Deb Sofield won’t share her client list, but she says there’s an easy way to tell whom she might have worked with as a speaking coach in Greenville: “If they were good, it was probably me. If they weren’t, it probably wasn’t.”
That kind of confidence and clarity is exactly what she works to pull out of her clients. Sofield said her boldness comes in part from being the youngest of five children – and the only girl in the bunch.
Sofield is one of those public figures many locals will encounter at some point. She coaches speakers at events such as TEDxGreenville and beauty pageants. When working with businesspeople, Sofield said she draws on her own entrepreneurial experience, which includes running a company that sold novelty Christmas stockings.
Having coached leaders throughout South Carolina and the world, Sofield has gained something of a backstage pass to see what happens inside organizations, and inside the minds and hearts of people who have to talk to the public. She is a multifaceted entrepreneur and author, with guest lecturer positions at Ivy League schools.
She says her radio show on 94.5 WGTK-FM uncovered lessons that informed other parts of her business.
“On radio I’ve figured out you don’t have time to build to ‘wow.’ I’m literally a centimeter from the next station,” Sofield said.
Sofield says she is tight-lipped about her clientele because many of them don’t want people to know they use a speech coach. “Everyone will tell you they have a golf coach or a tennis coach, but they won’t tell you they have a speech coach. They want you to think they’re naturally good, because it’s personal.”
She often works with men whose wives have called her knowing their husbands would be reluctant to reach out for help on their own.
Yet the impact of verbal communication can be huge. Sofield said she sees many leaders who try to solve problems entirely on their own, or fail to acknowledge people’s concerns when addressing employees or the public during difficult times.
“I could show you video after video of people who were just reading their stupid statement,” she said, rather than responding to the spoken or unspoken needs of their audiences. One client, a South Carolina company she declined to name, saw major losses one quarter due to shipping problems on the West Coast. The CEO wanted to dodge the issue in his subsequent address to the company and shareholders. Instead, Sofield had him tackle it first, illuminated by a spotlight before he even reached the podium. The result was a long round of applause without a single follow-up question, Sofield said.
“People in America are not stupid. They know that running a business is hard,” Sofield said. Employees often have answers, but “you didn’t give anybody a chance. That’s where I find people are falling down.”
Sofield works with politicians at every level of government.
Working with state representatives in a state that she asked not be named, Sofield said her job was essentially to work at getting the large Republican majority to be nice, and the tiny Democratic minority to keep from being discouraged.
“I am somebody who does believe that government works well when you have voices at the table,” she said.
Sofield has coached political speakers in Albania, and parts of the Middle East and South Asia. Teaching at schools with worldwide reputations opened the door to opportunities abroad. Her work touched on the politics of issues outside of government chambers when she coached Syrians on how to keep Americans’ attention on the conflict in Syria. After a while, she told them, lower tones and a solemn demeanor were more impactful than the wailing when mourning a dead child on camera.
With assistance from translators, Sofield regularly works with the International Republican Institute’s Women’s Democracy Network to coach women running for political office. She spends a great deal of time in the Middle East.
“My good fortune is I am Lebanese, so when I check a box, I end up being Arab,” said Sofield, who was adopted by Americans as a child. She said women are afforded seats in parliament by law in many countries, but when they arrive, they find themselves in male-dominated systems where support is hard to find. It’s a position Sofield said she can understand in a way; she is the first and only woman elected to the Greenville Water Commission.
“They get there and have a desk and office, and suddenly the world opens up and they recognize their power. But they don’t have anybody to talk to about in a world of men. … A lot of women I’ve coached internationally you’ve seen on TV,” she said.
Keeping it real
Sofield said she’s wanted to be a political speaker since childhood, seeing public speeches as one way to impact the world around her in a lasting way.
Authenticity is a powerful communication tool Sofield emphasizes in her coaching advice and anecdotes. Politeness, she said, is a common speech-killer. “Some people have won the top awards in Greenville, but nobody will remember what their speech was about because they were civil, and they didn’t have a good message.”
Sofield also works to find the stories and attributes that make her clients unique, or the engaging parts of themselves they can share with the audience.
“I do not let [clients] lose their gentle Southern accents. There’s a graciousness that you find in the South that you don’t find anywhere else,” Sofield said. “It’s more than sweet tea and fried pickles.”