. The answer here was Jane perceiving that a speech for her was just like training, which she does successfully and regularly. She needed to dump the mental image of a speech being like the academic lecture of her college days.

Some people feel sensitive about their accents. Through a series of drills, a speech coach can make selected modifications in pronunciation but more importantly show that accents are part of a person's persona and not necessarily an impediment to audience understanding. Plus unanticipated language constructions often evoke humor.

Even Academy Award winning actors continue to study with a coach, so do CEO's, singers, musicians, dancers and Olympic athletes. Why not you? Look at it as an investment in your professional development. You will come away with polish, refinement, encouragement, sophisticated feedback, confidence in new situations, better presentation skills, and a new dimension added to your communication portfolio.

Consider bringing in a communication specialist to upgrade the skills of your managers or a specific department, as well as yourself. Group coaching can be as effective as individual instruction. Plus it is a wonderful team builder.