by John C. Harrison

The National Stuttering Project

To master any skill -- whether it's learning how to paint, hit a tennis ball, or speak to groups -- you need a supportive environment where you can practice, experiment, totally let go, and trust your inner self without fear of penalty. I learned that back in the early 1960s, when I briefly took up the study of judo.

In one of the early classes, we were instructed on the proper way to roll. The teacher divided the mat into individual lanes and had everyone practice at the same time. But the lanes he set up were so narrow that I was afraid of rolling at an angle and bashing into the guy next to me with my feet. Consequently, it was very difficult for me to relax enough to learn how to execute the move. The situation was not remedied until the number of people on the mat was reduced. Only then did I feel free enough to practice without holding back.

The same kind of remedy applies to the fear of speaking before people. Most of us are in a pressure situation when as youngsters we have our first experiences talking to groups. When the teacher calls on us, the burden of having to look good can be overwhelming. We put so much pressure on ourselves to perform and to please the teacher and other students that we never really get around to figuring out how we want to do it to please ourselves. The problem is further compounded if we're also dealing with a stuttering problem. Over time, holding back whenever we talk to groups becomes our default.

As I learned in the study of judo, to be able to let go and allow your intuitive self to take over, you need a place where you feel free enough to simply try things without worrying about how they turn out.

This is the secret behind the effectiveness of Speaking Freely.

I first heard of Speaking Freely from Joel Rutledge, a San Francisco humorist and someone who grew up both speech and vision impaired. Joel gave one of the keynote addresses at the NSP's 1991 annual convention in Dallas, and he made a memorable and entertaining presentation. I chatted with Joel after his keynote, and in the course of our conversation, he told me about an activity that had greatly improved his presentation skills and his comfort in front of audiences. He was, of course, talking about Speaking Freely, a unique public speaking class conducted by San Francisco speaking coach Lee Glickstein. Joel was regularly attending one of Lee's Freely, and several months later, I finally got up enough nerve to drop in on Lee's evening class.

When I got to Lee's on that first Tuesday, I discovered his living room was outfitted with a small collapsible platform, a floodlight, a microphone on a stand, a camcorder, and 10 chairs set up theater style -- all the trappings of a formal public speaking event. It looked very official. Yet, in this formal setting people seemed to be totally at ease when it was time to stand up and speak. They just talked -- personally and in a totally relaxed manner. I couldn't get over how spontaneous and natural everyone sounded, and how on the spur of the moment people came up with things that in some cases sounded like they'd been prepared well in advance. Even when people said they'd been uneasy during the talk, the techniques Lee had taught them for staying connected to the audience overrode any impression of discomfort they may have been experiencing.

Though I'd been in front of people many times before, when it came time for my three minute presentation, I found myself trying to perform. Yet in the second talk that lasted five minutes, I discovered that something within me had relaxed a little, and instead of trying to look good, I found I was starting to have a little fun just saying whatever came into my head. After the talk, Lee asked me, "Well, John, what was that experience like?" and I shared my experience with the group. Then Lee opened up the floor to only positive feedback, and people shared what they enjoyed about listening to me. I left feeling good about myself and about the entire evening. A few days later at home I had the opportunity to review my videotape from that evening, and though I observed a preponderance of "ummmms," "ahhhhhhhs," and "you-knows," I generally felt okay by what I saw. That's when I knew I was hooked. From then on I was a regular in Lee's classes.

As I continued to increase my comfort in front of people, it occurred to me that Speaking Freely would be an ideal activity for NSP chapters, since chronic stuttering and stage fright are branches of the same tree. In 1995, I introduced Speaking Freely to the NSP at a day-and-a-half Speaking Circle workshop in Orange County, California. A week later the NSP's Orange County chapter elected to start their own Speaking Circle, and as of this writing, the group has continued to meet twice a month. Meanwhile, other chapters around the country have also become enthused about Speaking Freely, and more and more chapters have incorporated Speaking Freely as part of their regular chapter programs.


Speaking Freely are the most effective activity I've encountered for helping people work through performance fears -- especially those fears which underlie chronic stuttering. The format is transformational because it addresses, not just the person's speech, but the entire individual. It offers the person something that is difficult to find anywhere else: a substantial block of uninterrupted time to be totally heard and supported by a group of attentive listeners.

