Tips on Public Speaking with a Stutter

I don’t speak about my stutter much: for one thing, I don’t have to — it quite often speaks for me. But I do do a lot of speaking. Of all kinds. In fact, probably one of the most annoying things about me is that you can’t shut me up, and — unusually for someone with a stutter — more and more of that speaking is in public.

Quite a few people who stutter ask me for advice on how to approach public speaking, and I don’t always have time to speak to everyone — so what follows is a few thoughts on how to prepare, what to expect, and what to ask for. This isn’t scientific or therapeutic advice, but it’s how I deal with it.

And for some context, here are two videos of me speaking at conferences. In both of these videos, you will see that I do stutter, and I stutter almost straightaway, more than I would in everyday conversation.

For starters, this is me speaking at TedXBrum in 2017, to an audience of 1600 people. I was pretty nervous.

And at Code For America in 2016, to about 1200 people. I am even mid-block in the cover image they chose, which does mortify me a bit, but such is life. (Looking at this video now, I also wonder why I chose to wear those trousers, and really both of those things are just vanity, and I suppose I can get over that.)

So I can’t help you to be magically, perfectly fluent — I can’t help myself to do that — but hopefully I can inspire you to remember that you do have a voice, and that it’s okay to use it.

1. Say Yes

If someone asks you to do some public speaking, before that awful liquid feeling takes over your stomach and you think you might pass out, say yes. Don’t say “No”, or “That’s not for me,” or “Are you sure? I have a stutter.” They’ve asked you because they want to hear what you have to say. It’s a compliment. Take it.

I mean, really. Go on. You’ll be great.

2. Be Prepared

The prospect of standing up in front of an audience, having something to say, and then saying it all can be very overwhelming. Also, no one tells you that people who make it look easy are almost always very well prepared; just like when an athlete or an actor wows you with their performance, they have almost certainly practised and prepared and got it wrong very many times before they have got it right.

One of the problems of doing public speaking when you have a stutter is that you can be so scared of The Stutter and Stuttering, you forget to do the other stuff. But don’t do that. If you know what you’re going to say, you’ll think about the technicalities of your speech* less. (*By “speech” I mean, how you speak, not the words you are going to say. For the purposes of this blog post, the words = your talk, how you speak = your speech.)

On all the non-stuttering stuff, Ella Fitzsimmons has written this fantastic guide to everything from what to wear to how to stand to how to structure your talk. So start with that.

3. If It’s Helpful, Use Slides

Everyone’s stutter is different, but I am really bad at reading aloud. If you are too, the following might help.

The words that defeat and overwhelm me are the ones I can’t change: whether that’s saying my name, reading my bank card details, giving my date of birth, or ordering from a menu. Sitting around a table at one of those awful big meetings, waiting till you have to introduce yourself, turning your name over on your tongue, wondering if it’s too late to run out before the introductions get to you, is far worse for me than standing up and giving a talk.

So the idea of reading out a talk, word for word, is completely impossible. But slides are a brilliant prompt — I can structure and break down what I want to say into short chunks, and then use the visuals to guide me through what I have to say while I’m speaking.

Quite often, I will start writing a talk by writing it like an essay, and then section it out into slides and relate each point to a picture, with the text pasted into the notes section of Keynote or Powerpoint so I can read them aloud while I’m practising. Generally, I will have practised a talk enough (say, 10 times) that I can moreorless remember what the picture is telling me to say without having to read the notes verbatim.

I can also pick out any particular challenging phrases or quotes and put them on a slide, so that — if I’m uncomfortable saying them — I can point everyone to the slide to read the contents. Probably lots of speech therapists would say that’s cheating, but frankly, I don’t care: if I’m on a stage in front of hundreds of people and I’m not totally in the moment enough to stop, breathe in, and say the word on the exhalation, I can just point at the freaking slide and that’s fine. Really this section should just be called “cheating”, but I’m sure you get the drift.

4. And, Relax!

When I was a teenager, the best speech therapist I ever had (a woman named Barbara Mastrud) told me about a vicar who was a patient of hers, who got through giving a sermon every Sunday by going to bed early with a hot cup of cocoa the night before. I remember being really cross about it; I remember not wanting to specially get a good night’s sleep, I remember it not seeming fair. But seriously, she was right: have a good night’s sleep.

On the day, I also avoid caffeine and drink chamomile tea, and if I feel I need to, I might start the day with deep breathing or some vocal exercises to just make sure everything in my jaw and throat area is as relaxed as possible.

I also try to avoid unnecessary stresses. For instance, I’ll have worked out how to get to the venue beforehand, I’ll have spoken to one of the organisers about how the A/V will work on the day. If I’m lucky, I might even have already had a chance to stand on the stage and see what it all looks like, and do a tech rehearsal. This tends to only happen when I’m doing talks with big audiences, but if you’re very nervous it’s really worth it as it means there won’t be much to faze you when you get on stage, and don’t be afraid to ask — remember you are entitled to this as an accessibility need, but you will need to be prepared to get there before everyone else in order to do it.

5. Ask for Help

As I said previously, I find it really difficult to introduce myself. If there’s going to be a compère, I will ask them to introduce me by name, so I don’t have to worry about that.

6. Keep Going

When you get on to the stage, you will almost certainly feel some kind of adrenalin rush. That adrenalin always makes my stutter a bit worse than it would be normally, and makes it likely I won’t remember to use my control.

But — and this is the most important thing — it is fine. It is fine to stutter.

Throughout my childhood, I was often told that having a stutter isn’t fine, that I should control it, that I should make it go away. And while I have benefitted immensely from speech therapy, I’ve not yet made my stutter disappear. And more to the point, it hasn’t killed anyone. I might have embarrassed some people, I might have made some teenage waiters laugh nervously, I might have made innumerable people in call centres say, “the line is really bad, can you repeat that?”, but I haven’t killed a single person by stuttering. And I very much doubt that you will either.

So go ahead, stutter.

And then carry on talking.

There aren’t many people with stutters in public life, so it’s hard to feel permission to stutter in public. But it really is fine.

And, the other thing that no one tells you, is that every single person in the audience wants the talk to go well. Everyone wants the next 5, 10, or 20 minutes of their life to be interesting or informative or funny or moving or awe inspiring. Unless one of the people in the audience is your nemesis (and frankly, your life must be quite exciting to have a nemesis), no one is going to want you to fail. So trust the audience. Let them enjoy themselves, and maybe you will too.

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Hopefully some of the above will be useful to more than the few people I will send it to, when they ask for advice. If you’re generally worried about public speaking, then the Doing Presentations site is great for general tips on all the non-stuttering bits.

And lastly, this is a good moment to say thank you to Russell Davies (who is very good at doing presentations), who told me it was not just okay to stutter when I gave talks, it was actually quite good.