You'd never know it to hear him speak now, but Joe Saul-Sehy once suffered a severe stutter — one that earned him the grade-school nickname Jackhammer.

That was then; now Saul-Sehy's speaking voice is his meal ticket. Thanks to a combination of childhood speech therapy, public-speech training and personal image grooming, the 35-year-old American Express financial advisor has been able to create a practice based largely on his public-speaking abilities. He appears on a weekly local news show, runs frequent seminars and trains other advisors in public speaking — all pursuits that contribute mightily to his practice. By his reckoning, most of his 190 active clients came to him through his speaking engagements.

“I've built my whole business around my public speaking,” says Saul-Sehy, based in Troy, Mich.

As his experience attests, polished presentation skills are an important part of succeeding as a rep. This is especially true these days, as the services advisors provide grow more complex and client trust gets harder to earn.

“Those that can differentiate themselves and describe their value proposition in an articulate way have a leg up,” says Dean Brenner, a former financial advisor who runs the Latimer Group, a firm providing coaching in presentation skills.

In fact, whether you're giving a formal speech at a conference, running a seminar or dealing with a small group of clients and assorted advisors, communication is the name of the game. “Being able to speak effectively directly correlates to a perceived level of credibility,” says Becky Nickol, an executive coach in Orlando, Fla. “It's a means to an end — and the end is building your client base.”

Trouble is, according to public-speaking experts, most people live in morbid, irrational fear of humiliating themselves in front of a crowd — even when the would-be speakers have a complete mastery of the subject on which they would be presenting.

It's particularly true of financial advisors, says Saul-Sehy: “Many of us are good at the fundamentals of financial planning but not so good at communication.”

Here are some common public-speaking mistakes, and what advisors can do to fix them:

Mistake #1: Avoiding practice

You're dealing with clients, writing reports, cold calling prospects, keeping up with current research. Who has the time to rehearse? The answer is, “You do, if you know what's good for you.” The ability to speak in public isn't something you're born with. You have to practice and keep on practicing, even when you think you're a pro. “It's not like riding a bike,” says Eric Brotman of Brotman Financial Group, a financial advisory firm in Timonium, Md. “If you don't use it, you lose it.”

One way to get practice is to join an organization that will force you to do so. For example, three years ago, Kent Hickey moved from Orlando, Fla., to Allentown, Pa., leaving his old firm and setting up a new practice from scratch. With almost no clients, he needed something to give him an edge, so, he joined the local Toastmasters International group. Members met twice a month to practice public speaking, their drills ranging from five-minute talks on specific topics to impromptu debates. He now has 60 clients, and he attributes his success in winning them, in part, to the public-speaking skills he's acquired. He continues to attend meetings, using them as a forum for new material.

Toastmaster clubs are not the only good venue for such practice. Several years ago, Brotman took a class at the mother of all public-speaking schools, Dale Carnegie. Now, he teaches a 3 1/2 hour class in certified financial planning once a week at a local college as a way to polish the techniques he learned at the school.

Then there's Saul-Sehy's approach. Until recently, he worked as the trainer for 12 American Express reps in the Detroit area, all public-speaking experts who hired themselves out to help other advisors in need of assistance in giving seminars. Every other week, the group would meet for an hour to fine tune techniques and learn how to handle touchy situations.

Mistake #2: Talking off the cuff

Speaking extemporaneously might sound like a smart idea, but unless you're a real pro, such comments are to be avoided at all costs. Saul-Sehy recalls a time seven years ago when he was giving a seminar on estate planning, exploring the consequences of various strategies. To illustrate his point, he decided spur-of-the-moment to talk about what might happen if someone left their money to a child who then married a less-than-ideal spouse like, he suggested, a biker. Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Saul-Sehy remembered he was in the presence of six Harley-Davidson owners — none of whom looked pleased at his off-handed remarks. “One of them pointed at me and said, ‘It's people like you who create a bad name for us,’” Saul-Sehy says.

Mistake #3: Losing your voice

When speaking in front of a group, you want to appear authoritative and professional, but you also want to sound like yourself. Brenner recalls a former colleague whose attention to the details of his speech led him to lose his personality when speaking in public. “This was one of the most humorous people I've ever met in my life, but his entire personality would change in a formal setting,” says Brenner. Specifically, in trying to seem like a serious person, the client stiffened and thereby lost his most engaging quality. Brenner encouraged him to loosen up. “You have to speak in your own authentic voice,” he says, “or you're taking away your biggest weapon.”

At the same time, Brenner notes, it's important not to go overboard. He points to a young broker who was so informal and colloquial when giving presentations about retirement plans, he sounded more like a kid than a trusted advisor. “There are some rules you cannot violate,” he says.

Mistake #4: Losing that personal touch

Instinct tells many public speakers to stay out of sight as their audience files into the auditorium, but that approach can fuel pre-speech anxiety and intensify the spotlight's fear-inducing glare, experts say. Instead, a speaker should stand near the entrance and greet the audience members as they arrive. “That way, you're already a friend when you get up in front of them,” says Nickol.

Mistake #5: Moving too fast

Financial advisors are used to multi-tasking and working at a frenzied pace. But they should take care not to let their work habits manifest themselves in their public speaking. The most effective speakers proceed methodically at a casual pace.

Talking at a “hyper-kinetic pace that you use on the phone” will “turn the audience off,” says Joyce Newman, president of the Newman Group, which provides training in public speaking. Plus, if you're speaking too fast, you're likely to have a harder time reading your audience and adjusting your presentation accordingly. By contrast, when you proceed slowly, it gives audience members the chance to indicate areas that could do with a bit more explanation, and that helps you look like an advisor who is willing to listen.

Mistake #6: Avoiding bad news

No one likes to talk about unpleasant things. And, in the current market climate, lots of reps try to skirt the tough issues or make things seem better than they are. That's a mistake. “Never shy away from bad results,” says Brenner. “Trying to explain them away looks like you're making excuses.” At the same time, you don't have to dwell in the negatives; use them as a counterpoint to the positive things you bring to the table.

Mistake #7: Speaking in numbers

For better or worse, much of the important information in a financial advisor's presentation will involve numbers. Though providing statistical data is important, avoiding numerical overload is equally so. Make sure that each number you provide makes a specific point, and make sure that the point is clear. Whenever possible, use stories and examples to give life to the data.

“When people hear a good story, their mind forms a picture and it's imprinted on the brain, much as though they had experienced it themselves,” says Nickol. “And that story sticks with them forever.” If you can't come up with a good example, then develop an appropriate image. Brenner, for example, recalls a client who, when discussing investment basics, described cash flow statements as the pulse, income statements as your metabolism and balance sheets as the spinal cord. “You need a graphic way to explain business concepts,” he says.

Mistake #8: Emphasizing form over content

The best presentation in the world will not hide an advisor's lack of true expertise for long, so it's important not to oversell your abilities. Brenner remembers an advisor who wanted help polishing up his presentation skills. But, he says, “I realized he was so poor at the other things, I couldn't accept him as a client,” he says. “I could dress him up all he wanted, but with no substance, it wasn't worth trying.”

To put it another way, it all starts with what you know.