The situation is set up to feel like a real (ie: risky) speaking experience. At the same time, the situation is made totally safe by the particular ways in which the audience supports the speaker. It is this combination of risk and safety that has such a powerful impact.

Let's begin with how the room is set up. Chairs and/or couches are usually arranged theater style. In the ideal setting, there is a microphone, a floodlight trained on the speaker, and a camcorder so that each person's talk can be videotaped. Some groups even have a small collapsible platform that they set up just for the meeting. These props help to create the experience of a real public speaking situation. The Speaking Circle can also be run effectively without all these components, but if you can provide them, they are useful in adding a measure of realism. The venue can be someone's living room or a small public room.

Every week, you bring your own videotape on which your talks for the evening are recorded. You then take the tape home at the end of the evening to view at your leisure. (The tapes are yours to keep.) The following week you bring the same tape back, cued to the end of the last session, and that evening's talks are added to it. If there are 8 to 10 participants, the meeting generally runs about two to two-and-a-half hours. Smaller meetings require proportionally less time.

During the Speaking Circle, each person has two opportunities to speak. Typically, the first talk is for three minutes and the second is for five. After the second talk, the facilitator asks you what your experience was like and then opens up the floor to only positive feedback -- not on the subject matter of your talk but on what people liked about being with you. People usually have no idea of what they're going to speak on until they show up for the meeting, and often, not even then. The subject is generally something that comes up spontaneously -- what's going on in your life, an article you read in the paper, or some issue you'd like to share with others. Often, your topic is triggered by something that someone has said in a previous talk. The subject matter is not important.

The role of the listener

Listeners play an active role in a Speaking Circle. As a member of the audience, your mission is not to just sit passively. Your assignment is to make yourself totally available to the speaker, offering your complete, focused attention with what we call "soft eyes." This means that you're not coolly staring at the speaker but directing your attention toward the individual in a supportive, receptive, non-judgmental way. You listen, not just to what the person says, but to who the person is.

Most people grow up with an innate fear of audiences. They perceive their listeners as critical and judgmental, and this starts them worrying about "doing it right." But when the speaker perceives his (or her) listeners as supportive, it makes it easier to turn off the internal censor. This is why, as a listener, it is especially important to keep your gaze trained on the speaker, even when the person is not looking at you. When the speaker does turn back toward you, it is immensely reassuring for the individual to discover that you're still actively paying attention and not staring off into space or fiddling with your appointment book or being distracted in some other way.

The role of the speaker

Once you're up in front of the group, and after the applause has died down, you want to allow yourself three or four seconds to establish a relationship with your listeners in a quiet, unhurried manner by allowing your eyes to connect with theirs and by allowing yourself to receive their support. This deliberate moment also reduces the impulse to start off on the wrong foot by trying to adapt to someone else's time frame and rushing into your talk.

When you begin speaking, talk to one person at a time. Many of us grow up believing that we have to keep sweeping the audience with our eyes, as if we were visually vacuuming the room. But moving your gaze back and forth does not mean that you're connecting with your listeners, and in fact, such mechanical scanning can actually be depersonalizing. Instead, you want to speak to each person for four or five seconds before shifting your gaze to another individual. If there are any silences or blocks, simply allow them to be there, but make an effort to keep the connection.

Remember, that person is there for you and not to judge or evaluate you. You are totally free to set the pace and to stop between thoughts and to breathe. There is no agenda, so you can listen for what your inner self wants to say. If any thought or feeling comes up, allow it to do so without evaluating or censoring it.

See if you can keep that inner critic turned off while you're speaking. Just experience what it's like to spontaneously share your thoughts and feelings. This is a different way of relating to audiences than you're probably used to. When you're finished, continue to stay connected and acknowledge your applause. And don't start walking back to your seat until the applause has completely stopped.

But suppose you go blank and can't think of anything to say.

When nothing comes to mind

Most people have a deathly fear of getting up in front of a group and then suddenly going blank. In the Speaking Circle, it is perfectly acceptable to simply stand there without saying a word -- what we call "standing in the void" -- and simply focus on being connected with your listeners while you wait for something to come to mind. Your three and five minute speaking opportunities are yours to do with as you wish. You do not have to worry about being interrupted or having someone jump in and fill the void for you or correct what you've just said. If you like, you can even stand in silence for the entire time. It's also reassuring to know that at the end of your five minute talk, you're going to get positive feedback no matter what you do or say. So you don't have to do anything to earn anyone's approval.

