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?

What to hope for?

As I type this my twitter feed is ticking in front of me, telling me that the boat is surrounded, that the man thought to be one of the Boston marathon bombers, is about to be caught. They have him. He’s alive. The suspect is in custody.

My feed has gone quiet now. What next? What now do we hope will unfold?

In the rush of silence I think of all the horror and heroism of the past week. Of all the ways that people felt fragile and vulnerable and frightened. All of the ways people mentioned how grateful they felt for their loved ones, how tightly they held on to one another.

It has been a long week, we’re all looking for a silver lining.

It seems like a strange time to be celebrating, and yet, on Tuesday night I had a chance to do just that. I was lucky enough to get to be around a lot of people I love. I got to laugh with them, and hug them and thank them for all the ways they changed my life. On Tuesday, April 16th, I had the book launch for Out With It.


It was a night of hours that skidded by too fast. It was gilded, better than I could have ever imagined. There was a billboard in Times Square and a sold out bookstore. It was a night made memorable for all the right reasons.

FB - Crowd at BookCourt

Now, in the aftermath of everything, I think about all the outcomes that we look towards. In the face of disappointments and disasters, what kind of recovery do we hope for?

In the wake of celebration, what then do we hope will happen?

A small part of me gets to hope for big dreams, for Out With It to change the conversation around perfection and normalcy. A much bigger part of me just hopes that a few people read it. I wonder what people will think of it, what they will think of me.

In the aftermath of everything I feel immensely vulnerable. I feel fragile knowing that my book, this thing I looked at in the privacy of my home for almost 5 years, is now out in the world waiting to be judged.

I hope that people like it. I hope I don’t look like a fool. I hope that it does some good to as many people as possible. I hope that the joy I felt on Tuesday will carry me through whatever challenging times, and wonderful times, lie ahead. Looking around an apartment full of cards, and flowers and notes from people I love, I hope that I will always feel as grateful as I do tonight.


When stuttering comes in handy

Have you ever been pulled over by one of these?

stuttering police officer

Imagine pulling up to the lock your bike outside a bar, slipping your helmet-hair free, and looking down to see a motorized tricycle cruising up next to you.

‘ID please’

Blank look.

‘Driver’s license please’

For my bike?

‘This is an English license’

Indeed, it is.

‘Do you know the American rules of the road?’

All of them? ‘Drive on the right, stop at red lights…’

‘Do you know that bikes are meant to ride on the road, not the sidewalk?’

In the resulting silence, he strenuously copies down information from my license to a ticket pad. In saner moments, I may have agreed that yes, bikes should do a better job of sticking to the rules. Yet, when it dawns on me that he is going to charge me for the 5 feet of pavement that I rode along to lock up my bike on a signpost, I’m not sure if I should laugh, scream or roll my eyes.

He gets bored of waiting for an answer, ‘I have a mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mmmmmmotorbike and I can’t just pull up and d d d d d drive on the sidewalk whenever I please can I?’

He stutters. It shocks me for a moment. It pushes away the anger, “No, no you can’t. I won’t d d d d d do it again.’

I don’t stutter on purpose, I don’t do it to get his sympathy. And yet, it changes something.

I think about mentioning the National Stuttering Association, or even my book, but the moment isn’t right. It might look like I’m pushing my luck.

He lets me off, with a warning, and the bar buys me a round on the house.

Facing the struggle

What do you do when you’re struggling?

I’m having a rough week. Well, actually a rough couple weeks.

‘Rough’ is probably the wrong word to use. I should probably find a better word, a less judgmental term, but rough feels accurate. I’m having one of those weeks when my breathing feels rough, when my language tumbles out roughly and when I feel as if I’m hacking at the air with my speech.


I have no reason why, I’m just stuttering more right now. I am running up against this wall at the start of words and in the middle of words. I am stuttering on the phone, at dinner parties, on bike rides and while I sweat my way around long runs.

I feel a little more tired at the end of the day, a little more fragile. And yet I know what will happen. I know that this particular moment will pass, and that it will come back at some future time. I know that everything is cyclical, that it changes with the seasons.

