Harnessing The Butterflies1
A New Approach To Public and Private Speaking
Matthew Bronson and Dan Hawkmoon Alford, C.I.I.S.

Palms sweaty, you approach the front of the room with a profound nervousness. Your heart is racing; your stomach feels like it wants to leap out of your body and catch the next plane to Tahiti; your face is flushed and hot; you feel all eyes are upon you. No, it's not the electric chair you are moving toward -- it's simply a podium, for you have been asked to speak before your colleagues, your church group, or your first class as a teacher, to share some remarks, some information or personal insight. Public Enemy #1 masquerading as a seemingly simple task.

If something like this has happened to you, you are not alone. The fear of public speaking ranks as one of the most intense and prevalent fears of adults, right up there with death and IRS audits. This despite the fact that the ability to speak before a group is essential for professional advancement. In a class called "Not Just Words: Toward Effective Speaking" which we taught recently for the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, several people came face-to-face with their personal public speaking demons and went away with not only a more relaxed and focused appreciation of the speaking process, but with an enhanced sense of their own humanity. Our intention here, then, is to use a description of our class to stimulate your own Inquiry into personal and public communication.

The Awakening

The starting point is an awakening to the speaking and listening which we all do, unconsciously most of the time. When was the last tine you answered "Fine" automatically in answer to the question "How are you?" -- with mouth on autopilot, no thinking going on. For many people, paying conscious attention to communication is second nature; for others it's a challenge much like asking fish to notice the water they breathe and swim in.

Wanting to tailor our class to the needs of our students, we asked each one to tell us what brought them to our 6-week workshop -- just what was it about the title or description of the course that made them imagine that if they had Just a little more something in their speaking, they could more successfully do something, and what was that something? We found that the students varied in sensitivity and speaking experience. One young woman was very shy and spoke hardly at all, while another spoke frequently before large groups of professionals and always had something to share. There were high-pitched voices and deep, resonant voices, nasal voices,and throaty voices, fast-talkers, smooth-talkers and even one non-talker who took this course on speaking despite his being in a spiritual phase of withdrawing from words. But they had one thing in common: all were afraid -- even afraid when asked to share what brought them to us, emotionally abreacting to some aspect of the public speaking process.

The group practice for the first evening was simple: share with the class in a succinct, coherent fashion what you want to change, to improve, to enhance about your private and public communication. Students were gently guided to pay attention to the power and conviction of each person's contribution -- to notice things like the general tone of voice, the choice of words, the feeling tones in those words, breathing patterns. One student said that she wanted to be more precise and clear in her speaking; another wanted confidence in a wider variety of contexts; yet another wished to learn to heal more directly with her words. Everyone wanted to feel more comfortable when asked to speak before a group.

Based an the needs expressed by the groups we led them through an NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) process called "future pacing," an opportunity to test a newly revived resource under some future condition. We asked them to get comfortable and "remember a time when you were speaking with a dear friend, or perhaps even a group of relative strangers, and you were powerfully bringing home your points -- you can feel that intangible but very real rapport that happens when you put yourself across just right, like the one you remember now, where you crossed the barrier between your heart and the heart of your listener or listeners; you can see it in people's eyes, you can see it when they really identify with what you are saying, their eyes maybe glazing over or pupils dilating, their heads just perceptibly nodding as if to say, 'Yes, I hear you. Yes, I am with you,' and there are as well specific sensations in your body that let you know that you are in perfect communication, that you are in tune, and that the words are transparently flowing from your lips to their perfect understanding. That's right, you remember doing that." Anchoring this, we clear our minds and then "remember or imagine a situation such as one which might have brought you here, where you feel a block, where the natural flow of communication is impeded by self-consciousness, intimidation, or any other negative aspects. Perhaps you even already know of an upcoming talk you will be giving. With a situation in mind as the stage on which the empowering drama will be acted out, experience now that situation with the ease and confidence you felt just a few moments ago: seeing, hearing and feeling yourself speaking to that situation in a powerfully sharing way."

The point of this group process is that "you already have all the resources needed to be a powerful and confident public speaker. Even if you have trouble remembering times when you yourself tapped into such a powerful resource, you can think of someone else who manifested the abilities you want for yourself, imagining the details clearly, and use it as a model on which to build your own resource." Your nervous system is a consummate modelling device, and can recreate anything that it has perceived.2

Our mandate as teachers in this summer course was to uncover those resources, both experienced and imagined, inside everyone, and to make those resources available in a wider range of circumstances: to take them from where they were now to that time in the future when they had experienced and later mastered new aspects of communication.

