Before you can tackle any problem, you have to stop pretending it does not exist. Relying on miracles is not an option either. Before flying to Pisa, I was telling myself that as soon as I climb onto the stage, something special would happen. Perhaps some chemistry, some unknown hormone of courage, would fill my veins making me talk like Barack Obama. You already know how it ended up.
Lack of self-confidence is often an important stuttering factor. However, in many cases the incapability of pronouncing words is an actual disorder: there is something happening in the brain and it’s not under your control. At least, not without a lot of work and effort which have to take place prior to any public appearance.
It requires a systematic method, especially if you plan to step in front of an audience counting dozens or hundreds. Like with many other disorders and conditions, if you accept it and start working on it, it has an enormous potential to make you a different person.
Any decision. If you know you can happily live your life with stuttering and decide not to tackle it systematically, that’s perfectly fine. It may well be that you will never need to talk to more than three or four persons sitting at your family table where it won’t happen or won’t matter.
If you, however, make the other choice and decide to go after the thing that disrupts the path between your neural cells and your voice subsystem, you should know it will take quite some effort, patience, and surmounting yourself.
In any case, you need to make the decision and stick to it. Otherwise, you will end up oscillating between the two poles: On one day, you will frantically try to find some fast, miraculous remedy. On the other day, you will dive into depression and bitter disappointment.
Making a firm decision helps to break that unfruitful oscillation which ruins your self-confidence and strongly impacts your everyday life. It will allow you to move on.
Once you acknowledge you have a problem and you decide to do something about it, you should also accept you cannot handle it alone. Stuttering strongly impacts your social life and social life involves, by definition, interaction with other human beings.
Already at high school, I had several sessions with a very good psychologist. He taught me a dedicated relaxation method (more on that in a separate post) which I have been practicing since then. It helped me a lot when I was fighting the most difficult battles.
It’s also good to know that reaching out does not necessarily work every time. I had high expectations when I first visited a private clinic dedicated to speech-related disorders. After a few weeks, I stopped: I felt they were more interested in my health insurance payments than in solving my problem.
In the end, it’s not only experts who can help you. Stuttering is one of those problems where your family, your friends, and your colleagues can provide astounding help and support. You may get priceless advice where you do not expect it at all. Build a circle of people you trust and have confidence in and invite them to join you in your battle.
This may sound funny, but it can be absolutely crucial. There are people who cannot talk when walking. And there are others who cannot talk when not walking.
While deep inside, I was always afraid of public speaking, I was literally terrified by reading or reciting a text by heart. At least I needed to choose words freely. Sometimes, it was rather backfiring as if my brain was deciding in advance which word I can pronounce at a given moment and which I have to avoid.
Similarly, I was terrified by having to sit or stay close to a static microphone. As I started working seriously on my stuttering problem, I realized I had to be moving while speaking. It helped me a lot: even if I got blocked, making a few steps towards the projected slides worked wonders.
I also elaborated the level of freedom which was just right: while I realized it must be 100% clear in advance what message I want to communicate to the audience, I prepared sets of words with similar or identical meaning, so I could choose “on the fly” and thus keep this freedom of selecting the words as I speak. This became my style.
Once I got forward, this started changing: recently, I was giving a talk at a virtual conference while sitting without motion at my laptop the whole time. This would have been unimaginable some ten years ago. I needed time. While your style could vary over time, at the beginning of your battle, it’s very important to elaborate on one in all details. It can be a real game-changer.
This one is perhaps the most challenging and painful point as it requires you to arrange for some public speaking proactively. The last word is key: you need to create opportunities to speak yourself. Do not wait until you have to climb some stage again. It’s probable it will be a huge pushback and you will start from zero.
By putting yourself to the test proactively, you show that you’ve started having confidence in yourself. You are changing the order of things: the story does not start at the moment when you stand up in front of the audience. It starts at the moment you start organizing the event.
Start small. In my case, this is where point #3 came in handy: I invited a group of friends to my apartment to give them a presentation about my work. It might sound silly, but it was one of the best things I could do.
Besides practicing a public speech, it also pushed me to a better understanding of my own work since, as Einstein put it, if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you probably don’t understand it yourself. (That being said, my friends were no kids, but well-educated people eager to learn something new.)
Furthermore, I got some important feedback. It turned out one of my friends participated in a workshop on public speaking and made several great points which helped me to improve.
Of course, I did not make a direct transition from this apartment speech to the big event in Japan. Later, I found other opportunities to give a presentation to 20, then perhaps 50 colleagues and students at my faculty and so I was gradually scaling it up.
Today, I see these proactively organized tests as an invaluable part of my ongoing victory over stuttering.
After my successful presentation in Japan, I had, quite quickly, other opportunities to speak in front of an audience. About a year later, I won the best paper award at a conference in Cracow. Despite the award, my presentation, although for a much smaller audience than in Tsukuba, was quite a disaster. I could communicate the message but I was stuttering. A lot.
I could give you a list of presentations marking each with stars from one (a total fail like in Pisa — one star purely for having survived) to five (an almost perfect speech everyone including me enjoyed). After years of self-improvement, it has never fallen to one star again, but the Cracow talk and a couple of others would certainly not get more than two. Then I recall many three and four-star presentations. And a couple of five stars I am really proud of.
Today I am persuaded that stuttering can be significantly reduced, but it will never go away completely. As the famous British comedian Rowan Atkinson, who is also familiar with this condition, puts it: “It comes and goes.” While you can do a lot to increase the probability to have a four or five-star talk, if a bad day arrives, you will be happy to finish with three stars.
There are two lessons you should take from this: Firstly, do not despair if a bad day arrives. Remember, it comes and goes. Secondly, you can never stop working on yourself. If you stop, bad days become the standard again. If you don’t stop, you will find a lot of meaning in this ongoing victory over stuttering.