But lest you think that your mind is totally blank, think again.

It is almost impossible to have a thought-free mind. Try this little experiment. Close your eyes, and for the next three minutes, see if you can keep your mind totally clear of any thoughts by only focusing on your breathing. What you'll quickly discover is that your thoughts keep intruding, whether you want them to or not. What you learn is that your mind is working all the time, even when you don't think it is.

Then why do we go blank?

The experience of going blank has to do with two things: panic and censoring. Both of these can help to block out the thoughts that are constantly occurring.

Slipping into panic. The panic is typically associated with a fear of having to perform. The situation is perceived by your body/mind as life threatening. It involves that part of the mind that first evolved in human beings to protect them from physical danger. The "old" brain -- or the amygdula, if you want the more scientific name -- is the seat of your emotional memory. When danger is perceived, your amygdula instantly sends a message to your body to initiate a fight-or-flight response to give you added strength and energy to confront the danger or to flee from it -- just like it did with early man a million years ago. This response -- which involves the introduction of adrenaline into your blood stream, a change in breathing, and a funneling of blood away from your stomach to your extremities -- was designed to prepare you to better respond to physical threats. However, your body/mind is not set up to distinguish between physical threats and embarrassing social emergencies, so when you stand up to speak and you're worried about your performance, your body initiates the same fight-or-flight reaction as it does when you find yourself confronting a mugger on a dark street.

When your mind and body are caught up in a fight-or-flight reaction, the panic can preempt the more relaxed, creative thinking processes that you need to speak spontaneously. In reality, the thoughts are there. It's just that you are not open enough to access them.

The urge to censor. The other reason for "going blank" relates to having an over-active censor. If you simply allow yourself to give voice to the wealth of thoughts that are constantly unfolding, you'll discover an abundant and never-ending resource. But as children, some of us are pressured to sound smart, be proper, speak fluently...and choose our words carefully. Consequently, that internal parent rides out ahead of our speech, processing, evaluating, and censoring our thoughts even before we have a chance to express them. This can leave us with the impression that we have nothing to say, whereas in reality, it's that we have nothing acceptable to say -- acceptable, that is, to our internal parent.

Some of us are so performance oriented that we've never experienced what it's like to be anything else. The purpose of the Speaking Circle is to provide an environment where the internal sensor can be disabled, where self-judgment is removed, and where the only thing that matters is the fun and enjoyment of saying anything that comes to mind. This allows us to discover what that experience feels like and then build on those feelings.

Occasionally, someone shows up with a prepared topic, but most times, people simply start speaking and allow whatever comes up to come up. This process of "standing in the void" gives you a sense of how your mind operates. If you stop worrying about performing and simply immerse yourself in the relationship with your listeners and take in their support and revel in the silence, what will often emerge is a topic or an idea that you had no idea was lurking there.

Receiving positive feedback

After each talk, you will receive an enthusiastic round of applause, and you are encouraged to stand there and take in your applause until the clapping is done (very tough for most people!) After the five minute talk, the facilitator will also ask you what the experience was like, and then the floor will be opened up to only positive feedback -- not on the subject matter of the talk but on the positive ways your listeners were impacted by you as a speaker. What did they like about being with you? What made you likable as a person?

Offering only positive feedback may appear contrived. But it's not if the feedback is genuine. Most of us have been stacking the deck against ourselves by being overly perfectionistic and by focusing only on those things that aren't "right." Thus, positive feedback helps to get our perceptions back into balance. People are not asked to make up things to say about the speaker that aren't true, but to observe the speaker more closely than normal to discover positive qualities they might typically have overlooked.

There's another reason for positive-only feedback. It has been shown that people build confidence in a non-judgmental environment much faster than they do in the face of criticism, even though that criticism may be beneficial.

