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The Pleasure Principle

of Public Speaking


The Genesis of Relational Presence

My Story, by Lee Glickstein

I was as shy as a chubby awkward kid from Brooklyn could be, and my proclivity for tortured self-consciousness led to a full-blown case of stage fright that didn’t abate until I was in my mid-fifties.

Even one-on-one conversation often found me in a state of deer-in-the-headlights high-anxiety, as reflected in a series of unfortunate relationship choices and aborted friendships. A marriage at age 35 -- after a month of dating -- essentially lasted a few weeks before it became apparent to both of us that we had no meeting of the mind’s eye.

Therapy and spiritual guidance over the years helped me deal with the most extreme of my self-esteem issues, and I got to where I could cope with daily life. However, my terror in front of groups abated not a scintilla.

I have since come to observe that some of the most extreme stage fright is suffered by people who are drawn to be in front of groups. Gregg Levoy points out in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, that Winston Churchill, who became an eloquent orator, was dyslexic and stuttered as a child, and suggests:

Instead of seeing children who stutter or cower or are excruciatingly shy as having developmental problems, consider that they may have some great thing inside them, that their symptoms are protecting a gift.”

I had a knack for humor and wanted to be a stand-up comedian, while my spiritual development nourished fantasies of holding forth as a guru.

When I moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn in 1974 at the age of 30, I got involved in the nascent comedy scene and performed at several open mikes. My terror each time was extreme, but I could write comedy and memorize it to the word and gesture. I had no relationship at all with my listeners, didn’t really see them, but occasionally they’d buy my persona and laugh at the first joke, and I’d do okay.

When they didn’t laugh at my first joke I’d lose all composure in the deafening silence and have great difficulty remembering the second joke, and so on. I died many deaths in my few months in the spotlight. Only desperation to shine kept me going.

It all came to an end in Berkeley in front of my largest audience at an open mike. I was doing well until a drink fell off a table near the back and crashed on the cement floor. Everyone turned to look. Since I was a million miles from being in the moment, I didn’t have it in me to respond; couldn’t even look toward that table. I froze for an excruciating few seconds, then continued my act. But the spell had been broken, I had unmasked myself, blown my cover. All I could do was simulate being in the moment. That I was in no way in relationship with my audience was nakedly apparent. No more laughing. Death by silence.

The situation hadn’t required a witty ad lib, ala Robin Williams, who might have said without missing a beat, “Can’t you people hold your liquor?!” All I would have needed to do upon the glass shattering was take a breath, look toward that table and ask: “Are you okay?” Another breath, then on with the show.

But such human availability was now obviously so far beyond my capacity, I could no longer tolerate the lie.
I would need to heal my terror with groups at a more profound level.

Sabbatical from Performing

For the next ten years my comedy muse went underground while my creativity served in building a small business, a downtown San Francisco secretarial service.

Itching to find an outlet for my soul’s desire and desperate to participate in and contribute to the world beyond my survival routine, in 1986 I returned to comedy clubs to find my place as a coach for young comics. I saw in them an opportunity for vicarious fulfillment of my unattainable performance dreams. They were funny and fearless but weak in translating their vital spark into material that would let them shine. They were obsessed with coming up with clever laugh lines, and I saw that I could guide them in accessing their authentic persona, the wellspring through which their unique comedy could emerge naturally and uniquely.

I established unconventional comedy classes in clubs, giving each participant turns to hold forth in a supportive, contained environment. My guidelines were: “Dare to be boring” and “The truth is funny enough.” Most of my students were unable to abstain from going for the laughs, often at the expense of others.

That nasty compulsion reminded me of my childhood meals where sarcasm, bad-natured teasing and needling putdowns were as much dinner table fare as the food. I’ve often said that my family dinner table was a war zone, and as the youngest and shyest of two boys, I took most of the verbal shrapnel.

And since these meals provided my early experiences in public speaking (over 3000 opportunities to be shamed and heckled by the time I was ten), that’s where I picked up my case of terminal stage terror, along with an eating disorder. At school I was “fatso,” the red-faced, hyper self-conscious butt of bullies, and unable to stand up for himself.

In my teens I came to use sarcasm and wordplay as a defense and eventually a weapon. The compulsion to go for the laugh at any cost pushed people away and protected me from intimate relationships at any level. At age 26 I went into therapy and started to face the rage at the core of my isolation.

