Owning the Voice You Have

I have some very exciting news: this blog has been picked up by Psychology Today so this post can be read here or on my new Out With It page over on their site!

public speakingEarlier this month I spent four days at the World Congress for People Who Stutter. I couldn’t imagine a more thoughtfully run or inclusive conference. The days were a mass of hours spent hanging on people’s words. It was a week when time felt endless and a place where blocks and repetitions were not only accepted, they were normalised.

The conference opened with a keynote from a fluent researcher. The next keynote came from an esteemed author who stuttered once or twice as he candidly explored a condition close to his heart, a carefully crafted speech about the beauty and difficulty of stuttering.
The next couple days followed the same pattern. Multiple workshops and two powerful keynotes a day given by great, honest speakers who spoke passionately about stuttering. All of the keynotes stuttered a little but never enough to break the flow of their speech. Never enough to tie up their dexterous tongues.

As I listened to their speeches I felt my knees start to shake and my mind drift down paths I didn’t want it to take. How could I compete?

I knew that I couldn’t mimic their speech. And yet, despite the fact that I was at a stuttering conference and talking to an audience of stutterers from across the world, a part of me wanted to be as fluent as the other speakers. A long-forged part of my brain told me that I should do my best to wipe out as many stutters as I could.

When I finally stood at the podium to give my keynote, I had spent hours writing and practicing my speech. As I put on my glasses and took in the audience I felt enormously proud to be looking out into the eyes of many of the kindest people I had ever met.

Then I began to speak. It is no exaggeration to say that I stuttered on nearly every word. On the cyclical scale of my speech, my stutter was at its most profound. I pushed through syllables that spanned over long seconds. I felt the pages of my script go limp in my iron grip. I laughed when I got trapped on a ‘me’ that seemed to echo around the large conference hall endlessly.

And yet all eyes in the audience stayed fixed on me as I recounted the journey I had taken to come to terms with my voice. Faces broke into smiles at whatever jokes I told. Fierce applause broke around the room as the speech reached its breathless end.

At the end I felt euphoric and exposed. It is one thing to write a book about stuttering, quite another to stand up and go through the physicality of telling that story.

Stuttering is not an easy thing to do. It takes away the control that we want to have over our language and our appearance. And yet, in the wake of that speech, I realised it is also an incredibly powerful thing. It has its own dynamism that we do not need to bleach out. It can connect us to people, rather than alienate them.

There are times when I have found myself listening more intently to stutterers than fluent speakers, waiting eagerly for their words and deeply appreciating the window that their speech cracks into their humanity.

Unfortnuately we rarely see stuttering public speakers. I hope that will change.

It is well and good having role models who seemed to have curbed their stutter and eased into a more fluent way of speaking, celebrities and politicians who readily attach their names to stuttering but rarely, if ever, stumble on their words. But we need to really hear stuttering if we are going to change the conversation. We need to watch outspoken, unapologetic stutterers talking eloquently if we are ever going to rewrite the ‘fix’ narrative of our lives.

All of us can own whatever speaking skills we have, however paradoxical they may be. We do not need to fit into an aggressive, motivational speaker mold – rather we can speak up with whatever voice we have. We can be proud of the unique qualities of our soft-spoken words, our quirky sense of humor or our stutters.

We can believe that our voice, and our story, is worth hearing.

Who is the most memorable and unique speaker you’ve ever seen?

Book Launch: Putting down the pen and picking up the mic

With my book launch mere weeks away (I’d love to see any and all of your lovely faces there) I’ve been finding myself at more literary events than normal around the city. I’ve ventured out of my pajamas to go to readings, book release parties and meetups.

All-in-all it has been both fascinating and terrifying. Mostly because it makes me fully aware of how brilliant other writers can be, how eloquent and funny and intelligently they can string together their thoughts in front of a room of eager faces.

Public speaking is one thing but spontaneously answering questions in a witty and thoughtful way, a way that reflects both your personality and your writing, is a talent I’m not entirely sure I can emulate.

A couple weeks ago I went to McNally Jackson bookstore for their Conversations on Practice interview with David Shields. I’ve been intrigued by the series for a while but I went specifically because of David. I interviewed him for my book years ago and have been deeply influenced by both his words and his mindset ever since.

It is hard to describe David’s writing accurately. In his words, “literal collage has become the form that releases my best intelligence”. Having heard him speak, it is clear why. David thinks in associations, even as he answers questions about his work he draws on quotes from authors, scenes from films and references to art exhibitions. His aim is to eliminate any façade and in his speaking, much like his writing, he has no qualms mentioning everything from his stutter to his cheat sheet. He casually brushes off the over-polished veneer that it is all too tempting to hide behind.

