Most of my comedy life is getting up on stage and telling jokes. Most of my professional life is getting up in front of people as a teacher or keynote speaker. All of my life is lived as a person who stutters. People who stutter (and even those who don’t) are surprised that an individual who stutters can command a room or have the “guts” to stand in front of people and talk. I enjoy it and with the exception of neck, back and jaw aches on some days, I am pretty unaffected by my speech. Of course, there was the one day when I stuttered and a piece of my breakfast flew out of my mouth and landed on one of the participant’s fingers but other than that, stuttering doesn’t interfere with my stand-up or when leading and training groups.
People who stutter email and message me all the time on Facebook and ask me how I can get up in front of people and talk and if I have any tips. I thought I would offer some suggestions that would help my stuttering brothers and sisters, but might also help a broader audience.
1. “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 talk around the words that you think you will stutter on and strive for complete fluency?
These are all questions that I have asked myself. I remember being in high school Speech class and constructing speeches where I took out every word that I thought I would stutter on. Once I even did a horrible rap (on Doxidan – a popular laxative at the time) because I knew that I could be fluent if I rapped or put on a voice. Oh my God, it was just awful! Another time I had to work with a partner to review a movie. We chose “Strange Brew” and I spent the entire time talking like Bob and Doug McKenzie Canadian accent (“take off, eh?) to achieve fluency.
Through the years I have embraced my speech. Being around others who stutter has helped significantly, which is why I highly recommend finding a National Stuttering Association chapter or conference or similar organizations. Seeing and experiencing people who talk like you is validating and an important step in self-acceptance. With self-acceptance comes a level of comfort with how you speak and subsequently self-disclosure. I personally, disclose my stuttering in stand-up comedy or when doing presentations as early as possible. If I am doing stand-up, I do the first part of my set on stuttering. If I am doing presentations or even when I am on a job interview, I state early “just so you know, I stutter so you are going to have to wait for all of the brilliant things I have to say.” This usually breaks the ice plus I just told the people I am meeting with how I want them to respond to my speech and that I am a capable person. The reality is that most people don’t know how to respond to our speech since we might be the first person they have ever met who stutters. If we can mold their response to us it can save some awkward moments later on. If time allows in my presentations, I will go more in-depth and share more tips and even talk about the cause of stuttering (current research indicates it is neurologically based).
Everyone is going to disclose their stuttering differently. You should develop a way that you are comfortable with and even try it out on different friends and family to see their response. Remember, it is your stuttering, your presentation and your audience. So many times as people who stutter we feel our speech is out of our control. When doing presentations, you may not have control of your stuttering, but you do have control over your presentation because, you know, it’s yours! So seize it!
One more thing. Don’t apologize for your speech. Your stuttering is a part of you. Why would I get up in front of a group and apologize for having brown hair and my grandmother’s big butt that I inherited (in Italian they use to call her “culo.”) It is important that you stay in control of your speaking opportunities. This shows that you know what you are talking about and you have nothing to feel sorry for unless, of course, your breakfast comes flying out of your mouth and onto someone in the front row.
2. Be passionate about what you are talking about!
You know what I don’t do presentations on nor do jokes about? Things I don’t care about! As a person who stutters I know that what I want to say is sacred. I have not always been comfortable talking and when I have chosen to interject, it is because it is something I am so passionate about that I can’t keep quiet. When presenting on a topic, be passionate and knowledgable about it. If the thing you love is the civil war and the modes of transportation used during that time, then do your presentation on that (although make sure you have the right context to present). If you love the thing you are talking about then your audience will appreciate what you have to say and the excitement for the topic will be contagious. I always speak from my heart and try to relate to practical things in my own life. Through the years I have developed an arsenal of stories that I use on different topics. These stories can be planned into a presentation or, even better, may come up at spontaneous times, so it looks like you are speaking off the cuff when, in fact, it was already planned.
Loving what you talk about gives you context and expertise. Participants will be impressed with your knowledge and you will feel that you are in a zone to be successful.
3. “I just said three P words in a row. Try saying that if you stutter!”
There might be times where stuttering may get in the way or come to the foreground of your presentations. For example, in my stand-up, when I am quoting someone who said something awful about my stutter and I stutter on what they say, I will add “but they didn’t stutter when they said it, that is probably a key point.” I acknowledge that my stuttering is somewhat out of context. I poke fun at the process of speaking but I don’t necessarily make fun of myself. Another example from my stand-up act is when I say three P-words in a row (for the sake of keeping this article PG rated I will leave the direct quote out). After saying the sentence, I add “try saying that if you stutter, I had to practice that a lot in the car on the way here to say that fluently.”
The other day I was showing off Google’s speech to text software where you can speak into your phone and it appears in Google docs. One of the workshop participants said she wanted to learn about “hieroglyphics”, a word I would definitely stutter on, which I did when I spoke into my phone for the demonstration. The software butchered my word and it came out funky. I said, “Google speech obviously doesn’t like people who stutter.” This demonstrated that the software had some issues for people who might not have standard speech and that I could have a sense of humor about the process of talking, but I remained a good communicator.
4. Remember, good presenting isn’t all about you!
Not everyone gets this one, especially my university professors. When presenting, yes, you are the focus, but it isn’t all about you. I think sometimes, as people who stutter, we feel we have to command the room at all times and talk the entire time. It is more helpful to think of yourself as a facilitator rather than a speaker. Your goal is that your audience takes ownership of the topic you are presenting on. Helping them develop what this means for them is a big part of that. Some ways to do this include:
-Pair and Share: put people in pairs (sometimes I will have them find someone with the same sock, eye or hair color) and direct them on what to discuss.
-Walk and Talk Activities: have participants walk around the building or the block for a few minutes and discuss a topic that you give them. This involves them in the topic and rejuvenates their brains to be able to sit through the next part of your presentation.
-Small, medium, and large group discussion. People need to construct their own knowledge of a topic in order for them to buy into it. Just sitting there listening to you is not going to do that.
5. People who Stutter can be good communicators!
Many people who stutter have internalized the fallacy that we are bad communicators. One has nothing to do with the other. There are plenty of fluent people who could improve their communication skills and plenty of people who stutter who maintain strong communication skills. Strong communication skills for presenting, whether or not you stutter, include good eye contact, fluctuating the tone of your voice and/or 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, downright weird person at times and even in professional situations I try to remain true to who I am. Using different voices, hand motions, walking around the room and making eye contact with every single person in the room helps to convey my objectives.
Using multiple modes of expression (visual, auditory, and hands-on) also helps communication. Using PowerPoint slides with pictures, videos, and music can also facilitate what you are presenting. I even do an interpretive dance to describe the brain of someone with dyslexia. Using other modes of presenting is just good teaching and presenting. You are more than a speaker, you are orchestrating your audience’s learning and your mouth is just one of your instruments.