As a comedian and professional speaker, a large part of my life consists of standing in front of people and talking. Because I am a person who stutters, many see my career choice as contradictory. They wonder how someone like me could possibly have the guts to get up and address an audience. The truth is that stuttering doesn’t interfere with my job at all.
As you might imagine, I’ve gotten countless emails and YouTube comments from stuttering brothers and sisters asking for advice on public speaking. It has truly been touching to hear from you all! So, by popular demand, here are my tips for giving a successful presentation. Whether you have stuttering / speech issues or just want to be a better speaker, I hope you find these helpful!
People who stutter can be good communicators!
Unfortunately, stuttering is referred to as a “communication disorder,” implying we are less able communicators than everyone else. It’s simply not true! There are plenty of fluent people who could improve their communication skills, and plenty of stutterers who do just fine. Good communication skills include eye contact, fluctuating the tone of your voice, body language, and using distance to emphasize your talking points. Using these techniques in a way that is authentic to who you are is key. I tend to be a silly person, at times kind of weird, and even in professional situations I try to remain true to who I am. Using different voices, hand motions, and making eye contact with everyone in the room helps convey my objectives.
Remember communication isn’t limited to your voice. Things like videos, show-and-tell objects, visual aids, audio cues, and Power Point slides provide an endless range of possibilities. Sometimes I’ll even do an interpretive dance to help explain the neurological processes involved in dyslexia. Using other modes of presenting is just good teaching. You are more than a speaker; you are conducting the audience’s understanding and your mouth is just one of your instruments.
Be passionate about your subject!
You know what I don’t like to talk about? Things I don’t care about! As someone who stutters, I understand that what I want to say is sacred. Even in my younger days of feeling awkward and ashamed, I would suddenly find the ability to speak up if it concerned something I was passionate about. Enthusiasm has the power to break through fear. When presenting on a topic, be passionate and knowledgeable. If what you love is modes of transportation from the Civil War, do your presentation on that (assuming it’s in an appropriate context… it might be an odd choice for an Avon convention). If you care deeply about your topic, your audience will listen and your excitement will be contagious.
I always try to speak from the heart and make things relatable. Over the years I’ve developed an arsenal of stories on different topics. These stories can be planned into a presentation, or even better, they may come up at spontaneous moments so people think you’re talking to them off-script (little do they know…)
You might not love public speaking, but, if you love what you are speaking about and focus on it, you will ultimately be in your comfort zone. That will stand out above anything else.
“I stutter and you are going to have to wait patiently for all my brilliant ideas…”
When do you tell a person that you stutter? Do you let it happen organically? Do you strive for complete fluency, avoiding words that usually cause you to stutter?
These are all questions I have asked myself. I remember being in high school speech class and going to ridiculous lengths to appear “normal” to the other kids. I wrote speeches that omitted any words I thought would make me stutter. I tried covering up my stutter with funny voices. One time I even did my presentation in the form of a rap. So much for appearing normal!
Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace my own speech and stop feeling ashamed. A large part of this came from meeting other people who stutter. I highly recommend finding a National Stuttering Association chapter or conference. The validation of being with people who talk like you is an important step towards self-acceptance. With self-acceptance comes the ability to own your stuttering and address it with confidence.
When I’m giving a presentation or doing stand-up, I make a point to disclose my stuttering as soon as possible. If I’m on a job interview, the first thing I say is “I stutter and you are going to have to wait patiently for all my brilliant ideas.” It’s a playful way to break the ice while letting the other person know I don’t need help finishing my sentences. Since most people have little experience interacting with stutterers, it’s a good idea to take charge from the beginning and (politely) let them know how to talk to you — it will save you both some awkward moments later on. Everyone is going to disclose their stuttering differently, so find what works best for you.
Remember, good presenting isn’t all about you!
Not everybody gets this one, especially my college professors in the 1990s. As a public speaker, yes, you are the one on stage or at the podium, but it isn’t all about you. When I’m presenting, I find it helpful to think of myself more as a facilitator than a speaker. The audience should be focused on the thing I’m talking about, not on me. There’s a pressure in our culture to be constantly talking and in command of the room, but there are other ways of engaging people that don’t involve being in the spotlight. Here are some suggestions:
Walk and talk activities: have participants walk around the building or the block for a few minutes and discuss a given topic. They’ll get some fresh air, have a chance to play with the new ideas you’ve given them, and then come back feeling rejuvenated for the rest of your presentation.
Small, medium, and large group discussion: give your audience a chance to actively process what they’ve learned, instead of just passively absorbing it. People need to construct their own knowledge through interaction; just sitting there listening to you isn’t going to do that.
Pair and share: Put people in pairs (sometimes I’ll have them find another person with the same sock, hair, or eye color) and give them topics to discuss. This approach has the advantage of involving people who might be shy about speaking in a group setting.
“I just said three P words in a row! Try saying that if you stutter!”
There might be times when stuttering comes into the foreground of your presentation. When this happens, it’s best to acknowledge the situation and be good-humored about it. For example, there’s a joke in my stand-up where I have to say three p-words in a row. When the triple-p’s inevitably trip me up, I just spin it into another joke: “Try saying that if you stutter… I had to practice it in the car on the way over here!”
Let me give a more everyday example. I was recently leading a workshop where I had to demonstrate Google’s speech-to-text software. When I asked participants for a search term, one woman suggested “hieroglyphics” (a word invented by the ancient Greeks to make me stutter). I went ahead and gave it my best, stuttering on the word as the software butchered it into “hey hey lyrics.” I shrugged and said, “Google speech obviously doesn’t like people who stutter.” This got a laugh and put those who might have been uncomfortable with my speech at ease. It also gave me an opportunity to comment on software’s limitations. What’s important is that I had sense of humor and remained a good communicator throughout the process.
That concludes my advice for now. I hope you go into your public speaking engagements feeling proud and empowered. Remember: it’s your stuttering, your presentation, and your audience. You may not have control of your stuttering, but you do have control over your presentation, so seize it!
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The Stuttering Foundation provides free online resources, services and support to those who stutter and their families, as well as support for research into the causes of stuttering.