What do Americans fear the most? Death? Financial ruin? Nope. Says The Book of Lists, the number-one phobia is speaking before a group.

Enter Jerry Weissman, the Silicon Valley speech doctor whose clients include chief executives from some of the hottest start-ups around -- Compaq Computer, Borland International, and Laserscope, to name a few. Weissman's company, Power Presentations, specializes in helping high-tech execs when they need it most: just as they're about to embark on the road show to drum up interest in their IPO.

Herb Taus, CEO of Laserscope, says he never had any problem speaking off the cuff, but if you stuck him in a room packed with analysts, he became ill at ease. "You have to watch every word said to investors," he said. "It's easy to fall into bland, cryptic phrases." After a few sessions with Weissman, Taus is relaxed, remembering some simple rules: get away from the podium, and don't rely on notes or pointers.

Borland CEO Philippe Kahn says that hiring Weissman was directly related to a decision to grow. "I always winged it at presentations, but then I realized that as a bigger company, the winging it had to stop." Kahn likens public speaking to "a role in a play . . . you have to know your part."

-- Elizabeth Conlin