If you do want constructive feedback, you can get it from the best source there is (yourself) by watching your tape at home. If there are things you're doing that don't make you happy, you can make a mental note and work on changing them at the next Speaking Circle. In viewing my first ever Speaking Circle, in addition to an abundance of "ummms" and "you-knows," I discovered I had a tendency to start every sentence with "and." The next week I made a concerted effort to remove those annoying distractions, and when I went to view the tape, the change was positively dramatic.

Giving positive feedback

In giving positive feedback, most of us tend to focus on just the person's obvious qualities. You hear comments like...

I thought you were funny.

You really looked confident.

You had strong eye contact.

I felt you connected with me on a very personal level.

I loved the way you walked around the room.

Your story was very visual. I could really see what you were describing.

All of these are great observations that will help to build the confidence and comfort level of the speaker. What becomes more challenging is when you start going after the subtleties. This is particularly important when the person may have struggled in front of the group or dealt with a particularly difficult bout of stuttering. We all have a natural inclination to home in on the salient aspects of someone's presentation and overlook what is less obvious. Consequently, if the speaker is stuttering or seems uncomfortable for whatever reason, it is easy to overlook what may actually have been working well.

There are always some things that a person is doing well. Perhaps she uses her hands expressively. Maybe she has a nice smile or a twinkle in her eye. If she shares her discomfort when it first arises, perhaps her candor creates a deeper level of intimacy and puts you more at ease. She also might have a quiet elegance. Or a knack for using colorful metaphors. Maybe it's just that she is showing enormous courage in being up there and expressing herself.

Broadening your awareness of what makes a good communicator does two things. First, it helps to break you and others of the habit of thinking that fluency is everything. Secondly, it encourages you to "dig for gold." If there's something about the speaker you didn't relate to, you don't have to give one of those gooey "you were wonderful" comments that everyone knows is insincere or avoid commenting altogether. If you broaden your perception and sharpen your focus, you will begin to see little nuggets that did work for the speaker. This will not only help the speaker, it will also help to give you ideas about things you can do to make speaking more pleasurable for you.

Feedback should be brief and to the point. No fair making a two-minute talk in the guise of providing feedback. Stay alert to whether you're putting the focus on you or on the person in front of the room. And if you don't have any feedback you'd like to share, it's perfectly fine to take a pass.

Finally, avoid making comparisons. Sometimes, when a person does well, there is an overwhelming impulse to tell them that they did "much better" than their previous talk. This immediately starts putting value judgments on the talks, something we want to avoid. It also implies that perhaps they weren't very good the last time they spoke.

Speaking Freely are not about "doing better." They're about allowing yourself to receive the support of listeners and about staying connected and being genuine and trusting yourself and others. When you learn to do all those things, a by-product is that speaking becomes more fun and you gradually become more communicative and charismatic in front of the group -- whether you stutter or not!


Some years ago when biofeedback machines were all the rage, I attended a lecture on the use of electronic biofeedback to control the body's various functions. The lecturer demonstrated how biofeedback could be used to increase the brain's alpha waves (related to meditation and right brain thinking) and even to increase the skin temperature on the palm of your hand, helpful for sufferers of migraine headaches who can learn to draw blood away from the head and reduce headache pain. At the conclusion of the presentation, the speaker noted that with the proper feedback, almost any bodily or behavioral activity could be controlled. This principle applies to public speaking, as I'll show you in a moment.

Part of what makes public speaking a painful and unsettling process is that people judge themselves by how they feel while making the talk. If they were nervous, embarrassed, or terrified, they assume that everyone in the audience knew it and that they showed up poorly as a speaker.

The truth is something else.

What governs how listeners relate to you is how you appear to be. If you seem comfortable, they'll be comfortable. If you act nervous or embarrassed or upset, they'll be nervous, embarrassed, or upset. Audiences are easily programmed, which is why movie makers constantly cut away to reaction shots and provide background music -- both are effective in influencing audience reaction.

Perhaps the most important benefit of watching your tapes -- more important than identifying things you'd like to correct or improve -- is to be able to compare your experience of making a talk with how you looked when you made it.

An early turning point for one Speaking Circle participant occurred a year or so after he joined the weekly group.