I can’t say that stuttering up a storm is a breeze, but it has proven a couple things to me:

  1. Nobody else seems to care, particularly the people I love.
  2. In fact, the people I love seem to be around more, they seem to stand closer to me, they seem to call me up more often.

There are so many myths that we tell ourselves, so much negativity that can be piled on top of our fraught speech. But there is one clear truth – our stutter, our weakness, does not diminish us. Quite the opposite. Vulnerability draws people to us. We are attracted to people who don’t have a façade up, people who are raw and human.

So whatever struggle you are facing it is better to keep moving forward, keep making yourself heard, because hiding from the rest of the world is far worse than the struggle to spit out your words.

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.

Out With It: My chameleon book

Out With It started off as a dream, a vague idea of finding myself in the voices of others. To face myself, to spend a year immersed in the subject I had spent a lifetime running away from.

As I started researching I got drawn into 100 lives across America. I spent a year as ‘the interviewer’. I listened to people’s lives, sat in their living rooms, drank their coffee and met their families. I became enchanted by each of them. What made them tick, where did they take their strength from, what worked for them, how did the rest of the world react to them?

I replayed their voices back as I transcribed their words, listened for the intonation in their voices. With my headphones on, blocking out the rest of the world, I was captivated by the variety of their stutterers, the specific cadence of each voice, their unique rhythm.

When I started writing Out With It I wanted to include all of the people I had met. Painfully I narrowed them down to a handful. My picks were neither the best nor the worst. They were just the ones I chose. The book that I wrote was a dedication to all 100 of them.

But it didn’t quite work. The characters didn’t stand out enough. The format of walking into someone’s home, or meeting in a coffee shop or even meeting on the street, started to sound repetitive. I was still hiding behind the stance of ‘the reporter’.

I had spent a year finding out about all these individuals. But, as different as we were, meeting each of them was like looking in a antique mirror. There were pieces where the reflection was dulled, where we didn’t reflect each other so clearly. But we had all worn the same shoes and any differences broadened my understanding, opening my eyes to pieces I hadn’t seen or known before.

What began as a book of oral histories morphed into a memoir. The writing was much more riddled with self-doubt and yet it was honest and vulnerable and I hopefed it would be compelling.

If I’m honest, I probably came to America searching for a cure. Not surprisingly that didn’t go so well but the book is about finding so much more than that. It is about the struggle we all make to accept ourselves as perfectly imperfect.

Struggle to write Out With It

Image courtesy of Don Moyer

10 interview tips that I learnt the hard way

I had a big interview this week (hence why I have been quiet on the blog front) so I started reading up on the notes I made years earlier about the art of interviewing.

At the end of 2008, I spent a year interviewing 100 hundred people around America. It was one of the most humbling and formative years of my life. I started off clueless. It was a crash course in the craft of interviewing and I learnt on the job. I know for sure that I started off terribly and got better (my apologies to my first few victims who sat across from me as I quizzed them Gestapo style and flicked through my reams of questions).

My year of interviews ended late in 2009 when I decided it was time to wrap up the research and start writing my book. Today it has been almost 2 years since my last formal interview.

Naturally I was vaguely petrified. My subject also happened to be one of the most famous journalists of our time. Things weren’t looking promising. So I decided to look over my notes and try to take some of my own advice. These were some of the interview tips that I came up with:

