Owning Your Own Story

What happens when we own everything we are?

By ‘owning’, I mean speaking up about the pieces of ourselves that make us unique, without any expectation of praise or pity.

There is no harm in speaking about the pieces of ourselves that we are proud of, and yet doing so does little more than inflate our own egos. The more powerful part of ‘owning’ our story, is speaking about the those pieces that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed. Bringing our greatest weaknesses out of the closet and into the spotlight.

If we are lucky, there is a certain catharsis in doing so, the sense of a burden being lifted. But, perhaps more importantly, there is the potential to form a connection with our listener, or our reader. To show them how fallibly human we are, to crack ourselves open for a moment and make all of us feel a little less alone.

Owning your own storyIt is an idea that I have been thinking about for years, and yet it was thrown into sharp relief this past week, through the lens of anxiety.

First there was Scott Stossel’s article in the Atlantic’s January magazine entitled, “Surviving Anxiety.” A harrowing, hilarious and deeply thoughtful piece about the life he has spent living in the shadow of near-overwhelming fear. Stossel explores his own complicated relationship with therapy and medication, and he invites us to witness some of the most painfully mortifying moments of his life. As Stossel writes, “My anxiety can be intolerable. But it is also, maybe a gift…as often as anxiety has held me back…it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.”

And then, on January 6th, we saw a visceral example of the anxiety that Stossel had described, with film director Michael Bay’s panicked exit from a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The CES audience, followed by over a million Youtube viewers, watched as Michael froze and then almost ran off the stage saying, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Twitter duly trended, and not always in the nicest way. One commenter wrote, “I’ve often wanted to walk out of a Michael Bay [movie]…Can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity.” A few, more charitable souls expressed sympathy at that too familiar sensation of panicked stagefright.

Later that day Bay wrote on his blog:

“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing. But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.”

I wonder if the public’s reaction to Bay would have been different if he had written more genuinely about his fear, and rather less about advertising a product? It is hard to know but it is clear that the reaction to Stossel’s article was overwhelming empathetic, with the Atlantic inviting readers to submit their own stories of anxiety and running a longform piece detailing many of their stories.

Much like the Atlantic, I am excited to launch a place on my site for people to share their stories about difference, stuttering, vulnerability and identity. I invite you all to share your stories here.

By far the best part of publishing Out With It has been the hundreds of messages I have received from people telling me how my story made them feel less alone. And yet I believe that is just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that together we can create a compendium of what it means to live with ourselves, we can reach out and connect with one another.

As Stossel writes so profoundly in his conclusion, “in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism or redemption.”

I invite you all to start owning your stories today at http://www.outwithitbook.com/communityvoices

The Gift of Listening

When was the last time you truly listened to someone?

I’m not talking about the listening that you do as you jot down your shopping list, or the listening that you do while you prepare what you are going to say in response. Rather I’m speaking about the experience of listening to someone without any distractions or any impatience. Listening with the express purpose of bearing witness to their story.

Can you remember how you felt the last time you really listened? Can you remember how you felt the last time someone really listened to you?

There is something about being heard that fulfills a heart-seated human need for connection. And it seems to go both ways: the experience of telling someone vivid stories about our life changes us, and it changes the perspective of the person listening.

When I set off to do all my interviews for Out With It, I did a huge amount of research into the oral history tradition. In particular, I became borderline obsessed with the work of Studs Terkel, and with the man himself. In all his books, and his interviews, I got the sense that he loved people, that he listened to them with genuine interest and fascination. Somehow his very presence allowed people to open a floodgate within themselves, and it allowed him to write books that became portraits of the human condition.

Studs Terkel listening
Studs Terkel witnessed stories that too often remained unspoken, or overlooked. He spoke to people who I imagine saw their lives as too mundane or unmemorable to be of interest to the outside world, and he unearthed a vivid, captivating wealth of stories within each of them.

I did my best to emulate Studs in every interview I ever conducted. I thought that I was prepared for the experience of listening deeply, but there was one piece that all my research never touched on. I never imagined how cathartic the experience would be for me, how listening to the rich details of someone’s life could change my own life so profoundly.

And so Out With It became an amalgamation of all of us. It became a testament to their stories, and a telling of my own transformation.

I am proud of the book I have created but there is something final in the completion of the book that makes me nostalgic for that year of interviews. For all the hours spent listening, and all the changes I watched in others (and felt in myself) as they told me their stories.

We all lead extraordinary ordinary human lives, we all have stories that are waiting to be told.

Seeing as we are in the season of gift-giving, can you think of someone in your life who you can give the gift of listening to?