We found out two days later that the first class had apparently had the desired effect on most if not all of the participants. One woman reported that she had gone on that week to give what she felt was one of the best talks of her life; another reported in his journal that he was gaining an entirely new perspective on the arguments which he and his wife were prone to; a third said she found herself revealing more of herself than normal to everyone she met, which produced some remarkable results. We therefore judged the initial effort a success: of waking people up to the centrality and the subtlety of language in their everyday lives, of having them begin to clarify their own personal paths toward a more satisfying relationship with that language, and ultimately with themselves.

Heartspeak: Feeling the Feeling Tones In Speech3

Our next session began with a discussion of speaking from the heart, noticing together how much, or even most, communication hides feeling rather than expresses it, and considering the ways in which society and our own personal upbringings discourage the natural and spontaneous release of intense emotion. Our claim to the class was that by speaking from the heart, by touching the roots of our deepest feelings while speaking, we can have a much greater impact on our audience as well as be more satisfied with our own performance. We further claimed that the feeling tone is the basic structure of experience, that knowledge and experience are "filed" in our minds primarily by feeling tone, that your listeners will remember the feelings evoked in them much more readily and with more clarity than any particular words you might say.

To try out this claim first-hand, we led participants through a process in which they remembered clearly an experience of great *motion, any emotion as long as it was intense and had impact. Each participant then turned to a partner and took turns sharing the experience verbally while retaining as much of the feeling quality as they could. Speakers were encouraged to notice when they were tempted to leave the feeling, and to gently bring themselves back into it.

Finally, each participant was asked to tell that story once more in front of the entire class -- and the video camera. The use of video is an integral part of this class, providing invaluable feedback, seeing yourself as others see you. Our own experience as the creator and hosts of a cable television show for five years4 has been critical in our search for more effective styles of speaking and listening, so we wanted our students to have a video opportunity for themselves. For most, it was their first time -- and all were a little nervous about being in front of a camera.

This was as good a time as any to reframe nervousness for them. One of the first things people tell you about their relationship with public speaking is that it makes them nervous. When we "chunk down" and ask questions which uncover the specific sensory components which signal nervousness, we find elevated heart rate, "butterflies" in the stomach, flushed face, warm rushes, and muscle tension as common triggers for the self-imposed label "nervous." However, if you examine those symptoms closely while you are thinking of the term "excited," you see that all those words equally apply -- that "nervous" and "excited" are merely semantic frames that we impose onto a largely identical set of sensory impressions.

"Nervous" also brings with it an interpretation, immediately becoming a reality, that you are paralyzed, unable to fight or flee, tiny and vulnerable. "Excited", on the other hand, mobilizes the adrenalin response toward the task at hand -- speaking before a group. By replacing the phrase, "I get nervous when I do public speaking" in your internal and external dialogue with "I get excited when I do public speaking," by countering the question "How're you feeling, nervous?" with "No, excited!", you too can harness the butterflies and deliver a better speech.

As soon as they warmed up, the students' mini-talks were quite dramatic in their power and effect. One young woman with red hair and sparkling eyes shared what had happened at a wake she had gone to recently for a friend who had died of AIDS. In an even, calm tone she described to us her expectation that this would be a sad, depressing experience. Her tone grow warm and almost sublime as she described her friend's house, so beautifully decorated and full of birds and animals, now filled with friends who had come to pay their last repeats. To her surprise this event became a great celebration of joy and life among the survivors, and a recommitting of their love for each other. Every student in the class was visibly moved by her account, recognizing in it, perhaps, something of a healing allegory for our times.

Next a man, tall and thin with classic chiseled features, told of a vigil in which he had participated on the anniversary of the death of Maher Baba at big ashram in India. He told in spare, narrative style of the great reverence, and peace shading into what could not be expressed in words. Although his story was very short, the great peace manifest in his voice, face, and eyes touched each listener profoundly.

Another woman told of a simple experience in a supermarket which summed up a whole period in her life; yet another told of her calling to become an anthropologist, and the internal struggle against practicality and social pressure which ensued. Everyone had a turn to speak with feeling -- and when the last was finished, there was a remarkable feeling tangible to all in the room. Something truly magical had happened to this group of strangers-until-two-days-ago: intimacy! In a few short minutes, everyone in the class had gotten to know each other within a range of shared emotions usually reserved for intimate relationships, not often a part of academic or business conversations. Somehow we all recognized that this simple exercise of the natural ability to speak from the heart had made us all witness to a moment of real power.

