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Level 5

I Attended a “Speaking Circle” to Improve My Public Speaking Skills. Here’s What I Learned

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A few nights ago, I drove 20 minutes north to San Rafael, CA. I was wearing my strongest deodorant, chewing on peppermint Tums and seriously regretting the three cloves of garlic I’d added to my stir-fry an hour earlier. My gut was churning but not because of excess garlic. I was heading to my first Speaking Circle, a small-group workshop designed to help people shake their anxiety about public speaking.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t suffer from extreme “glossaphobia,” but speaking in front of a group is something I rarely do. Since I work for myself, and since I work from my home, hours can pass on any given day without talking to anyone besides my dog and my cat. 

No wonder my oratory muscle is soft and flabby. As the owner of my own editorial services business, I know I need to be able to share my expertise with existing or prospective clients without my voice quavering or my heart pounding.

I decided a Speaking Circle was just the “workout” my public-speaking muscle needed. Conveniently, the founder of Speaking Circles International, Lee Glickstein, leads a biweekly gathering just a few miles from my house. That evening, eight of us gathered for the two-hour interactive workshop. Three of us were newbies. The others had attended before, and two were Speaking Circle veterans.

The evening was divided into two rounds, during which we were invited to do three things: Stand in front of the group, make (and hold) eye-contact with each person and “receive” the gaze from the person looking back. The goal, Lee explained, was to establish “relational presence” and build an authentic, supportive connection between speaker and audience. Such a connection allows a speaker to feel comfortable, grounded and present.

Round one lasted three minutes. Round two, seven minutes. Believe it or not, speaking was entirely optional (although we all talked for our allotted minutes). Here’s how it went for me. 

Right away I realized I had no idea how much talking was required to fill three minutes, let alone seven. Regardless, in the first round, I introduced myself and explained my personal and professional reasons for being there. Yes, I was nervous. But I’d already witnessed how genuinely kind and engaged the group was when others before me spoke, so I was calmer than I expected. It was comforting to receive the (mandatory) applause at the beginning and end of my presentation. And it was helpful when Lee gently reminded us to “breathe” and “stay with us” if we started to struggle.

Round two was harder. I knew that, while I could comfortably share a story I’d told before, my challenge was to speak spontaneously, without preparation. So I took a few deep breaths (also mandatory) and talked about picking up a paintbrush for the first time when I was 35 years old. I explained the thrill I get from playing with paint and how my adrenaline surges when I manipulate pure, saturated color.

For seven minutes, I spoke without any plan for what I would say next. To my surprise, I was able to relax and actually listen to myself speak -- impossible when you’re a bundle of nerves. As a result, I told my story without forcing my way through a script or a bullet-pointed plan. Lee reminded me to hold my gaze until the end of each sentence, and when I did, I felt fully connected to my audience. The experience was powerful, satisfying and fun.

I may attend more Speaking Circles in the future because I know one “workout” isn’t enough to build real strength or flexibility. But even one session taught me a few things. I learned the importance of taking several deep breaths before speaking. I learned that making direct eye contact with my audience helped me feel like I was talking to friends, not foes. As a result, I felt safe enough to slow down and tune in to what I was saying – and thinking.

Perhaps most important of all, I learned that speaking from my heart is the real key to successful public speaking. If I’m truly engaged with my own story – about playing with paint, playing with words or working hard as an entrepreneur -- chances are, my audience will be, too.

Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out these posts.

  • Watch a video about Lee’s “Pleasure Principle” of public speaking
  • Read five dos and don’ts of presenting from oratory expert Diggi Thomson  
  • Watch a video to learn business coach Julie Gordon White’s top five tips for powerful public speaking
  • Weigh in on this burning question: Have You Ever Had a Public-Speaking SNAFU?



QB Community members, what keeps you calm and focused in front of an audience?

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1 Comment
Level 6

Good for you @WillowOlder! I once heard that Americans are more afraid of dying than public speaking. Wow! Speaking in front of others is an important skill - and one that enables you to tell your story in many different ways. As someone who spoke publicly for QuickBooks at one point, I had to find ways to manage my nerves - they never left, I just learned how to negotiate them down to a manageable level. It took a lot of practice - testing and learning into what helped. And once I found my formula, I stuck with it. I do the same thing every time I speak publicly - I find myself a quiet place (sometimes it's a bathroom stall!), I meditate for about 5 minutes (more if I have the time) and I remind myself that I know what I'm talking about. And then I smile for about a minute. It works for me and helps me calm down before I'm on. Would love to hear about other members' tricks!

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