Notable Deaths


December 29, 2008


Self-help pioneer

Sweaty palms, nervous laughter, a Brooklyn accent, panic-induced silences. These were just a few of the image blemishes addressed by Dorothy Sarnoff, an opera singer and Broadway star who had a much bigger second career as one of the first, and most influential, image consultants, coaxing stage-worthy performances from business executives preparing a big speech, ambassadors on their way to foreign assignments and writers heading out on book tours. She died Dec. 20 at her home in Manhattan, said Jean Schoonover, a friend.

Ms. Sarnoff dazzled the critics as Lady Thiang, the king's head wife, in the original production of The King and I in 1951. But she won her most devoted following as the founder and motivating force behind Speech Dynamics, an image-consulting company that helped its clients shine on talk shows, behind the lectern or in intimidating social settings.

A relentless optimist, Ms. Sarnoff believed that a spellbinder lay hidden within even the most terrified client. Flop sweat was not an option, and she had a mantra to dissolve it. "I'm glad I'm here," clients were instructed to say to themselves. "I'm glad you're here. I care about you. I know that I know."

Her first book, Speech Can Change Your Life (1970), became a best seller; it was followed by Make the Most of Your Best (1981) and Never be Nervous Again (1987). After the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather sent two executives for a makeover, the company bought Speech Dynamics in 1974 and promoted Ms. Sarnoff heavily.

Ms. Sarnoff worked with tens of thousands of clients. She helped President Jimmy Carter lower the wattage of his smile. She helped Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, to soften his aggressive manner, the designer Paloma Picasso to warm up, author Danielle Steel to plug her books more effectively and Secretary of State Warren Christopher to stop his incessant blinking.

Eyes were crucial. "Nixon had blueberry eyes," she told The New York Times in 1968. "They were just there like two blueberries. But John F. Kennedy had the talking eyes. You have to maintain eye contact. Ninety percent eye to eye. Write that down." Smiling, she believed, was overrated. "I don't teach smile, I teach animation," she said.

She told writers to mention the title of their book at least five to seven times in every interview, which means that her legacy can be measured precisely by watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and Today.

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