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.