Stage Fright Cured: Why Effortless Soft-Focus Attention Works

by Audrey Seymour MA MCC, Speaking Circles International


Speaking Circles® are famous for curing stage fright, as well as developing speakers who can share their message without a script. Founder Lee Glickstein developed the method intuitively back in the 1980s as he worked to overcome the performance anxiety he experienced as a standup comedian.

The Speaking Circles approach to public speaking spread by word-of-mouth around the globe through many personal stories of radical breakthrough, and the purpose of this article is to move beyond anecdotal evidence to identify certain scientific studies that tell us why this work is so powerful and effective.

The studies referenced in this article were undertaken by Dr. Lester Fehmi of the Princeton Biofeedback Center to investigate the benefits of a mental state he calls “Open Focus,” which is essentially the same state taught in Speaking Circles.

Soft-Focused Attention or “Open Focus”:

Dr. Fehmi’s research was done with the objective of reducing stress-related symptoms, which is highly relevant to speakers with performance anxiety.

Beyond reducing stress, the studies found that the “open focus” mindset also served to increase health, well-being and self-actualization. They concluded that the practice of attention itself is fundamental to the optimization of human behavior, and that a particular form of attention was associated with the production of whole-brain synchrony. This whole-brain harmony is known to produce enhanced states of awareness, integrated functioning and optimum performance.

The attentional style of “effortless orientation” was shown to produce the best results, in contrast to the typical narrow and exclusivity of attention that requires effort, stress and tension to maintain. They conclude that it is precisely this tension which appears to inhibit healthy brain balance while performing an activity.

This optimal attentional style or “attentional flexibility” requires allowing one's awareness to broaden to simultaneously include all perceptible events at the present moment. That is, the optimal state allows one's attention to be equally and simultaneously spread out among body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and sounds while performing a task or activity. It also includes a sense of unity rather than separateness.

Application to Speaking Circles:

There are several components to the Speaking Circles approach that match up directly with the state Dr. Fehmi describes in his studies.

One of the most important aspects of the Speaking Circles approach is the instruction to “simply be with” individual members of the audience, one at a time. Participants are trained to find an effortless no-agenda mindset where they learn to trust their capacity to speak naturally from their own expertise. This is the “effortless orientation” of the “open focus” mindset.

Speaking Circles participants are also taught to hold a “soft gaze” as their eyes meet those of their audience, rather than a sharp focus. They are trained to be openly in presence with the others in the room and to allow the flow of words to come, rather than trying to remember a prepared speech. This is the “attentional flexibility” of the “open focus” approach.

Attention flexibility training is a process-oriented approach which de-emphasizes sharp focus and the particular content of experience, while Speaking Circles emphasizes the foundation of simply being present without the concern about producing specific content.

The final correlation between Circles and open focus is the experience of unity observed in both approaches to a new style of focus. Speaking Circles participants are directed to feel the connection “underneath the personality” and to move beyond “the feeling of separation” from their audience.



(1) Attention to Attention in Applied Neurophysiologya nd EEG Biofeedback. Publisher, Future Health, lnc. Editor, Joe Kamiya. The author, Dr. Lester G. Fehmi, retains all rights and privileges to this paper and associated materials. 317 Mt. Lucas Rd , Princeton,N J 08540,6 09-924-0782F,A X 609-924-0782E, maill

(2) OPEN FOCUS: The Attentional Foundation of Health and Well-Being Lester G. Fehmi, Ph.D. George Fritz, Ed.D.

(3) Attention and Neurofeedback Synchrony Training: Clinical Results and Their Significance J. T. McKnight, PhD, L. G. Fehmi, PhD: Journal of Neurotherapy, Vol. 5(1/2) 2001