I always enjoyed attending, but this particular day had been rotten from the getgo. Nothing had worked right. Everything had gone sour. Projects I'd been working on had one problem crop up after another throughout the day, so by the time I arrived at the Speaking Circle that night, I was in a sorry state. I was mad at the entire world, and that's precisely what I thought I was projecting when I got up to make my three minute talk. I took all that negative energy and just projected it out at the audience. My topic was not an angry topic, nor did I attempt to express anger. As I recall, I talked about all the things that can foul up, and interjected a bit of humor to overlay my negativity. But I was sure that everyone in the room knew what a perfectly rotten human being I had become.

The five minute talk was not much better. I was still angry, and although I funneled that anger into a benign topic, I was positive that people could tell that I was angry at everybody.

Then came the positive feedback.

I didn't believe it. Not a word. I thought that when people talked about how they liked my energy, they were just being polite. I was sure that in their heart of hearts, they would have preferred that I'd stayed home that night.

When I left at the end of the evening, I vowed that I would never, never, ever view that tape.

My resolve lasted for six days and 23 hours.

An hour before I was due to leave for the following week's Speaking Circle, I finally relented and slipped the videotape into the VCR. I scrunched down in front of the TV, hit remote, and put my hands in front of my eyes like I used to in seventh grade whenever the Frankenstein monster started chasing Abbot and Costello. I peered at the screen through a teensy space between my fingers.

Well surprise. I wasn't bad at all. What I saw was this guy with a microphone who had a high level of energy, which, I might modestly add, was invigorating and attention getting. There was no way I could know what he was feeling, so the only part of his internal life that I could experience was his energy. And because, I was feeling positive when I viewed the video, I naturally experienced what he was projecting as positive energy.

That experience was a turning point for me. It showed me that I did not have to judge myself harshly because I did not feel comfortable or even good about myself while making the talk. It proved to me that if I were willing to stay connected, take in the support of the audience, look at people, and communicate honestly and with candor, that I would in all likelihood be positively received. That experience has stood me well on numerous occasions when I've made a presentation and, being self-critical, ended up overly concerned about how I came across. I learned that I could willingly distrust my own self-perception, because there was no way that my listeners could really know what I was feeling.

Incidentally, we always tell newcomers at a Speaking Circle to watch their first few talks at least two times and preferably three. The first time, they'll traditionally home in on all the things they don't like. The second time, they'll begin to see past the imperfections. And the third time, they'll start seeing things that...welllll...might not be too bad at all.


A Speaking Circle is a very simple program to put on. You don't need an advanced degree or special training. You just need a group of people who want to support each other and have fun. However, there are certain things that the facilitator can do that will help the program to be more satisfying for everyone.

Introduce the evening

If you are the facilitator, before the talks get under way, take several minutes in front of the group to warm up the room by sharing something personal -- a thought, an idea, an experience -- and by reviewing what will take place over the course of the evening.

Explain the format, the general guidelines, and the rules for giving positive feedback.

Suggest that when they get up to speak, group members will be better able to connect with their listeners if they talk to one person at a time and hold that connection for four to five seconds before moving on to the next person.

Tell them that you'll give them a 30-second warning before their time is up, and that giving them the sign doesn't mean they have to stop talking that instant, but that they should begin winding up.

Finally, remind people to be sure not to rush off after they've concluded their talk but to continue to remain in front of the group and take their applause. Then tell the group you'll model this yourself, and be sure to stay up there until the clapping has stopped.

Do everything you can to create a safe space

This is a major role for the facilitator. If people don't feel safe, they'll be more cautious about opening up. One way to keep the space safe is by making sure that audience members confine their comments only to the speaker's presentation and not to the subject matter that was talked about. Sometimes in the safety of the room, speakers find themselves bringing up sensitive issues, and for that reason, it become important that they feel they can let the subject matter drop once they're done talking.

Similarly, during the break, one should not go up to another person and start discussing about what that person said in their talk without asking their permission to do so. Nothing can make a person more up tight than suddenly find themselves having to answer for something they brought up in a spontaneous presentation. Nor should anyone talk outside the group about any personal information that may have been revealed. The rule of thumb is -- when in doubt, let it lie. Remember, the purpose of the Speaking Circle is simply to help people become more comfortable in communicating with others and not to assist them in working through their life problems.

