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.
The 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.