It was 1985, and executives of Union Carbide Corp. were trapped in the glare of the international media, struggling to explain a deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India. Watching them on television, F. Reid Buckley was appalled--by the accident itself, but also by the company's inept handling of it. "These highly placed business executives were made fools of by the news anchors," Buckley recalls.
What the executives needed, Buckley believed, was a crash course in high-intensity verbal warfare. So that year, he founded a kind of boot camp for the rhetorically deficient, the Buckley School of Public Speaking.
Buckley, the 70-year-old younger brother of conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., is a famously skilled debater in his own right, relishing his role as the school's toughest drill instructor. During a visit last summer, he was striding around campus--an antebellum mansion in Camden, S.C.--in knickers, a hunting knife strapped to his belt. As for curriculum, Buckley's students encounter none of the "rhetorical slush" of the Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie. Instead, they hone their verbal skills under what Buckley calls "curative tortures."
Those who smile unconsciously under pressure get their faces taped down in a scowl. Speakers who roam the stage are forced to wear snowshoes. Veteran print and broadcast journalists grill attendees in hostile mock press conferences. Says Buckley: "We push the hell out of them."
Over the past 15 years, some 2,000 students--business leaders, Presidential candidates, foreign heads of state, and even KGB agents, according to Buckley--have lined up for the abuse. "It was an intoxicating experience," says Michael Mercieca, a manager at Microsoft Corp. who completed three days of training in July. The course came in handy just weeks later at a companywide conference, when Mercieca addressed an audience of 8,000, including honchos William H. Gates III and Steven A. Ballmer.
Tuition for three days of instruction begins at $2,500. The school employs about 15 mostly part-time instructors and generates revenues of about $500,000 a year, Buckley says. In April, Buckley will open a West Coast campus in Seattle, aimed at "entry-level" students, mostly college grads with little or no public speaking experience. But Buckley promises his "tortures" will be every bit as intensive, and his graduates will be in prime fighting condition once they hit the lecture circuit.