So 15 years later, there I was back at the clubs trying to influence young comics to allow their audiences in rather than pushing them away with clever nastiness. Of course, I was pushing against the tide, but a few of my students got it and influenced me to keep teaching at less charged venues. I set up groups in my home to nurture the expression and development of “healthy” humor.

Back on Stage

And with a sense of mission to save the world from sarcasm and teasing, I looked for opportunities to be a speaker on the subject of healthy humor. I joined the National Speakers Association and found a niche as humorist and humor coach for professional speakers.

Garrison Kiellor said that a humorist is a comedian who tells jokes slowly. A humorist also performs for sober audiences who are open to a deeper message. Here was another chance to conquer the stage fright gremlin, this time in a less charged environment.

For my first several talks I brought my entire script to the lectern and referred to it frequently. My biggest fear was that I’d freeze and fall to pieces in public. From the night before to the moment I was introduced, I’d be a basket case. But my content was solid, the humor gentle and easy to laugh with, and my message sincere, so I got more and more opportunities for free and low paid talks.

Meanwhile, I was a humor doctor for professional speakers who had more capacity and motivation to take my coaching than did comics.

Speaking Circles® Turn

But it was my group sessions that became the laboratory for everything I have since learned about the magic of what has come to be called Relational Presence.

In the early 1990’s they matured into Speaking Circles, no longer focused on laughter but on authentic expression with natural humor just a happy by-product. I evolved from humorist to “serious speaker” and seminar leader on the subject of authentic presentation and the treatment of performance anxiety. I was now coaching professional speakers in presence and storytelling.

As for my own performance anxiety, I was Coping. Having come from such deficit, I hadn’t dare imagined getting beyond Coping. But something magical was happening in my Speaking Circles.

Invested in the image and role of Facilitator, I witnessed participants moving quickly from Fear to Ease while I remained stuck in Coping, never taking a non-teaching turn myself until one evening in 1995. A session was about to end early due to low attendance, when one of the participants said, “Lee, why don’t you take a turn?”

So I did, going up front with trepidation and anxiety like almost every first-timer. Finally, at long last, I got a taste of my own medicine and continued taking it to this day.

Thus, from inside the Circle I came into Ease and Freedom and the work began to take off. Be Heard Now! was effortlessly written and published (Broadway Books, 1998), and I began to train and certify Speaking Circle Facilitators. One of the first I trained, Dr. Doreen Hamilton, a psychologist for 20 years with severe stage fright, stayed on to become my training partner and together we trained over 300 Facilitators internationally in the next 8 years and are still going strong. Doreen still maintains a psychology private practice, but with the infusion of Relational Presence and coming into her own Ease, the nature of her practice shifted from problem-oriented to creativity-based.

“Relational Presence” Arrives

From my first Speaking Circle turn in 1995 to the present, I have thoroughly experienced and explored the phenomenon of what in 2004 came to be named Relational Presence, facilitating over 200 sessions a year, participating in a bunch more, leading hundreds of advanced trainings internationally, and training professional communicators and business leaders in true magnetism through presence.

The learning never ends since Relational Presence is the teacher and everyone who comes to live in it becomes a new source of “the work.” Relational Presence has been a state of mind, body and soul forever, touched on in its essential aspects by most wisdom schools and practices.

What’s new here is the isolation and identification of the state so that anyone with a modicum of self-awareness and willingness can discover it personally in a step-by-step system, at their own pace and in their own style.

Many people come to this work with excellent one-on-one rapport skills, believing that public speaking involves learning a new and foreign (to them) way to communicate. They soon learn to speak from their strength by making every public speaking event a series of one-on-one interactions. Not by simulating connection with eye contact as is taught in conventional trainings, but by actually being there. These people come into Ease in a flash and never look back.

Others, like me, come to this work with a lifelong habit of one-on-one anxiety and a history of failed relationships. For me, the ongoing opportunity to practice being with one person at a time in a smorgasbord of faces allowed me to develop the capacity to Be With a person when it was just the two of us. So I first experienced the intimacy of Relational Presence with groups and then brought in into to my personal life.

Suddenly, at the advanced age of 55, I found I could look any human being softy in the eye, breathe, be still, and discover naturally what is called for. Relational Presence had transformed my life at its very core!

Now, at 65, I continue enjoying my second chance at a first childhood, and Relational Presence is my teacher.

© Copyright 2009 Lee Glickstein. All Rights Reserved.



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