  1. A list of heavily researched questions might be a good framework but the best interviews are conversations. Largely one-sided conversations. People have stories that they want to tell. It is the interviewers job to get out of the way and let them tell it. Listening, really listening, matters more than anything else in getting a gutsy interview. Watch their bodies and their faces and their eyes. Listen for the inflection in their voice. Pay attention to what they are telling you not what you want to hear.
  2. Care about the people you’re interviewing. Take time with them, don’t hurry the process along. If they can see that you are genuinely curious about their thoughts they may open up to you. I spent 3 hours with Bill Withers. A lot of the interview was just chatting, getting to know each other. We giggled a lot.
  3. Let pauses linger. Silence can be uncomfortable but try to relax. Let the time expand and let them say everything they want to say.
  4. Looking stupid to them is worse than looking stupid to your reader. Lots of scientists I spoke to had to describe things to me as if I was a schoolchild. I have no doubt that they questioned my intelligence but I came away with a fuller understanding of the story than if I had feigned knowledge I didn’t have.
  5. Use lots of open-ended and follow-up questions: “What do you mean by that?”, “What makes you say that?”, “What happened next?”, “Can you give me an example?”
  6. Ask one question at a time. It is all too tempting to structure a multi-part question but don’t get complicated, don’t try and sound clever when you’re asking questions. Remember that it is the answers, not the questions, that matter. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don’t ask anything that could be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  7. Think about the timing. Don’t jump in with your hardest hitting question. You haven’t built up the trust yet. Start broad and go specific. On the flip side, don’t leave your most important question to the end. You might run out of time.
  8. What’s the news? Listen out for something surprising or something they haven’t mentioned before.
  9. Don’t self censor. Just ask.
  10. This may be a personal bias but I’m not a fan of phone interviews. My clumsiness comes out (I hung up on Jack Welch and Skype ruthlessly disconnected Emily Blunt) and I find it difficult to read people. My best interviews have been in people’s homes. Maybe it is a trust thing. I interviewed Bill Walton in his sitting room recovering from surgery and it was one of my most honest and moving interviews.

I’m still learning. Any comments or ideas for you would be amazing to hear.

Luckily the interview went well. I was nervous as hell but my recorder worked like a charm and my poor victim was an awesome storyteller. Now I just have to write something vaguely cohesive. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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.

What are you without a voice? Story of Roger Ebert

I’m here as a man who wants to communicate” – Roger Ebert, TED, March 2011

Those words were spoken by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, in a way. Maybe you saw the TED speech. Maybe you have long known about Roger Ebert’s life story. Maybe not. If you have not, see it here now. It will brighten your Monday.

TED is full of moving speeches given by shockingly eloquent speakers. This is no different. Except that Roger Ebert can no longer speak. His words were spoken by his wife Chaz, two friends John Hunter and Dr. Dean Ornish and Roger’s favourite computer voice Alex.

roger ebert

In 2006, surgeries for cancer took away Ebert’s ability to speak, and today he is forced into a virtual world where a computer does some of the living for him. Through his MacBook Pro, Ebert has found a way to continue to communicate and has escaped the silence that would have been his only option without today’s technology.

Ebert is a prolific writer. He continues to talk passionately to the world through his keyboard. On facebook, twitter and via his blog journal his voice is ‘normal’ and far more articulate than most. Idle chatter does not exist in his world, rather every word he types or speaks has meaning. He has a greater respect for language than most of the verbose world.

“What you see is not all you get”, types Ebert. He knows that most people have little patience with his speaking difficulties and that most people look away from illness. Yet he remains committed to connecting with his audience. At the end of the talk, he tells a joke through his ‘voice’ Alex. And it works, a belly laugh rolls forward from the audience. He explains how important it was for him to find a digital voice that could muster the right timing and inflection to tell a joke. He looks proud of the reaction.

Due to the missing sections of his jaw and the lack of engineering behind his face, Ebert perpetually smiles. Only his eye’s can register the emotion he feels. Watching them closely in the talk they once flashed concern for his wife but they largely remained joyful, twinkling as he acted out the words that were being read for him. He never looks like a man who feels sorry for himself. I sense that he doesn’t want our pity. Who does?

roger ebert

Ebert, before he was diagnosed with cancer, giving his trademark two thumbs up

Towards the start of his speech he says, “The act of speaking, or not speaking, is tied so indelibly to one’s identity”. Without a voice the written word has become central to Ebert’s way of living. He has a readership of thousands and thoroughly encourages online debate. His inner monologue has become public knowledge in a way that it might not have become otherwise. He has become a product of his ‘condition’ but not a victim of it.

My admiration is boundless.