In a different vein, I attended Leigh Newman’s book launch for her just-released memoir Still Points North. Over an evening of champagne and Alaskan salmon (Newman’s book recalls her childhood growing up in the wilds of Alaska) Leigh read a section from the first half of her book and answered question after question from the packed audience.

Leigh Newman book launch

In both her writing and her speech, Leigh has a warmth, a playfulness and a self-deprecation that makes her impossible to dislike. With captivating ease she told stories that made the room belly-laugh and lean towards her before they furiously typed on their smartphones and tweeted her glorious quotes (everything from her encouragement of radical change to her description of memoir writing as ‘soul-slapping’).

Both writers are brilliant on the page and in person, I can’t rate them highly enough.

While I’m on my literary excursions – which writers do you love to hear speak?

Vulnerability and Public Speaking

I’m not sure who would constitute my most intimidating audience, but speaking to a roomful of over 100 Brooklyn hipsters ranks pretty highly.

Public Speaking - PPN

Image courtesy: Andy Gillette and PPN

It is hard to be as fascinating as the guy who speaks for 15 minutes about Peruvian Ayahuasca and ends his sincere talk with an impromptu song inspired by the plant he spent a month talking to. Or the scantily-clad Meta-Physical Jesus, or the man who recounts a story about a possessed Raggedy Anne doll.

It is hard to stand up without any persona, or any shield.

By the time I walked up to take the stage at Bushwick’s monthly speaking series, Presentation Party Night, beer cans were spilling out of the rubbish bins, the room was debating the meaning of virtuous womanhood and I was fully aware of the involuntary shaking that had taken over my left leg.

I was nervous in a way that I haven’t been for a while. Perhaps it was because I was speaking to people who had no idea about stuttering, perhaps it was because I’d left my glasses at home and I could barely see the audience, perhaps I was worried about being vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers.

Either way I held up the mic to my lips and began to speak into the wide expanse of the room.

Public Speaking at PPNI talked about perfection, about my childhood, about the science of stuttering and the humanity of it. I talked about setting off on a adventure to find a cure and instead falling in love and embracing my ‘weakness’ as my greatest strength.

The hum of the heating-system ebbed and flowed, one guy’s phone rang loudly and the crowd laughed once or twice but largely the place was silent. My voice rumbled and broke into the mic. I slipped into repetitions and fell out of them, I smiled and paused and my leg continued to shake to the beat of its own manic rhythm.

By the end I was spent, I’d given all I could to the speech. It hadn’t been easy but it hadn’t been terrible. It had been honest.

And afterwards, after the cheers and the questions, I have never had so many people come up to me. Each person related my story back to themselves, back to their struggles and their triumphs. They told me about their lives and they asked me more about stuttering. My gratitude to them, to all their joy and compassion, is boundless.

If anyone reading this in NY has a subject that they feel able to speak about for 10 minutes, I can’t recommend PPN enough. Speaking up, making people laugh or cry, encouraging them see the world a little differently – what would you rather be doing on a Sunday night?

Out With It and the Good Life Project

Filming the good life projectHave you ever had that dream where you walk down the road naked? Do you remember the moment you realize that everyone is staring at you in your birthday suit?

Now, imagine that it isn’t a dream. Imagine that, for a moment, the world gets to see you and all your bare humanity. How do you feel?

I feel petrified, or at least that’s how I felt as I stared at my laptop screen 5 days ago, in the wee hours of the morning. Jonathan had sent over advance access to the Good Life Project interview that would be aired in the morning, and I was watching the interview with headphones stuffed into my ears as Jeremy peacefully snored away in the other room.

In the morning, the video would be sent out to Jonathan’s tribe of avid fans and posted for the world to see on YouTube.

I had just gone very, very public with my stutter.

I had no idea how everyone would react. Would they hate it? Would my inbox be filled with vitriol? Would I be laughed at or criticized?

All the negative thoughts were chased by more hopeful ones. Would it comfort some people? Would it start to change the conversation about what is normal, about what it means to stutter? Would it inspire others to be fearless, to embrace whatever vulnerability they were dealing with?

I slept fitfully and woke up feeling hung-over, the image of my own face blocking, repeating and smiling etched into my mind’s eye.