Be enthusiastic

As the person who's facilitating, you play a big part in setting the tone for the group. People will automatically look to you for guidance and to be a role model for them. This means that if the energy falls, you can enliven the group by talking more energetically than you normally do, and by adding animation to your voice. If you're willing to let your excitement and enthusiasm show, others will be more willing to let go.

A few camcorder tips

If you're running the videocamera, go for some interesting visuals. Don't just shoot just distant shots of the speaker. Get some close-ups. Add a little variety. Give people a sense of how they visually come across, both in full-body shots and in tighter head shots. Notice how the cameramen shoot people on TV, and see if you can duplicate some of that framing.



After practicing Speaking Freely for a while, some people may find themselves looking for a new level of experience and challenge. At this point, they're ready for an Advanced Speaking Circle.

This hybrid format combines the basic features of a Speaking Circle with the ten exercises in the first section of the NSP's public speaking book, How to Conquer Your Fears of Speaking Before People. The basic practices of the Speaking Circle features are still maintained -- three and five minute talks, standing in the void, receiving audience support, speaking to audience members for four to five seconds each, taking your applause, and allowing only positive feedback. However, in addition, speakers now have the opportunity to stretch themselves each week by practicing another of the book's 10 exercises.

We who stutter often grow up restricting how we present ourselves. We make sure we never take up too much space on the platform, or speak too loud. We express our emotions only within narrow limits. We make sure we don't intrude on our listeners by keeping an invisible shield between us and them.

But do we really have to stand that still when we're in front of a group? What would happen if wemoved about, even walking down the center aisle or to the back of the room? Suppose wespoke twice as loud as we normally do? Or added drama to our voice. Or deliberately put in long pauses. Or found ways to actively interact with the audience. Suppose we actually took over the room like Oprah Winfrey or Geraldo Rivera. What would happen? What would it actally feel like? Many people who stutter haven't the slightest idea because their only focus has been to simply survive the experience and nothing more. But when they try out these new behaivors, they often discover that this is really who they are, and that they've just been holding themselves back all these years. The ten exercises in the Public Speaking book are designed to broaden your comfort zone by giving you opportunities to practice specific things you can do to remove these and other self-imposed limitations.

In an Advanced Speaking Circle, you can try out any of these new behaviors with the full guarantee that you will only receive positive feedback on whatever you do. This frees you to experiment and discover hidden powers that you may never knew you had. What's more, each time you try out a new behavior, you can compare the strange feelings of doing it with how you look on videotape. People often discover that what they thought was too loud or too forceful or too whatever was actually, when viewed from a third party perspective, just an example of someone being more alive and exciting.


Why do Speaking Freely work so well for people who stutter? It's because Speaking Freely directly influence three points of the stuttering system -- our emotions, perceptions, and beliefs.

Changing your emotional responses

Those who stutter are often compulsively focused on the reactions and approval of their listeners. They're driven by fear, and often by panic because of an upcoming word or syllable they think they will block on. They become so self-conscious about the pauses and breaks in their speech -- and so worried about how others might react to those pauses and struggles -- that they become intolerant of any natural pauses that might occur and hasten to fill the dead time with words. In the moment of panic, they draw into themselves and lose any connection with their listeners.

The Speaking Circle is set up in such a way that each individual "owns" two blocks of time of three and five minutes each. There are no requirements in how those time blocks have to be filled. There's nobody impatiently tapping his feet, waiting for you to finish. If you like, you can say absolutely nothing at all for the full time period. In fact, I did this one evening. Nothing came to mind when I started my three minute talk, so I just connected with the group, and at some point, I said, "What the heck, I don't think I'll say anything," and spent the rest of the time just establishing eye contact. That was a pivotal evening for me, and one that I would encourage everyone to try, especially those who are overly concerned about long pauses. It's a different experience when you choose to create that pause.

As you begin to trust the situation and discover it's safe, the combination of pressure and safety begins to build a new emotional response to speaking. Having total ownership of the platform allows you to stay connected with your listeners without fear of penalty. You begin to look forward to speaking, even though you stutter, because you perceive people as being supportive and not judgmental. You slowly begin to discover who you are because it's become okay to stand in silence until you discover what you want to say. For many people who stutter, even those well into their 30s and beyond, speaking their truth in this fashion becomes a first-time experience. They start to understand what it is to assert their true thoughts and feelings. And the more they do this, the more their self-esteem begins to rise. At some point, if they do it enough, that attitude starts to become their new default.

