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.

The necessary evil of networking

I like meeting people. In fact, in love it. In a world where facebook and twitter mean that you can interact with the world from the crusty safety of your pajamas, there is nothing as powerful as actually seeing people’s faces, striking up a real conversation, listening to them and maybe even putting on some glad rags for the occasion.

Dinner plans, I’m keen. Drinks, start my bar tab. Housewarming, I’ll bring the bubbly. I’ll happily get on board for the odd art gallery opening, book signing or music gig. But if someone tells me that I’m going to a networking event, my mouth goes dry and I experience the stage fright of a wobbly teenager.

mad men networking inspiration

Studying Don Draper’s skills is becoming a great excuse to watch Mad Men re-runs

This is by no means ideal. Having just launched a phone recycling business, Jeremy and I are doing our best to meet people and broaden our community in the city. Business cards are swapped as frequently as Jeremy once traded baseball cards. There’s lots of elevator pitches and hand shaking to be done. The whole experience leaves me in a cold sweat and, just writing the words, I’m beginning to feel a little hot under the collar.

I sense that my speech has something to do with it. I’m sure it plays a role, it makes me a little more apprehensive, a little less ready to launch into the fray. But I don’t think that my stutter plays the staring role, more a ready and willing understudy. I know I will stutter meeting someone new, I have a 95% chance of stuttering on my name at least, and that certainty is almost reassuring, I have some idea of what will happen, how the conversation with the stranger across the room with play out.

So, if not the stutter, what is it? Why the aversion to the business chat? I think it has something to do with the honest fact that I’m not brilliant at it. It is not that I’m not passionate about the company. I am deeply passionate about it but when I start my pitch I feel uncomfortable, aware of my crassness, of the blatancy of my approach.

I have friends in the city who are champion networkers. The type who laugh and banter and only when you leave at the end of the night do you realize that you are more fascinated by their company than any other venture you have heard of in the past month. You are compelled to Google them as soon as you arrive home. You like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter because you want to be part of their world. If they weren’t so damn likeable I’d hate them for it.

So how do you become a great saleswoman or networker? I’m very keen to find out. I’m of the belief that practice can help anything but, to spare me the slow months of a steep learning curve, any thoughts from you would be much appreciated.

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.

Bill Withers: Still Cool

It is one of life’s more pesky ironies that I cannot sing. My virtual tone-deafness has always seemed unfair in light of my stutter. Away from the delicate ears of others, I have been known to belt out the odd 80s classic in the shower and I have never once stuttered. In fact, of all the stutterers I have met, I have yet to hear about one person who stutters whilst singing. Grabbing on to this little factoid a surprising number of people have suggested that I turn my daily conversations into a real life musical. No doubt I would be completely fluent singing away in my padded cell.

Stuttering singers span the breath of music history from Carly Simon to Mel Tillis and Gareth Gates (for those of you Brits who were teenagers back in 2002 and remember the early novelty of Pop Idol). But there is no stuttering singer as quintessentially cool as Bill Withers. I remember thinking that when I interviewed him back in 2009 for my book on stuttering and I felt that again last night when I stumbled on the recent documentary ‘Still Bill’ in my Netflix account.

bill withers

“Some people are born cool”, he observes in his trademark rolling voice. It seems like he must be talking about himself until he cracks a smile and carries on, “I was an asthmatic stutterer from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” His playful wit establishes from the beginning that this is a rare musician’s documentary. There are no fawning crowds, no crumbling rock and roll hedonism. Rather we are given a picture of Bill’s daily life as he spends time with his family, records music with his daughter, shoots the breeze with friends and celebrates his 70th birthday.

We are shown a humble man who chose to walk away from fame for a quiet life, and is happy that he did. As he tells his kids, “It’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful you’re gonna have to pass through All Right. And when you get to All Right, take a good look round and get used to it because that maybe is as far as you’re gonna go.” Is he talking about himself? It seems hard to believe but the line reminded me of something he said when I interviewed him years ago. I had been sitting with him in his wife’s office for almost two hours when he got a call from Simply Red’s management asking him to come as a VIP to his next show. His surprise morphed into gratitude and, when I asked him if that kind of thing happened all the time, he laughed, “No sugar, most people think I’m dead these days or too old to walk over there.”