Clairparlance: The Transcendental Gift of Gab

An old-sounding word of recent coinage, "clairparlance" (in the model of the French clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience) was the theme of a subsequent class, defined as the capacity for powerful, intuitive speaking and writing inherent in every human being, though especially apparent in certain spiritual masters, poets, and leaders of various kinds. Clairparlance applies to that communication which inspires you to transcend in some way your habitual internal dialogue and personal ego boundaries, becoming the being of the speech. We point to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC as a good example for many of an historical clairparlant event with reverberations still echoing in our collective consciousness. In fact, the class got to view a videotape of that occasion -- and, predictably, most everyone broke out in goosebumps from the waves of emotion they witnessed. People who have experienced a moving sermon, an inspiring book or lecture, or the healing words of a friend, can attest to the uplifting power of the clairparlant act.

For virtually everyone introduced to it, clairparlance has an intuitive validity, naming an experience which had previously remained unnamed and therefore little focused on. To encourage our students to begin recognizing models of clairparlance in their own lives, we asked them to find a clairparlant text from their own experience and bring it to the next class to share -- video camera running, of course. The response again was diverse and entertaining: the red-haired woman read a powerful text dictated by a "spirit" speaking through a trance channel; someone else brought a piece waxing eloquent on the value of wilderness as a spiritual resource, as a metaphor for all that is wild and untouched in our own souls.

As we reviewed the videotapes of the above, we found many examples of the distinctions identified in clairparlance: repetition metaphor, repetition, the use of power words ("love, truth, earth, miracle"), root metaphors, and more.5 This review also helped people to tune into their own ability to effectively read and convey the power of a moving text. Students recognized how they often kept their voices within a very restricted (self-imposed) range of tone and quality, that they did not read "with their whole being on the line." We found, indeed, that a simple message delivered with enthusiasm conveyed more power than a literary masterpiece read without it -- for some students under the videogun had not achieved that ideal audience rapport: a tough task when text in delivered, for instance, in a nearly perfect monotone. One student actually did this; but another held us spellbound with laughter by reading what started as a serious poem, and then became subtly and finally overtly bizarre.

Stories and Metaphors: Tools of the Trade

Since time immemorial, storytelling has served many deep human needs: instructing, entertaining, socializing and imbuing respect for the sacred are among them. Even in modern society, stories still play a central role in our interactions. In fact, stories of various kinds represent one of the most common daily communicative acts -- some even believe the story to be a prime of the universe -- yet most, people are not entirely satisfied with themselves in this regard and would like to be able to tell more exciting, involving and appropriate stories. Some people actively avoid the need to tell stories, out of plain fear. Naturally, we wanted to spend some time with the crucial art of storytelling as part of our course.

What "works" in stories? We noticed that, in the first place, for a story to "work" it must have a point. Whether we contemplate telling a story to a close friend or to an audience of 1000, we must be clear about what change. In behavior or perspective we hope to induce in the listener. Every storyteller seeks to avoid the rejoinder, "So what?" As you construct or tailor a story for a particular audience, you must be mindful of where they are starting, where you want them to end up, and steps by which you will take them there.

For our group process, students were asked to describe a problem state, something about themselves or another which they would like to change remembering the need for specific, sensory details, involvement, building of interest and other techniques for storymaking. Students were then asked to construct a story which would "heal" some aspect of themselves or other people. One fellow, rather shy by mature, told a wonderful fairytale-type story about a young boy who never quite fit in or felt that he belonged: in a dream where the boy viewed the earth from outer space, he came to claim his power and his right to be a part of this world. This student related that the building and telling of this narrative had been effective, that he felt more capable of asserting himself as a result of the experience. Others had similar results, finding their healing metaphors working in their own lives.

Stories are really extended metaphors, so we spent a good deal of time considering how to use metaphors for more powerful speaking and writing. As Tom Condon, a Berkeley hypnotherapist friend, puts it: "Metaphors aren't like anything else!" We discussed in class how pervasive metaphor is in our everyday life, and how using novel metaphor can break barriers, adding choice and insight to our communicating.

Considering the case of a significant set of ongoing discussions at the international level brought this point home as we spoke of the metaphors inherent in the nuclear disarmament talks between the US and USSR. The language of peace and international diplomacy is largely based on a root metaphor of war: "The US assailed the Soviet position on verification"; "The Soviets countered with a salvo at SDI"; "The US attacked the latest Soviet position on ICBMs, and the Soviets surrendered some ground on the issue of linkage with human rights." An inescapable irony of the situation is that we are attempting to transcend war using the very language and conceptual framework that has brought us to this point in the first place. Would it not be refreshing to read about such talks described in terms such as "The Soviets attempted to tune their proposal to harmonize with the latest US overture?"

The challenge of the effective speaker is to offer powerful and often novel metaphors for some collective reality.6 To practice the skill of metaphor-making in one workshop we taught, we had each person describe a problem-state while other members of their subgroup came up with metaphors from nature which could apply to the problem-state: perhaps a plant or animal, an ecological relationship or the action of a natural force, for instance. Using this novel perspective, they were to describe the problem in metaphorical terms and suggest resolutions. The results were fascinating one woman clarified a particularly difficult career choice by making her situation into a mental landscape.