By the time the interview was posted, I had readied myself for every bad reaction I could imagine.

And yet, in the past few days, my fears haven’t been realized. Not even close. Instead, I have been shocked by the messages I received full of nothing but support and gratitude. I have opened incredible emails and messages from strangers, from businessmen and mothers, from friends and people I barely know. I am still in awe of their kindness.

As one of them said, “I can’t imagine how hard it is to have something so personal so public. But I bet it is liberating!”

Liberating is a good word for it. Vulnerable and strong and never cowed. It was how I wanted people to see the book, the pieces that I had been struggling to express in the title.

Just before the video was posted, I heard from my editor. The publisher had given the thumbs up to our title: Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

What do you think?

The Good Life Project

Have you heard of Jonathan Fields?

Jonathan Fields & the good life projectIf not, let me give you the two second introduction – a former big firm lawyer, he is now a phenomenally successful author, entrepreneur and speaker. He’s one of the cool, popular kids in the startup world. The kind of guy you want to learn from. I had recently emailed him about getting together for coffee but our schedules had been too busy and the meet up had been put on hold indefinitely.

My weekend had slid past in a lazy summer haze of boating and beaching and seafood gluttony, when I had an email from Jonathan on Monday evening.

new york sailing

new york summer beaches

Would I like to be interviewed for his new venture, The Good Life Project. No big deal, he was just inviting 10 people he knew in the city to take part in a relaxed (his words not mine) Charlie Rose style interview where we would talk about what it means to lead a good life. The videos would be broadcast online and released to his 37, 000 fans (if we go by twitter). Oh and by the way, the interview was on Wednesday. Was I in?

Of course I was in. I was flattered, excited and ever-so-slightly terrified. Public speaking is one thing. I’m used to it. I know what I’ll say and I know I’ll have the floor. An interview is something entirely different.

But I had to do it. Because this was a chance to put my mouth where my pen had been and well and truly give in to the idea of being vulnerable.

The day rolled around. A steamy New York day, the filming was running late, 2pm had rolled into 2:30, half an hour was left on the memory card, four cameras were trained on my face and three lights were flicked on. A bead of sweat crested my ankle and fell into my sandal as Jonathan turned to ask the first question.

I would like to tell you that I was eloquent and funny and composed. I’m not sure if I was any of those things. I imagine I was rather more rattled and out of control. I know that I stuttered up a storm. The cameras cut out twice and we had to begin again, palms were raised in a 5 minute warning.

And yet I survived. I felt slightly sick afterwards but I said what I wanted, or close enough, and I got my first taster of what it might be like to start marketing this book that I’m bringing out into the world.

Not easy, not a walk in the park, but exciting and funny and awkward and well worth it. Because ultimately I think that living a good life means striving, living on the edge of uncertainty, laughing at ourselves and embracing those imperfect moments when we recklessly human.

Stuttering: The Gray Lady’s exposé

Phillip is 16 years old but he is taking two college classes this semester. He doesn’t much care for sitting in the back of the class. He is a precocious teenager and his hand is often raised to ask or answer a question. He is far from the apathetic teenager often bemoaned by teachers.

NYT stuttering article

Matt Rainey for The New York Times

And yet he is never called on. In fact he has been specifically asked not to speak up in class. He has been asked to write down his questions on a piece of paper to present before or after class. He has been told that, by participating in class, he is taking up too much of the other students’ precious time. During one class he had his hand raised to ask a question and held it aloft for much of the 75 minute class. He was wantonly ignored.

Why? Because he stutters, because words take him a little longer. So he should be silent and ignored as punishment.

Phillip took his case to the New York Times and they published a piece on his discrimination in today’s paper. They called his experience “unusual”. I’m not so sure.

As a result of stuttering, frowning shop clerks and impatient receptionists have handed me a pen and paper. Their proffering has often been paired with a pitying “would this be easier?” I have explained that I stutter, I have snapped pens in half and I have smiled sweetly. My reactions have run the gamut from the kind to the profane but I have never accepted their offer. Mostly because it is my choice, because they are lessening their own discomfort by telling me what to do, by taking away my right to speak.

Many of us have been asked to hurry up, have been hung up on, have been spoken over, have been ignored. More times than not our sentences have been finished for us. In all honesty it might be helpful. In the moment I might appreciate the respite from the battle of speaking. But the small gratitude I feel soon fades. I am left with a deeper scar. A feeling that my words are not worthy, that I am somehow monstrous and should be hidden.