Both in the documentary and in person you can see only a hint of Bill’s lifelong stutter. It is so slight as to be barely noticeable but there is a strong feeling that this seemingly minor challenge has shaped his life. He comes across as a deeply emotional man and we see him quietly cry twice in the film. Once from fatherly pride and once as he talks to a group of children that make up Our Time’s theatre group for kids who stutter. Intimately indentifying with them, he observes that stuttering can make other people nervous and says, “We have to go just that little bit further to help them feel at ease.”

Bill seems like a man that treads softly and makes a big noise. The film is peppered with wise, unscripted words. It is about a man who knows who he is. He’s still the same guy he was growing up in Slab Fork, he is still the guy he was when he started his family and he is still a stutterer.

If you missed it, you can always catch it on Netflix here.


New York Living: An unwelcome visitor

A cockroach climbed onto my foot last night. I felt the brush of tiny legs and looked down to see a large brown object sitting squarely on my bare foot. I flicked it off in a frenzy of high-pitched squeals. Jeremy ran in and watched me as I jumped frenetically around our ting New York kitchen. I squealed the word ‘cockroach’ and pointed to the floor. He helpfully uncovered a ball of dust from under our cabinets. Was this what I was referring too?

I looked at the offending piece of dirt and then looked around suspiciously. Jeremy cracked a smile. He swaggered back to his desk and told me not to worry. I was just a crazy lady in the kitchen. There were no cockroaches. I lived in a clean sanctuary. I carried on cooking.

I turned around to grab the handle of the fridge and caught a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. I flicked my head and saw the cockroach running towards my foot at record-breaking speed. I would like to say that I have lived in the countryside for most of my life and I am not generally a total wimp. However, I lost all control of my sanity and leapt over the roach and towards our window shelf. It was at this point, from my precarious ledge, that I let forth a stream of profanities. The cockroach froze in its spot as I cursed it repeatedly. Jeremy ran back into the room. I carried on swearing and pointing and he heroically took a great stride forward and stomped on the intruder. It crunched reassuringly and a swipe of kitchen towel removed its carcass to the rubbish bin.

new york cockroachesAt this point I would like to tell you all that I climbed down from my gargoyle like pose and resumed my status as a domestic goddess. Sadly, this is not the case. Instead Jeremy came and lifted me up and carried me from one side of our railroad apartment to the other. I then sat on our bed in silence reflecting on 1) what hazardous concoction I could buy to kill any roachie relatives and 2) the fact that I had not stuttered once during my foul-mouthed monologue.

Truth be told, having stuttered for most of my life I cannot remember ever stuttering on a swear word. Luckily I have steered clear of turning every sentence I speak into a blasphemous monologue but I do tend to slip in the occasional ‘shit’ or ‘bugger’ when I am in the middle of a never-ending word. Knowing that I will say something fluently is a reassuring break from the fray, it reminds me that I am not lost in the stutter. Although my swearing generally sits squarely in the PG-13 variety it is by no means ideal. I have received a couple disapproving stares from elderly grannies and young mums.

I know that I am not alone in this experience. It is true for some other stutterers I know and, if The King’s Speech is to be believed, King George VI puts me amongst some very esteemed company. And yet I wonder why swearing overrides the stutter. Is it the spontaneity of the situation? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy? I ‘know’ that I won’t stutter and my body believes my mind. Is it because I am so caught up in my own personal emotion that I momentarily don’t care about what my listener thinks of me? I have lots of questions and very few answers.

I do, however, know that I would rather stutter happily every day than be shocked into momentary fluency by another sprinting roach. I am off to buy some traps to see if my unexpected visitor has any more friends.

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.

Stuttering as a woman and what I really feel about it

I am an English woman who has recently moved to Brooklyn, New York, with my boyfriend. I have stuttered for most of my life and am currently writing a book on the myth of normalcy and what it means to stutter. I have started this blog to document some funny, challenging and downright absurd moments that chronicle my daily life speaking and writing.

I am constantly amazed by the beauty and changeable nature of speech and the unique ways that we all see our voices. Having spent two years immersing myself in stuttering I have realized that the more I find out the less I know and the more I want to learn. I am fascinated by the experiences of others and the constant developments in what other people are thinking about this enigmatic condition. Any posts I write are open invitations to hear from others. Feel free to tell me any of your thoughts and email me anytime you want to get in touch.

This is my first foray into the world of blogging so watch this space to see how it evolves. I look forward to adding interviews, videos and pictures in the not-to-distant future. I am learning quickly but I currently have the tech credentials of a 3 year old.