by John C. Harrison

For two hours every Tuesday night of the test four years I've been participating in a novel public speaking class. It's called a "speaking circle," and it may one day revolutionize the way all of us learn to become at ease in front of an audience.

I've seen an endless parade of people come through the class during my four years. Almost without exception, everyone started out afraid to be judged, unwilling to look bad, afraid of relating personally with the audience, uncomfortable with pauses, frightened of being themselves--in short, people were generally a nervous wreck when they first stood up to speak.

But after a relatively few weeks, a startling transformation took hold. People started developing confidence to be themselves. They learned to trust their mind to give them what they needed. They started making personal contact with the audience. They began to feel grounded.

Speaking circles have just been introduced to the Orange County and Pittsburgh chapters of the NSP. If they catch on, they can become a valuable addition to every chapter. I'd like to speculate on what promise speaking circles hold for all of us.

What is a speaking circle?

A speaking circle is not really a circle at all, but a unique environment that melds both a feeling of risk and a secure and supportive environment. The concept was developed by Lee Glickstein, a public speaking coach in San Francisco; himself, a person who grew up petrified of being in front of others.

Four to ten people are typically involved in the meeting. People speak twice a night, the first time for three minutes, the second time for five. Your talk can be something prepared, though most people opt to speak off the cuff.

After each talk, the person is encouraged to share his or her experience of speaking. After the five minute talk the floor is also opened to positive (and only positive) feedback. And each talk is videotaped.


You heard right. Every week, each person brings his own tape which is used to record his talk, and then he (or she) takes the tape back to watch at home.

You get in touch with you.

There are several reasons why speaking circles have such a strong impact:

  • People are fully heard. How often have you felt that people weren't listening to you? Perhaps you felt your stuttering got in the way or that you had nothing important to share. In a speaking circle, the audience focuses full attention and support on the speaker, no matter what they say. You can even remain completely silent for the full time and simply connect with the group. The purpose is to simply feel the audience support.
  • You have complete freedom. There's no pressure put on you. You don't have to perform for anyone. You have up to five minutes to find out what you're really thinking and feeling. No matter what you do, that time is totally yours.
  • People receive only positive feedback. When was the last time somebody told you about what you did well? For some of us, it hardly ever happens. Consequently, we automatically focus on what we think wasn't right. Hearing nothing but positive feedback helps to balance the score and keeps us open and feeling good about ourselves.
  • You get to see yourself on videotape. The first reaction people often have is "Yuuuck, I don't want to see how terrible I am!" Yet, when most people see their tape for the second time (or even third time as you are encouraged to do in the beginning), they start making positive discoveries about what they like. Most revealing is that even though you might have been totally petrified and self-conscious and stuttering while giving the talk, if you were connecting with the audience and being genuine, you ended up looking pretty good. If there are things you'd like to improve, viewing the tape will give you direction.

    Speaking circles are extraordinarily powerful, because they address not only who you are as a speaker, but who you are as a person. They help transform your emotions, perceptions, and beliefs. They build self-esteem. They can even become a great place to work through current life issues.

    Making it happen.

    On March 23rd and 24th we conducted a full day-and-a-half speaking circle for 10 people in Orange County, CA to launch the program. Here's what some of the participants had to say:

    Robin Deschamps: Seeing the tape showed that I'm starting to accept my stutter, which I am now. I also think I'll take more risks in the future, after attending this workshop. This was the most fun I've had in quite some time.

    Richard Macias: "I learned that I've got to stop being so serious. I learned that I need to be able to laugh at myself, and that it's okay?"'

    Bob Spmdley: "I saw a person I haven't seen before. I saw room for improvement, but I saw how far this person has come"

    Shannon Skupien: "When I first got up to speak, I felt a lot of anxiety. But in viewing the tape, I didn't come across that way. I looked okay."

    Donna Leonard: Hearing all that positive feedback really pointed out to me how we don't validate people. Look at how great we made each other feel! I think what I got from watching my tape was more confidence in myself. I've never thought that I've had that confidence, but after seeing the tape, I see that I actually do"

    Angus Croll: "On the way home I was thinking-if you got ten fluent people off the street and brought them here, I doubt whether their speaking would be as good as ours."

    The workshop was so rewarding that the Orange County chapter is now running a speaking circle twice a month, on alternate weeks to the regular chapter meeting.

    What's so compelling about speaking circles is that you don't need to have a trained facilitator. It's the format itself that does the magic. If you want to start a speaking circle in your chapter, the national office can send you printed material and a video, so you can see a real speaking circle in action. Then all you need are some willing people and someone with a camcorder.

    Total acceptance...total freedom...total support...a chance to take a risk...an opportunity to discover the real you...in a space that's totally yours. Where else in the world can you create that kind of experience?

    Speaking coach Lee Glickstein is writing a book on speaking circles that's due out some time this year. This is hot stuff. And it could help to transform your life.

    John C. Harrison is Program Director and a board member of the NSP.