Teaching public speaking and secretly loving it

I taught my second class on public speaking last week. I tweeted about it and mentioned it on my facebook but I rarely brought it up in the real ‘offline’ world. I know I should just get over myself but, despite all my chat of being entirely comfortable with my speech, I still feel awkward telling people that I teach public speaking.


As a general rule, most people who do hear about it are fiercely supportive. Betraying none of the skepticism that I assume they quietly harbor.

And yet there are some people who openly frown when I tell them, whose face seems to question if I realize that I stutter. They ask me what will happen if I block on every word? They prod and poke…am I not nervous? I answer them honestly…yes. I’m petrified. I call my sanity in to question hours before each class begins.

However, my nerves do make me relate to my students…perhaps more deeply than is convenient. I understand any fears that they might have. I have walked in their shoes.

Ultimately, I believe that nerves are normal for all of us. Once the moment comes and we do get up there to speak, it is never as terrifying as we had dreamed up. In fact it is oddly wonderful.

As much as I kvetch about the class beforehand, once I am there, looking at their faces, I realize that my fears are ungrounded. That I love teaching. I love sharing ideas and potentially helping others. I love speaking and stuttering and not worrying about being perfect. I love feeling that I am making an audible mark, however small, in the world.

More than that, I love the people I meet. I love the fact that working with Skillshare intimately ties me into the pulsing heart of the New York startup scene. The students in my class are uniformly impressive. They are entrepreneurs and app creators and management consultants and teachers. They are young and ambitious and looking to improve.

The New York startup scene, particularly the tech scene, has a momentum in the city that can sweep you up. Most of the people are working for startups or creating them. It is intimidating and supportive all at once. There’s a network to tap into, a creative flow of ideas.

However much fear I feel in the days running up to the class, it is worth it. More than worth it.  It is my lifeline to the city and an introduction to strangers I would never otherwise meet.

Public Speaking: An ace in the hand

Yesterday my stutter was at its best. Maybe it was the news of Osama, or my hormones, whatever it was my stutter felt gorged and ready for action. Yesterday I also taught my first class on public speaking. To total strangers. In New York City.

I prepared fiendishly and I knew my material but I had no idea how my stutter would play out. I mentioned the class to someone and she looked flabbergasted, was I terrified? What if it all went horribly wrong? It was one of those really uplifting conversations. But she was right. I was afraid, afraid of forgetting everything I had planned to say and afraid that I would block on every single word. I had been having one of those busy weeks when conversations felt like verbal workouts and my jaw and lungs felt bruised at the end of the day. It was one of those weeks when a cold beer at 7pm every night felt imperative.

TED public speaking commandmentsThe class was about addressing the fear that many people feel when in comes to public speaking and it was about learning to speak like ‘TED’. In my mind TED is the apex of public speaking nirvana and this was the first class that I was teaching outside of the New York stuttering world. So, luckily, there was no pressure.

My students had given up an hour and a half of their Tuesday evening and they deserved their time and money’s worth so I created the best workshop I could. I knew that I would stutter and I brought that into the speech. I saw it as a chance to be really honest with them, and vulnerable. If I was telling them to do the same then I could at least embody what I was preaching.

And, despite or perhaps because of all of that, the workshop went really well. It took on its own energy, that momentary collective emotion that happens when people start laughing and having fun. I spoke for a third of the class and the film I had planned suffered from complete technical failure, and I’m sure I forgot lots of what I had planned to say, but I told them stories and gave them some tips and then I handed it over to them. They chatted with each other and then we played a game, a spontaneous speaking game, and they aced it.

I realized something else. I know that when I stutter I smile. I learnt at a young age that smiling worked, it was a way to decrease the mounting awkwardness. A silent way of telling everyone, and myself, not to worry. These days my smile tends to follow the block, it races behind my stutter, a wing man ready to help me out when my chat takes on a life of its own.

I realized that smiling is the ace in the hand for all of us. If you’re nervous it might be a roll of the dice, but if you can lay it on the table, and genuinely enjoy yourself, the game is made that little bit easier.