Changing your perceptions

We who stutter not only live with self-imposed time pressures, we also believe that others will see us as weird or strange, and this obsession with talking "normally" fuels the cyclical, self-reinforcing nature of chronic stuttering. People are not simply listeners; we cast them as judges. And because we become so caught up in being judged, we can lose touch with who we are and what we feel and believe. Consequently, we often find ourself saying what we think the other person wants to hear and fail to communicate what we really think and feel.

In the Speaking Circle, you stand in front of the group, microphone in hand and floodlight trained on you. There's a video camera recording your every word and action. There are listeners giving you their full attention. These are all the cues that say, "This is risky. You're really on the spot."

Except you're not.

Remember that you can do whatever it is that you want to do. That time in front of the group is yours alone. This is a radically new experience for many. It's an opportunity to be on the spot without having to perform or rush. There's no fear of being interrupted. There's no concern that someone will jump in and finish your sentences for you.

Changing your beliefs

Many people who stutter feel they are flawed because of their stuttering. They believe that they have to please others, and that they have to be perfect to be liked and accepted. They believe that if only they could speak fluently, all their problems would be solved. They also believe that the fear and panic they feel in front of others is unique to them; that "normal" people don't have the same feelings when they have to stand and address a group.

In the Speaking Circle, you discover that people are there to support you as you. You learn that the adrenaline rush that you feel when you stand to speak is common to most people, and that your negative self-talk can be neutralized by the positive feedback you receive at the end of your five minute presentation. (Some people have gone years without hearing anything positive about themselves.) What's more, you come to expect that you'll receive this positive feedback whether or not you think you've given a good presentation.

It's not that in giving positive feedback, people are lying to you. They're just making an effort to look more closely at the positive ways you presented yourself. What's more, people are really listening to you. This experience of being heard is a first for many. And since you don't have to do something "right" to earn those nice words, it becomes easier to say, "Well, I might as well do it the way I want to do it."

When it is your turn to offer positive feedback to others, you find yourself actively looking for the little things that people do that make them appealing as a speaker. It begins to dawn on you that fluency isn't the be-all and end-all you thought it was. In fact, people are often floored when they realize that fluency often has little to do with what makes a speaker charismatic. Furthermore, when they return home and view their videotape, they are often pleasantly surprised at how well they come off, even with the stuttering, if they've made an effort to be spontaneous and stay connected to the audience. Thus, the video feedback further challenges their old beliefs of having to always speak perfectly.

Clinics can benefit, too

The format lends itself particularly well to speech clinics. A common complaint among practitioners is that they can get their clients fluent in the therapy room, but once their clients leave the clinic, their fluency breaks down. This can be explained by the way the stuttering system changes as one moves from the therapy room to the outside world.

During the therapy session, not only are various control techniques practiced, but the person's self-image, perceptions, beliefs, and emotions are all positively influenced by the relationship with the therapist. However, once the person leaves the clinic, he or she must relate to a world of bosses, bus drivers, merchants, and other workaday types who are not dedicated to providing the same safety and support that is offered by the therapist. It only take a few bad experiences to bring back the old negative perceptions and beliefs, and these cascading events can quickly trigger the fear, panic and other negative emotions that underlie the speech block.

The beauty of the Speaking Circle is in how effectively it complements one-on-one therapy. Speaking freely can provide clinicians with what is often missing in the typical therapy program: (1) a way to introduce risk taking into the speaking situation, and (2) a way to go beyond speech therapy to address the personal underpinnings of the person's stuttering. It is the combination of risk and safety that helps to build emotional muscle.

What is also attractive to clinics is that anyone can set up and run a Speaking Circle. You don't have to be a qualified speech-language pathologist. The magic is created by the basic format, itself, and by the enthusiasm of those who participate. Thus, an auxiliary program can be facilitated by non-professionals, freeing the professional staff to focus on their clinical work.

