Dexter Nardella holds Speaking Circles in Sebastopol

SOFT SPOKEN — Dexter Nardella holds Speaking Circles in Sebastopol, a kind of public speaking that emphasizes establishing an emotional connection with the audience and speaking from the heart, rather than perfecting a performance.

For years, surveys have listed public speaking as one of the things Americans fear most.

There’s an entire organization, Toastmasters, dedicated to helping people overcome their fear of public speaking, but Toastmasters, which emphasizes public speaking for business and civic purposes, has a hardy, corporate edge that some find off-putting.

Is there a softer, gentler way to learn how to speak in public?

Sebastopol resident Dexter Nardella thinks so. Nardella, a retired chiropractor and the founder of “Speaking from Presence,” offers workshops and speaking circles for people seeking a more holistic approach to learning how to speak in public — one that emphasizes establishing an emotional connection with the audience and speaking from the heart, rather than perfecting a performance.

Describing the speaking circle experience, Nardella said, “I would say it’s an opportunity for people to come and feel safe to be themselves out loud.”

The Speaking Circles method was developed in the late 1980s by Lee Glickstein, author of “Be Heard Now! Tap Into Your Inner Speaker and Communicate with Ease,” to overcome his lifelong stage fright.

Nardella said he sought out Glickstein’s work because of his own discomfort with public speaking.

“I never thought of myself as a shy person,” Nardella said, noting he’d been voted senior class president in high school. “But I felt anxious and did everything I could not to say much. I became a really good listener. People like being listened to, and that was a really great way for me not to have to say anything.”

After he retired from his chiropractic business in 2011 — and after a 27-month stint in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia — Nardella took the training to become a Speaking Circles facilitator. He’s been doing it ever since.

Last week, I attended one of Nardella’s speaking circles at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Three men and four women, including yours truly, took turns speaking. The room was severely minimalist — just a small arc of white folding chairs facing a tall dark curtain. People got up to speak as Nardella called their names, and he filmed each speaker.

He set the stage for the evening by laying out the three rules of Speaking Circles.

1. For the audience: give your attention to the person upfront with an attitude of warm regard.

2. For the speaker: be with the audience, one person at a time, allowing words to come if they do.

3. Safety/confidentiality: What is heard here will not be repeated.

He also mentioned that we should look people in the eyes as we spoke. If he noticed that someone wasn’t looking at people’s eyes, he made a quick gesture to remind us to reconnect visually and emotionally with our audience.

During the first round, everyone spoke for three minutes each. During the second round, everyone spoke for seven minutes.

No one spoke from a prepared script, speaking instead about whatever was on their mind; some worked harder than others to mold their words into a story. Others just mused about whatever crossed their minds. One person simply stood at the front of the room, looking from one person to the next for three minutes in silence, just to see what it felt like.

When my turn came, I leapt up and clipped on the mic. To be honest, I love speaking in front of people. I did debate in high school. I won medals. There’s just one teeny tiny problem: as a speaker, I’m a tad unreliable — sometimes cogent, on-point and persuasive … and sometimes not.

Having never been at a speaking circle before, I started off by doing just what the others did before me — making long, intentional eye contact with each person before starting to speak, which was …  weird.

During my three-minute speech — about an intriguing idea from a podcast I heard on the way over — I found myself talking way too fast. Everyone else had spoken slowly and simply from their heart; I felt trapped in my head. My gaze, which should have been trained laser-like on my small audience, kept flitting around in the rafters like some demented bat.

People clapped anyway, which was nice of them. (Clapping is de riguer in this class.) Things went more smoothly during the seven-minute section.

Nardella said different people bring different expectations to the class.

“Some people come because they’ve written a book, and they’re going to go on a book tour and want to get more comfortable speaking in front of an audience,” he said.

Others come simply to learn to be more comfortable speaking in small groups of people.

“People come looking for ease and connection,” he said. “I don’t think they come looking for the pleasure of being seen, but I think they discover that.”

At the beginning of the evening, Nardella held up a little acorn to remind people that everyone has something inside them — a little kernel of wonderfulness that is theirs alone and that the world needs to see. He views it as his job to help people to discover that kernel by teaching them to speak their truth out loud.

“Most people — there’s something inside them — and as much as they know about themselves, there’s more to discover,” he said.

In a speaking circle, “they get to discover what that is —and it’s never-ending,” he said. “There’s always more.”

Nardella offers speaking circles twice a month — at Sebastopol Center for the Arts on the fourth Monday and at a private home in Sebastopol on the second Friday of the month. The next Speaking Circle is Friday, July 19. Nardella is also holding a day-long “Speaking from Presence” workshop on July 27.  Find out more at speakingfrompresence.com.

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