Marilyn Monroe, Tiger Woods and King George IV, to name a few, have lived with a stammer — so have no doubt, a stammer doesn’t stop you being the best. It takes a certain resourcefulness to scan ahead for words that might trip you up and have alternatives up your sleeve. A certain strength to read and deal with people’s reactions as you bite your tongue, distort your face and pray the wind doesn’t change.
There are days when it’s exhausting and frustrating and incredibly annoying not to be able to say what I want to say, when I want to say it. There are other days it’s not relevant, not a focus. I mean, you don’t think about the mechanics of speaking when it’s working as it should.
It has become increasingly important for me not to hide from or hide behind my stammer, not to be ashamed or embarrassed because other people are. I can’t control other people’s reactions to the way I talk, but I can control my own.
I helped to organize an open day for the British Stammering Association on Saturday. I woke up in the morning, not feeling the freshest, muttering, “Why do I sign myself up for these things? There’s other things I’d much rather be doing today.” They were mutterings stemmed from the nerves I had of my looming slot to introduce the day. Still, a fry-up seemed more appealing.
It was one of the best Saturdays I’ve had in a long time. The dedication of the speech and language therapists who gave up their weekend to provide information and support, plus the funny, articulate, brave and inspiring speakers who shared their experiences made me feel proud.
Through sharing experiences, advice and laughs from my life and others, I want to bring stammering and all that comes with it into the light. It’s a big part of my identity, a part I’m learning to respect. I want every person who stammers to have the belief and the ability to be the very best version of themselves.
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For my sophomore year of high school, I started attending a private Christian school after using a distance learning program from home for about seven years. Although I decided to finish my last two years using this distance learning program, my short time at the school impacted my life tremendously. Not only did I make great friends, but I also had a wonderful teacher. This teacher’s kindness, gentle pushes to challenge myself, and constant encouragement gave me confidence to speak without fear.
After being out of traditional school for so long, I was extremely nervous about going back. How will people react to my stutter? How will I possibly make it through mandatory oral presentations? Will my teacher understand? The first day of school was an emotional rollercoaster. My heart was bursting with excitement, yet racing with anxiety. As I walked up to the entrance, a few tears trickled down my cheek, but I quickly pulled myself together. I determined that day would be a beautiful start to a new journey, no matter how scared I felt.
A few hours in, I could finally breathe again. I realized I didn’t have anything to worry about, because everyone was so nice. My classmates might have immediately noticed I spoke differently, but nobody treated me differently or made me feel distant because of it. However, what put my heart at the most peace was my teacher’s response. My parents had let him know ahead of time about my stutter, but I still didn’t know how he would respond when I was actually standing there in front of him, fighting with all my heart to answer his simple question.
Time and time again throughout that school year, my teacher handled my stutter with so much grace, patience and kindness. When I spoke to him, he never — ever — averted his eyes or even looked away for a second. He would always just smile and nod in a way that made me feel like there wasn’t even anything different about the way I spoke. He made me feel at ease with myself. He never pitied my stutter, but rather, gently pushed me to challenge myself in new ways. He always listened with so much intent, patience and genuine concern, no matter how long it took me to ask for what I needed. Most of all, he didn’t exempt me from doing the things that I feared most; rather, he gave me the confidence to do the things I feared most.
I still had to give all the oral presentations and speeches, and I am so thankful for that. Without being made to do those things, I know I never would have. I never would have learned and grown as much as I did from pushing myself so far out of my comfort zone. Before my speeches, he always encouraged me to take my time and to be confident in what I had to say. And as I stood up there in front of the class, I could always count on the fact that he would be standing in the back of the room with a smile on his face.
To my sophomore year teacher, if you ever read this, thank you. Thank you for being so kind, and most of all, thank you for giving me the confidence to stutter.
I have two jobs. For my career, I’m an Environmental Outreach Coordinator for a conservation nonprofit organization. On a day-to-day basis, I call people over the phone. To put it simply, my biggest source of stuttering comes when I introduce myself. In the past, it has gotten so bad that I even considered changing my name. However, I would probably end up stuttering on that, too.
The fear of introducing myself has been a huge obstacle in my life. I am a social person, but the fear of embarrassing myself leaves me being severely anti-social. I will stutter so much on my name, sometimes I don’t even get my name out. I will just give up and sometimes even hang up and bang my head on my desk. It is humiliating, especially the fact that my coworkers can hear my interactions on the phone. Thankfully, the act like they don’t notice.
My second job is a server at a steakhouse. It was my first job, and I have been there nearly 10 years. The relationships I have built over the years has been such a great experience, but part of me wonders if I have never moved on in fear of having to introduce myself to a whole new group of people.
Being a server can be intimidating when you have a stutter. My stutter comes out the most when I have brief interactions with people I don’t know well. I stutter less the more I know someone.
People can be downright cruel, and I have noticed that while working so closely with people. Some people giggle, some ask me if I am OK, and some have even asked me if I am drunk because I tend to close my eyes when I really get stuck on my words. Sometimes I brush it off and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I will just cry.
Luckily, I have some truly amazing people in my life. For one, my mum is a successful speech pathologist. Growing up with a mother who is a speech pathologist has been nothing but a blessing. Thankfully, she is the sweetest person I know, and she too had a stutter, so she understands that ridicule only does harm. To my utter shock, my boyfriend adores my stutter. Because I am so comfortable around him, I don’t stutter around him much.
People like this make me see the gift in my stutter. Although I have my bad days, I no longer think of my stutter as a burden. It makes me unique and proud of who I am — and especially where I am going.
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Last year, when I finally found the courage to start talking about my stutter openly, I really worried that people would think I was seeking attention or asking for pity. I know that might sound weird, but I tend to overthink everything. Sometimes I become so paranoid about what others may think that I miss important opportunities I believe God tries to give me. To this day, conflict clouds my heart every time I sit down to write a new blog post, because I do not want this to be about me. I want this to be about my amazing God and what I believe He has done in my life! I believe God is the One Who gave me this passion for writing, and I desire to use it for Him. However, I also want to be relatable to my readers by writing about personal experiences. There is such a fine balance to maintain.
So…why? Why did I spend several days building a blog? Why do I sometimes spend hours at a computer writing a new article or a new blog post? Why do I talk about my stutter so much?
For years, I kept my voice under lock and key. Speaking out about my stutter just wasn’t an option. Nobody — absolutely nobody — could know I was different, except for my closest family members. Instead of letting other people help me, I carried the weight on my own. Until one day, I realized my belief that God doesn’t want us to go through this life alone. Consumed by my own insecurity, I was neglecting others. I was missing opportunities.
I couldn’t see around the impenetrable walls I had built around my heart.
I write, and I write, and I write because it takes away all the fear and anxiety that results from keeping everything locked up in my heart. It brings me peace and acceptance. If I’m afraid of my stutter, other people will be afraid of it too and won’t know how to react. In addition, writing about my stutter has made me realize how I can use this struggle to help other people. I write because I want to encourage others to embrace who they are. I write because I don’t want people to be afraid of being different, because different is so special. Most of all, I write because I want to share my belief that God is good.
Talking openly about my stutter has torn down the walls. When the walls finally came down, I could start seeing the world again. I could start seeing others. A new light came pouring into my heart, showing me what a gift my stutter could be if I would just let it. Writing about my stutter has truly changed my life.
Is there an insecurity in your life that you are afraid to talk about? Start tearing down those walls, and let the light in.
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!