Parenting a Stranger

“Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” Andrew Solomon states on the first page of his compassionate, generous and immensely wise book Far From The Tree.

far from the treeSo begins a book that explores the families of exceptional children with so-called “horizontal identities”. As Solomon puts it, “there is no such thing as reproduction, only acts of production”. Never is this more obvious than with children whose identities are profoundly different from their parents, those children affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences. “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” There is no mention of stuttering, and yet so much of the book feels germane to my experience.

A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell, an insightful journalist and an award-winning author, Solomon spent over 10 years interviewing more than 300 families to create this weighty tome. We can imagine that he spoke to these people with the curious, non-judgemental and frank tone that he uses to guide us as his readers. We can imagine that his profound intelligence and evident compassion lead to the emotionally resonate, and often shocking, stories that he recounts over the book’s 700 pages (1000 if you count the notes, bibliography etc). We know that he is a man not outside of the people he interviews, but very much a part of them.

The book is book-ended by intimate accounts of his own upbringing (as a gay man born to straight parents) and his awed transformation into a father. It is a book that welcomes conversation and today’s post will explore the subject of parenting through Solomon’s lens (later this month I’ll similarly explore the notions of community and identity).

Children with marked difference from the rest of their family demand knowledge, competence and action that typical parents are often, initially, unqualified to supply. So how do you nurture a child who is alien to you and unlike anything you have ever experienced? As Solomon puts it, “parenting is no sport for perfectionists”, and yet “the parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.” We learn about a mother who loves the child she conceived in rape but can not bare to be touched by her; the Klebolds who love their son and struggle to comprehend the mass tragedy he inflicted in Columbine; and the parents who feel unable to fully understand the complexities of sign and their son’s Deaf identity.

In my own research I heard stories of both awful and extraordinary parents and could imagine the truth behind Solomon’s argument that “having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies.” When I think about my own parents I imagine all the ways they they must have come to terms with a child whose condition was so strange and unexplored for them.

I can imagine how elusive and out of reach the answers must have seemed; whether they should push me into speech therapy and how far they should hold firm against my ferocious insistence against it. And yet there was never any doubt that they accepted me without reservation, that they loved me with all my imperfections intact and on display. I always felt as if my stuttering was somehow secondary to them. That I was first and foremost their child, and one they were zealously attached to. I never felt apart from them, rather my identity began with the fact that I was a “fully recognised citizen of the tiny nation that is family.”

And yet I continue to ask myself what happens moving forward? What happens to the child that I may one day conceive?

In Out With It I explore my own feelings toward parenthood, how my interview with Michael Palin made me wonder if having a stuttering mother would make my putative fluent children vulnerable to ridicule or shame. In hearing stories of teenage years spent fending off bullies, I worried about foisting a version of those experiences on to any stuttering children I may have. I couldn’t decide if it would be better if I had a child who stuttered or one that was fluent.

As if I had that choice.

If nothing else, Far From The Tree teaches us how little control we have over the children that we create. And how strong our capacity to love remains.

Luckily the world is changing. Stuttering is no longer some unspoken strangeness. There are stuttering heroes in movies and protagonists in books. The conversation is evolving and my fears are, gradually, becoming less necessary and less relevant. As a society we are changing our perceptions of normality and learning that we all live on a spectrum of difference. As people we are realising that “we should not be reduced to our disabilities” and “we should not make assumptions about an unborn child’s ability to cope with the world.”

We can nurture our children to become most fully themselves. And we can be ready to meet them, to embrace them, whoever they may be.

The triumph of giving someone the confidence to speak

Anyone looking for proof that vulnerability draws us to people, should watch Channel 4’s recent documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

As part of the British TV show we are introduced to Musharaf Asghar (aka “Mushy”), a 16-year-old preparing to take his GCSEs and dreading the oral part of his English final. Mushy is a polite and popular kid with a keen sense of humor and an acute stutter.

Mushy stutterNothing is whitewashed and Mushy is open about his frustration, explaining that he feels like “someone is keeping my mouth closed.” And yet his English teacher, Mr Burton, tells the camera that he always puts up his hand in class to answer questions “even though he knows that the result will be an agonising silence as everyone waits for the words to come out, and it would be much easier to stay silent.”

Tellingly, Mushy has been that way since year seven. Back in year seven he was cutting school and close to dropping out, beaten down by bullies. His teachers “clamped down on that teasing right away” and watched as he “absolutely flourished” in the new safety net of his school.

It is clear that they are not exaggerating. With his stutter in tow, Mushy is brave and funny and full of self-belief. On the show we watch him time and time again put himself in positions where he has to talk. We watch him put his faith in the teachers that respect him in turn.