Public Speaking: An unexpected phony

Disaster struck. I could blame it on adrenaline, or the wooden podium or the fact that I was giving a long and somewhat intimidating talk. Whatever it was, I was public speaking in front of a speech therapy college class, telling them the truth about stuttering from the proverbial horse’s mouth, and suddenly my stutter decided to take a mini staycation. I’m not sure when it left but I know it didn’t go far. I stuttered like a champion asking the man at reception where the class was being held and I had an impressively long block later that evening ordering a drink. But somewhere between standing in front of their expectant eyes and thanking them all for their time, my stutter decided to bugger off.

pubic speaking fears

Normally this would not irk me but it is hard to convey how deeply stuttering can affect people and how necessary it is to come to terms with a unique voice, when your speech sounds remarkably like everyone else. Half way through the speech I had thrown in some pretty drawn out voluntary stutters but that was just compounding the problem. The voluntary stuttering was putting me at ease and I was progressively less likely to really get stuck. It was a vicious cycle. I could see that they knew I was in control of the ‘fake’ stutters. Some yawns escaped from my audience.

Stuttering was my message and they couldn’t see it. I was a virtual stranger to them and, in their eyes, I was most likely a phony. I had no idea how to convince them otherwise.

It made me think…what makes a really compelling speech. Stuttering? Not exactly, but its not far off. The best answer I can come up with is vulnerability.

I am teaching a class on public speaking on May 3rd (check it out here) so I have been thinking a lot about the traits of a great speaker. There are many but I think that vulnerability is one of the most powerful and unexpected that I have stumbled upon.

Jeremy always tells me that the human brain is triggered to look for imperfections. I always used to think that he was being negative but he’s right. I have listened to lots of perfect speeches, delivered with style and pizzazz. But I don’t remember being drawn in, there were no intriguing imperfections.

Most of us have a persona that we adopt when we’re public speaking. It is a more polished version of ourselves, a slightly more eloquent version with a louder voice. I prefer the speeches where we see a glimpse of the real person beneath the ‘speaker’. So how can we show our humility without turning it into an AA meeting?

1) Self-deprecating humour. It is probably the Brit in me but I am immediately drawn into someone who can laugh at their own flaws.

2) Admitted nerves. If it’s good enough for Caroline Casey then it is good enough for me.

3) Telling them about any quirks that embarrass us. Do you pace the room when you talk? Do you speak faster than the road runner? Do you gesture like a character from the Sopranos?

Maybe, unlike me, you are a perfect speaker. If you are, then tell me how you got there? What was your journey?

Because, the thing is, perfection is boring. Humanity is far more compelling.

Public Speaking: Bringing back the show and tell experience

I have recently taken to the public speaking circuit in New York. The irony is not lost on me. Eloquence, wit, clarity and charm might be the more ‘normal’ attributes of a public speaker. Stuttering is not one of the more typical traits of the trade. And yet it has its upsides.

1) My audience is remarkably engaged. Whether they are leaning in to listen a little harder or whether they are genuinely fascinated in the subject, I’ll take it. I have noticed that stuttering makes people listen. Not in the mindless, doodling, half-hearted way that I used to listen in university lectures. Rather in a what-is-going-on and how-can-I-catch-every-word-she-is-saying kind of way.

2) My voice and my words work as a team. This is not an entirely usual experience for me. At times I can feel like my words and my voice are at odds, both vying for attention as they send out conflicting messages. Yet, when I am talking about stuttering, my voice serves as a prop, neatly underlining what I am saying about my speech. I turn into a walking show and tell performance.

3) No one is afraid of speaking up in the question and answer sessions. Having recently watched me stutter through a 20 minute speech, they feel markedly less self-conscious. Whatever difficulty they have in public speaking they feel a little less worried about exposing it.

4) No subject is off limits. I offer the class the chance to ask me anything they want after my speech so the classroom becomes a very honest place very quickly.

5) My speech will probably not blend in with the other lectures they had that day. If I allow myself to be truly narcissistic I would love for my audience to be inspired, fascinated and motivated by my talk. I hope some are but I’m sure there are others who are less enamored. My less ardent supporters might be bored, might feel uncomfortable and may even hate what I’m saying but they will probably still remember the talk by the end of the day. If nothing else I have given them a memorable story to tell their friends.

I’m not Sir Ken Robinson yet. My sweaty hands still gesture wildly and I have moments of briefly loosing my train of thought and lapsing into a desperately searching silence.

My talks so far have been to graduate speech therapy classes so my audience is not exactly a fair representation of the population at large. I have trapped them in a classroom and they seem to have some genuine interest in the subject. As far as audiences go, they are not too terrifying.

They are also expecting me to stutter. Standing in front of their hopeful faces I worry about letting them down. What if I am suddenly struck by fluency? I worry about disappointing them. I think how awkward we would all feel if I didn’t say one stuttered word. Luckily I haven’t let them down yet.