To make it in the business world today, everyone needs strong presentation skills and the ability to speak in front of others, whether one-on-one, in a small group, or in front of a large audience. Many women, however, are uncomfortable making presentations, according to speech coach Gordon Jacoby. “They often aren’t mentored in the same way as men, so they don’t get the practice or the feedback,” he says.

To give women an opportunity to practice their speaking skills in “a safe environment,” Jacoby is teaching an eight-session course called “Presentation Skills for Women” beginning on Tuesday, April 8, and running Tuesdays through May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Princeton YWCA, 59 Paul Robeson Place, Princeton. Cost: $185. To register call 609-497-2100.

Jacoby brings a lifetime of listening to his work as a speech and dialect coach, beginning with his childhood as “a street urchin,” in New York City. His mother ran a rooming house “filled with rough and tumble types from all over,” he says. “I listened to all of the sounds and I probably picked up the worst of the worst accents.”

He admits that his early teachers probably did not choose him as most likely to get a Ph.D. “I wasn’t that interested in school. I just got by,” he said. But one important lesson he did learn, at school and at his mother’s rooming house, was how to work hard. It was the late 1940s and finding a job was probably easier for a 13-year-old than it is today. “There was a parking lot and auto mechanic’s place at the corner of 7th and 13th streets,” he says. “I didn’t know how to drive but the owner just said, ‘Get in and do it.’” By the time he finished high school Jacoby was working full-time at the garage.

That might have been the end of his story — a great garage mechanic who lived his life in New York City. But a few years later Jacoby headed to California. “It was a girl of course. And of course she dumped me soon after we got there,” he says. But he liked the area and quickly found work at a garage specializing in Porsche and Volkswagen repairs. “I was one of only three people who spoke English. Everyone else spoke German,” he says. As he hadat home, he enjoyed listening to the language and picking up the accents of his fellow workers.

One day he discovered Pasadena City College. “The city college program in California in the 1950s was phenomenal,” he says. “So much was available for free. I wandered in one day and said, ‘So what do you people do here?’ and they asked me if I wanted to sign up for some classes.”

He took English composition, anthropology, and “anything else that was available at night,” two courses at a time, for the next year or so. Then, because his mother needed help at home, he returned to New York. But the one thing he brought back with him from California was a love and appreciation for education.

He enrolled at City University of New York and gravitated toward the speech and drama department. “I was interested in theater, but one of my professors steered me away from it. He encouraged me in the speech pathology area instead.” At about the same time Jacoby met his wife, Elaine.

“She was from New England and she attended Mount Holyoke College,” he says. “She civilized me.”

They married in 1963, right after they both graduated, and headed to Ohio, where both had been accepted to graduate school at Ohio State University. Jacoby began his graduate studies in speech pathology, but again soon gravitated toward the theater department. “I quickly found I was a very good coach,” he says, and for his dissertation he combined his love of theater with his speech background and developed a system for learning dialects.

After receiving his doctorate in the late 1960s he spent a few years as a professor at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, then headed back to New York City where his wife would have more opportunities to pursue her own career. She eventually attended law school and recently retired after practicing law in New Jersey for almost 20 years.

Jacoby went to work as a professor at City University in 1971, but he didn’t enjoy the politics of the academic world. In the late 1970s he decided to leave academia and go out on his own as a speech coach.

“I put ads in all of the trade newspapers and I began to get work coaching individuals and working at an actor’s studio,” he says. He became well-known for his abilities in teaching dialects and has worked with actors from foreign countries who need to perfect their English. His career has also brought its share of high profile clients including Joan Plowright, Bob Hoskins, Danny Glover, Olympia Dukakis, and Nicholas Cage.

In the 1990s his career took another unusual turn. He was teaching at Rutgers University and became acquainted with some of the professors in the agriculture department. He became fascinated with agriculture and in 1993 purchased a farm in Stockton. “As a coach I was constantly traveling, and I was tired of it,” he says. “I seemed to have a natural affinity for greenhouses and agriculture.”

As a small farmer he sold specialty crops to restaurants in Stockton, Lambertville, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. After 11 years in Stockton he and his wife decided it was time to leave. He denies that he has retired, however. He and his wife now live in Pennington and he continues to keep active teaching a few days a week at a studio in New York City.

Body language. One of the most important things for a person to remember when giving a presentation is the importance of posture and gestures, says Jacoby. Posture and movement, hand gestures, and eye contact all play an important role in how we are perceived when making a speech. “Too often we see speakers make almost involuntary gestures with their hands; they are either too wild or too small,” he says.

Appropriate gestures involve the audience in what is being said and add emphasis to particular words or phrases. Eye contact is another important area of body language that makes many speaker uncomfortable. While the inexperienced speaker may be afraid to look at the audience, “making eye contact with various individuals suggests that you are talking to each person individually, rather than just talking into space,” he says.

Voice. The way in which a person speaks can either increase or decrease the audience’s perception of her professionalism and expertise. Speaking too softly, a nervous laugh, or other verbal mannerisms can decrease the speaker’s authority, says Jacoby.

Another common trap many speakers fall into is to memorize a speech. “To memorize something word for word eliminates the vibrancy and color of the presentation,” he says. “It is much better to really become an expert on what you are talking about. You can always use notes, but practice what you are speaking about until you can really do it well.”

Comfort level. Practice is the best way to increase a woman’s confidence, Jacoby says, which is why practicing in a safe place, such as a classroom or workshop, is so important. That comfort level will help a speaker when the inevitable glitches, problems, or mistakes occur. “You must be able to stay in the moment and not become distracted,” he says. If something negative occurs you need to be able to regain your focus and concentrate on your presentation,” says Jacoby.

The more presentations a woman makes, the more her comfort level will increase, he says. That increased comfort and confidence will show in her posture, her gestures, and her voice, bringing more authority to her presentations. — Karen Hodges Miller

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