None more so than his English teacher, Mr Burton. In an effort to help him get through his oral exam, Mr Burton draws on a ‘technique’ he saw in the movie The King’s Speech. He encourages Mushy to put on headphones and listen to music while he talks. We watch as he takes his teacher’s advice and his stutter decreases. The program ends with a clip of Mushy delivering a speech to a cheering assembly of 200 classmates with large, white headphones framing his beaming face.

While the program turned both Mushy and Mr Burton into national heroes, the reactions of some stutterers and speech therapists have been more circumspect. They are not surprised that his stuttering decreases with the headphones playing music into his ears, it is well known that masking your voice tends to increase fluency. Rather, they question how sustainable it is to speak to the rhythm of a song. Some point to the way Mushy taps out his words with his hand hitting his leg throughout the show, and question the speech therapist who taught him to do so.

I think their sentiments are laudable and yet I also think they miss something about the show. Mr Burton says he is well-aware that the technique is not the answer (as, we may imagine, is Mushy). In a BBC Radio interview after the show aired he does not mention the ‘technique’, instead he thanks Mr Burton for “giving me the confidence to speak.”

Rather than a show that depicts the latest ‘miracle cure’ for stuttering, Channel 4 has created a program that teaches us how to love each other a little better.

Mushy is not ‘fixed’ at the end, that is not the story arc we are watching. But we are talking about triumph, about those small, everyday triumphs that accrue over the years. Mushy, just like the rest of us, is in it for the long haul. For all the minutes and hours and days after the camera has stopped rolling.

The journey to take our struggles and make something exalted out of them is virtually impossible to do in a vacuum. We need others to see us the way that Mr Burton sees Mushy, as “a lad who should rightfully be very very proud of himself.”

How David and Goliath redefines the underdog

“Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through tough times & you discover they aren’t so tough after all”, writes Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book David and Goliath.

David and goliath
Today is International Stuttering Awareness Day, a day when those words, and Gladwell’s new book, are well worth exploring.

David and Goliath argues that for the strong, “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often sources of great weakness,” whereas for the weak, “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

It is an attractive idea (one I believe in wholeheartedly) and the most intriguing piece of the book focuses on the theory of “desirable difficulty.” Gladwell argues that people have the potential to succeed not in spite, but because of their disorders. That they can learn something in their struggle that proves to be an enormous advantage.

As an example of desirable difficulty, Gladwell highlights a man called David Boies. Boies is dyslexic and he went from being a construction worker to “one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world.” Whether or not it is true, Boies attributes his success to the ways his dyslexia forced him to adapt. Because he found it hard to read, he became a phenomenal listener. Because of his need to simplify issues to their basic components, he presents a case that every juror can easily understand. For all of its difficulty, his limitation has fostered certain great strengths.

It is an idea that I have heard over and over in the stuttering community – the idea that stuttering has the potential to make us more empathetic, more humble, more resilient, more driven to succeed. I know that, in my own life, stuttering has forged an obsession with the rhythm and complexities of language that makes me the writer I am.

And yet, beyond those qualities, David and Goliath introduces another, somewhat unexpected, strength: the willingness to be disagreeable, to exhibit a lack of concern for social norms. We need to play by own rules in order to succeed.

It reminds me of the joke about a stutterer who applies for a job as a bible salesman. His would-be bosses are sceptical so they give him a challenge. They give him 20 bibles, more than their best salesmen sell in a day, and ask him to try and sell as many any possible in an hour. He agrees. With one condition. If he sells them all, they must give him the job. They shake hands and he sets off. 30 minutes later he returns empty-handed. Shocked, the bosses give him the job and ask him to tell them his secret. How did he do it? “It was no trouble at all”. He tells them. “Aaaaaaat every h h h h h h house I knocked on the dddddddddd d d d ddoooooor, introduced my my my my my my my my myself and told them that they c        could either buy a bible from m   me or I cccccccc c ccc c c cccccould stand there and rr r r r rrrrrrr r ead it to them.”

However silly the example, it takes a certain amount of courage to be the man in that joke, to own your limitation and work within its strengths. As a society we need people who take that idea one step further, people who have used whatever difficulty they have and turned it into a form of greatness.

We need those people who are courageous by necessity.

Stuttering and the resilient sense of self

“Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter,” writes Cheryl Strayed, replying in her Rumpus Dear Sugar column to a woman who anonymously wrote to her as ‘Ashamed and Afraid’.