Clinics are starting to explore the possibilities of Speaking Freely. Judy L. Wells, S-LP, and Elise Murphy-Dowden, S-LP, have run Speaking Freely at the Speech-Language Pathology Clinic, Leonard A. Miller Center, HealthCare Corporation of St. John's in Newfoundland, Canada. In a follow-up questionnaire, 100% of their participants reported an increase in self-esteem, self-confidence, and personal satisfaction. Sixty percent reported improved satisfaction in their ability to deliver prepared and impromptu speeches, while 76% responded that their public speaking skills in general had improved.

Speech-language pathologists in the U.S. have also shown an interest. And thanks to a demonstration of Speaking Freely I gave in London, as well as to the workshops conducted by Lee Glickstein to train Speaking Circle leaders in the U.K. and Ireland, the format is finding enthusiastic supporters among clinicians and people who stutter in those countries as well.

Personally, I'm excited about the possibilities offered by Speaking Freely, especially if people can attend once a week, as I have for more than seven years. For me, it's one of the most fun things I do, and I never fail to leave the group feeling more grounded and self-confident than when I walked in.


Those who would like to learn more about Speaking Freely are encouraged to read Lee Glickstein's informative book Be Heard Now! Tap into Your Inner Speaker and Communicate with Ease, published by Broadway Books. You can also access Lee's Web site at <>.

If you'd like someone to conduct a 1- to 2-day Speaking Circle weekend for your group or organization, please contact John C. Harrison, 3748 22nd Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Phone: 415-647-4700. Fax: 415-285-4359. E-mail: I am also available to put on facilitator trainings for your organization that will give people additional knowledge on how to successfully run a continuing Speaking Circle program.



Speaking Circle Format


  • Everyone will have an opportunity to talk twice. The first round of talks will last for 3 minutes each. The second round will last for 5 minutes each.

  • You are encouraged to stand and connect with the audience for a few moments before you say anything. When you talk, speak to one person at a time for 4 or 5 seconds. Then speak successively to other people for that length of time. Try and avoid looking away, sweeping your eyes back and forth, or doing other things that prevent you from making personal connection with your listeners.

  • If you hit a stretch at the beginning or into the talk, where nothing comes to mind, simply allow yourself to "stand in the void." Stay connected to the audience and with yourself. Do not feel pressured to talk or perform in any way. If you like, you can spend the entire time simply connecting with the audience and saying nothing.

  • Listeners are requested to actively focus their attention and support on the speaker.

  • Allow yourself to receive and take in this support.

  • Once you have completed the talk, continue to stay connected with the audience and take your applause. Do not be in a hurry to rush back to your seat.

  • At the end of your five-minute talk, you will be asked to share what that experience was like for you. The audience will then be asked to give you only positive feedback. When people raise their hands to talk, you're the one who calls on them. No negative or "constructive" comments are permitted. The feedback should focus, not on the content of your talk, but on how listeners were personally impacted by you. They will share what they liked about you as a speaker. If you want constructive feedback, you can ask for it after the Speaking Circle has concluded. Or you can provide it yourself when you're at home watching your tape.

  • Each of your talks will be videotaped, and you will get to keep your tapes to view at home. Bring the videotape with you when you come to the next Speaking Circle. And make sure it's cued up to the end of your last talk, so that your new talks can be added to it.



  • Standards of Conduct in a Speaking Circle

    As an audience member:

  • Maintain, to the best of your ability, a soft, positive focus on the face of the speaker. Do not comment or interrupt the speaker for any reason. Do not engage in note taking or any other distracting behavior.

  • When giving feedback, keep it simple and brief. Do not address the content of the talk; instead, focus on what you liked about being with the person. How did they impact you? What specific things did they do that worked for them as a speaker? Frame all of your comments in the positive, and talk only about your own feelings. Avoid talking about their life. Don't compare this talk with past talks they've given, and avoid analyzing, coaching, advising or in any way indicating that you know more than they do.

  • As a speaker:

  • Don't make comments to the people who are giving you feedback. Simply acknowledge them and then move on to the next raised hand.

  • During breaks and after a Circle:

  • Do not initiate conversations with others based on the content of their talks without first asking them if it is okay to do so. This includes offering them good ideas and, especially, unsolicited advice.

  • If you are unwilling or unable to maintain any of these standards of conduct, or if you have questions on any of the above, please advise the Speaking Circle facilitator.

    added with permission July 8, 1999