Virtually any speech or piece of writing can be measurably improved by the judicious use of metaphors drawn from nature, art, science, literature, and other sources. The key is exercising your "metaphorical muscles" as a special kind of creativity.

Transcending the Fear of Failure

Everyone has fairly clear ideas about what can go wrong in a public speaking situation: you can lose or derail your train of thought, "go blank", wander from the topic, begin to bore the audience, or just stop making any sense. One of the most memorable processes of our training was designed to release people's personal demons so as to open up a new relationship with communication. This process was called "Ineffective Speech," and was based on the instruction, after watching themselves on videotape a few times, to come up with the worst possible speech they personally could ever give, using all the traits they saw in themselves and others that define a bad presentation. This process yielded some hilarious as well as insightful moments as people uhm-ed and ahh-ed incessantly, talked while eating, with their mouths full, never made eye-contact with the audience, constantly went off on weird tangents and struggled to get back on track, repeated themselves ad nauseam, paced and mumbled. Given the freedom to indulge their worst fears about a public speaking situation, the students turned it into an occasion of great laughing and letting go. The students could now choose to reframe a potentially fearful situation as a potentially funny one where people laugh with and not at.

Everyone reported afterwards that they felt much better about their ability to cope with public speaking. Now that they had done everything they were afraid of doing, and the roof still hadn't caved in, they felt much braver and self-assured. One participant said that through this exercise, she had learned to transcend much of the "performance anxiety" she had heretofore been experiencing.

Intuitive Speaking: Learning to Let Go

One of the central points in our training is the necessity of letting go: letting go of fear, of the over-critical ego, of the need to play a role when communicating with someone. In one of our final processes for this course, we led participants through a deep meditation exercise, using an induction which "takes you on a cleansing tour through every 'chakra' or energy center in your body, relaxing all the while. Grounding is the next step, affirming your connection with the physical body, with the earth, with the present moment; taking a moment to ground yourself in your own personal fashion is always good idea before giving a talk."

With everyone relaxed and grounded, they were asked to choose a partner and take turns "channeling;" that is, speaking completely spontaneously, without judgement or reflection, about whatever images, feelings, sounds or other sensations came up in reference to the partner upon whom their gaze was gently fixed. To help in focusing, the partners were asked to describe briefly a situation they wanted help with.

This simple process yielded some remarkable results: some people picked up very precise information directly relevant to the problem at hand; one felt the presence of a "spirit guide" who told her what to say. Surprisingly, to some, no one felt at a loss -- everyone felt first-hand how easily accessible intuition is. They experienced firsthand that the intuitive parts of themselves are always "at the ready" to aid in their communication. Similarly, we can all learn to let go, to let meaning flow from that part of ourselves that knows, often better than our conscious mind does, just what to say.


The prevalence of fear of public speaking is no accident. Public speaking is a baring of your soul, your very being, before a potentially hostile audience, a "They" who will pass judgement on your worth. Notice that when a comedian fails to get laughter from the audience, it is said that he "died." Somehow we all tend to view a failed communication as a "little death". Our class7 is a first step, part of an ongoing effort to help others focus on the "little birth" that speaking from the heart creates. Our aim is to help people toward the joy and satisfaction of love sent and received through language -- as the potentially hostile "They" becomes a series of caring "Yous" and ultimately a vast, all-embracing "We."


1. The phrase "Harnessing the Butterflies" is used courtesy of Mark Lees of Training Unlimited, San Francisco CA. [back to text]

2. For more information on modelling, see Frogs Into PRINCES, Bandler and Grinder, Meta Press, or Real People Press, 1979. [back to text]

3. We first heard the phrase "HeartSpeak" from Dr. Margaret Weber, a participant in a recent "Intuitive Speaking" workshop we hold at the Center for Applied Intuition, San Francisco CA. [back to text]

4. "Reality, Mind & Language", in its sixth year, narrowcasting to the Hayward - San Leandro area only, is the original Bay Area New Age Consciousness interview show, showcasing faculty from California Institute of Integral Studies and other notables as well as a series of ongoing discussions concerning current Native American issues, featuring as hosts Drs. Betty Parent of San Francisco State and Leslie Gray of CIIS and UC Berkeley. [back to text]

5. For more information, see "Clairparlance: The Transcendental Gift of Gab" on this website, reprinted from Applied Psi, Vol 4, No 1, 1985. [back to text]

6. For a more extensive discussion of metaphor, see Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, 1980. [back to text]

7. Matt and Dan will be teaching another "Not Just Words" class at CIIS in Summer, 1988. Call for auditing or degree-credit details. [back to text]