Resilience stutterWith her characteristic mix of tenderness and insight, Cheryl tells A & A, “It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing out the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter and taking in the fact that you have the power to redirect the blowtorch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.”

It is a beautiful piece, one that glues your eyes to the page and gives you whiplash from nodding your head so vigorously in agreement.

It is the type of writing that unifies us. Stuttering or not we all need to work on becoming the people we’re here to be. We all need to foster our own resilience, that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and and come back stronger than ever.

Strayed has that quality in spades and in my interviews for Out With It I saw resilience in the most successful stutterers I met. Stuttering might have battered their self-esteem for some part of their childhood, but they were not cowed by it. They described it as ‘toughening them up’, as ‘increasing their empathy’, as ‘instilling a fighting instinct.’ They were formed, rather than undone, by their struggle.

They were not unique, or superhuman, in their ability. We are all capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success. We just need to work out how we can withstand, rebound and transform the inevitable obstacles of our life into triumphs.

In The Resilience Factor, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte explain seven elements that anyone can cultivate to boost their own resilience:

1) Emotional regulation. The ability to respond appropriately in any given situation and control our emotions and behaviours so they are productive rather than knee-jerk reactions.

2) Impulse control. The necessity to notice our thoughts and sit with them for a moment, quietly, before we react.

3) Empathy. The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, so we can keep ourselves from misreading situations.

4) Optimism. Not irrational optimism, rather the ability to believe that things can change for the better, to hope for the future, without denying the reality of our lives. The need to aspire and work towards positive outcomes without assuming that they are a forgone conclusions.

5) Causal analysis. The ability to accurately identify the causes of problems and think flexibility. The so-called father of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, focuses on explanatory styles as the the habitual way we explain the good and the bad things that happen to us. The need to look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events rather than seeing them as permanent, personal and pervasive.

6) Self-efficacy. The sense that we are effective in the world, the belief that we can succeed at solving our problems.

7) Reaching out. The intention to create nurturing relationships and strong social support. We often learn by mimicry and a resilient, trusting and supportive community incubates reserves of optimism and resilience.

All of us will face failure at some point in our lives. Those who have been shielded from difficulty, who have spent their life coddled and protected, are not always the most successful.

Those who grow up battling against some form of adversity need more grit, more social intelligence and more self-control to create the kind of giant, full lives they aspire to. If they can develop the strength to derive knowledge and meaning from their setbacks, they are at a significant character advantage. As the researcher Ann Masten puts it, “resilient children have the benefit of ordinary magic.”

Do you have that ordinary magic? How often are you able to transform the setbacks of life into everyday triumphs?

Stuttering and the Power of Powerless Communication

Often stuttering is seen as a hindrance, perhaps even a disability. When most people are asked to name successful stutterers they tend to mention men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch. They marvel at the confidence and prestige of those stutterers who have somehow overcome their condition, whose voices no longer betray their speech difficulties.

But if we look a little closer, the truth is more complex.

In my research for Out With It I saw that many people who stutter end up being quite successful, gaining respect in everything from the boardroom to the basketball court. There were certainly those who were dissatisfied and unfulfilled, but those who were successful were not always those who had conquered their stuttering. Those people who had both excelled, and continued to stutter, seemed to have certain traits in common. I will explore traits of resilience in my next post but today I’m looking at the idea of embracing powerless communication, how it specifically relates to stutterers and how everyone can harness its power to generate trust and respect.

I first came across the concept in Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Give and Take. Grant is the youngest tenured professor at The Wharton School and a prolific academic in the area of workplace dynamics. His seminal book gives remarkable insights into what actually works in communication.

giveandtake-cover
In his chapter on the power of powerless communication, Grant argues that, when it comes to collaboration, we are more inclined to hire, promote and value people who communicate powerlessly. This includes: talking tentatively; asking people questions (giving them the joy of talking), specifically asking them for advice; and being open about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, not just our strengths.

The first two are relatively easy to understand and implement, I find the latter the most intriguing. It is worth exploring through the lens of stuttering.

When writing Out With It I discovered how often people are drawn to stutterers, how likeable they seem to be. At first I balked against the discovery, worrying that the attraction was perhaps born of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised it was the opposite – they were drawn to the stutterer’s courage and lack of artifice. In a world full of noise and nonsense, stutterers were seen as somehow trustworthy and genuine. Because their speech had nothing to do with their competence, it did not demean them in their audiences’ eyes. Rather it raised them up.

The idea that something that we often perceive as a weakness can actually be an important asset was a personal breakthrough, but Grant proves that the idea is applicable to anyone wishing to improve their communication.

Everyone has a weakness, whether it be their weight, their height, their looks, their clumsiness etc. Often our weaknesses have nothing to do with our competence, but we try to hide them to appear in control or knowledgeable or attractive. In actuality, when we speak in a way that reveals our shortcomings and expresses vulnerability, people can relate to us as a human beings. They are attracted to us.

What do you think? Would you ever share your weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the work place?

Re-imagining the Role of Godparent

A few days ago one of my favourite people asked me to be her son’s godmother.

Our friends are at the age where baby monitors often provide the background noise to dinner parties and apartments are rented with school districts in mind. And yet, somehow, the concept of godparenting had never crossed my mind. It was an enormous honor that I had never expected.

I said yes, quickly and fervently.

And then I spent hours learning about what I had just accepted, about the expectations and guidelines for godparents.

godparent decisionsI’m not an atheist but I’d be hard-pressed to call myself deeply religious. If I was supposed to serve as a spiritual guarantor for the little guy I wasn’t sure what kind of spirituality I was guaranteeing.

And yet the idea of being such a big part of my friend’s family, and playing a role in her son’s life, had enormous appeal. So I started to look for secular inspiration.

From folklore to pop culture, there were Cinderella-style fairy godmothers who saw inherent charms in their charges and gun wielding Godfathers who embodied protection.

From my own life, I was lucky enough to have two godparents and one godfather. My parents enlisted friends from different parts of their lives and divvied up the duties – one godmother taught me how to laugh through struggles, another taught me the importance of loyalty and my godfather taught me to live by my own rules. We have spent Christmases and birthdays and New Year’s Eves together. I’ve seen them dance and cry. I’ve always felt like they were part of my family.

Yet they aren’t parental. That’s not the role that anyone expects of them. Rather they offer a unique, familial friendship.

And that’s something I think I can offer to my friend’s son. I may not always be in the same country as him. I may not be able to give him large gifts of money. I may still be working out all the questions he wants answers to. But I know how to be a good friend. 

So the ground rules I’m setting for myself are to be the type of friend to him that I am to his mum. To make memories with him, to remember things that are important to him, to laugh with him and listen to him, to always watch out for him.

To quote Don Corleone, arguably the most infamous godparent, “Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.”

To see more of my Psychology Today articles go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-it

Whispered words of patience

Have you ever thought about the power of whispering, about all the urgency and intimacy that it contains?

Whispered patience

I had rarely thought about it before I attended a workshop called ‘Whispered Words’ at last month’s FRIENDS conference.

A group of stutterers, parents of children who stuttered and speech therapists were invited to sit in a large circle. Every other person in the circle was told to stand behind their seat. We were asked to think of one thing we wanted to improve in ourselves. Pens and paper were handed out and those standing were told to write, “I give you…” followed by the piece of themselves that they wanted to improve.

Those who were left seated were asked to close their eyes and those standing were directed to walk behind the circle of chairs, whispering in each seated person’s ear the words of the sentence they had written.

It started off tentatively, all shuffled feet and awkward scribbles.

Then, slowly, the self-conscious hush gave way to the muffled sound of whispers moving around the room.

The hesitant thrill of the first words in my ear surprised me, a man’s voice whispering, “I give you the courage to chase all your crazy dreams.”

Then a woman’s voice told me, “I give you permission to tell your story”.

At first they were all different, an anonymous litany of private fears and dreams. Gradually repetition crept in and, by the time I had opened my eyes, there was nothing I had been given more often than patience.

Patience seemed to ring in my ear as if the whispered word had somehow come from my own brain. It felt as if I was carrying their secret, as if I had a responsibility, and an ability, to be patient.

So what does it mean to be patient?

In the quiet of the room I tried to untangle its meaning and complexities. To find peace in the moments that seem to automatically bring frustration? To show compassion and empathy for others, and for ourselves? To stop rushing towards some unknown future, and instead appreciate the gradual unfurling of things?

Impatience is part of the habitual reaction I have towards my speech. It is not a part of myself I’m particularly enamored with. I find it far easier to be patient with others, to give them the time I believe we all deserve. It takes far more effort to have patience with the moments of my stuttered speech, to forgive myself for all the ways I’m not perfect and accept that the process of change is not well-suited to my desire for instant gratification.

In my mind patience does not mean apathy. It does not mean taking a step back from the world and waiting for our rewards. It is a far more difficult and active state. It widens our view of a situation, it asks us to question our assumptions and dispute the frustration that rarely serves us well. Patience gives us the capacity to wait until the right moment to act.

It is a word to whisper to ourselves, a powerful amulet against our irrational fallacies.

This article can also be found on my Psychology Today column.

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?