Should Stutterers Join Toastmasters?
Posted January 13, 2011on:
A covert stutterer posted this question on one of the email groups. It generated lots of discussion and opinions. Another covert woman asked how do we actually show our stuttering at a Toastmasters meeting and “let the cat out of the bag”. This is what I shared as a response, not realizing that I had remembered this so clearly.
One of the best topics for a person who stutters to give a speech on is stuttering. That’s how I desensitized myself when I joined 4 years ago. My first speech the – “ice breaker” – I told my stuttering story, complete with how I tried to hide it, faking it, how I pulled it off, how it made me feel, etc.
The “ice-breaker” is supposed to be 4-6 minutes. Mine was 15 minutes, because I got emotional and choked up, and did not think I could finish. There was this huge long pause – a wait, actually - and all eyes were on me. This was the first time I had ever told people I had been hiding stuttering all my life. I was fired on May 4, 2006 and I gave this speech on May 23, 2006.
While the room waited for me to compose myself, a funny thing happened. I could feel the energy in the room shift. No one was annoyed, no one was rolling their eyes, no one was being dis-respectful. In fact, I could feel most of them “willing” me to finish. I don’t think they were going to let me out of the room unless I finished.
No one said a word. It was utter silence for 1-2 minutes, which seemed forever, and I willed myself to plod along and finish. I swear I felt that energy pushing me to finish.
When I was done, they all clapped like they do for everyone as I walked back to my seat. By then, my heart was pounding and tears were streaming down my face. There was more silence, as everybody wrote little comments about how I had done and put them in a basket and passed them to me. Next, the person who had been assigned to be my formal evaluator stood up and gave his opinion of how I delivered my first speech.
As he spoke, fresh tears erupted, as I realized what I had just done. I had just done the scariest thing I could ever have imagined doing to a bunch of strangers. My evaluator, Jim (who became my unofficial mentor) stood at the lectern for a sec, then began his evaluation by uttering one word: “Bravo”.
He said he and every person in the room learned as much as they ever would that night about me, about my courage, my resilience, my desire to communicate, my writing skills and my spirit. He talked of things like wearing my emotions on my sleeve, risking being vulnerable, daring to be so personal in a first effort. He also reminded me of time limits, which I can laugh about now, and how I had started a journey that he hoped I would be compelled to finish.
People came up and hugged me after as the meeting got over, and I did not read the little slips till I got home. All of them said something similar – that is was one of the most inspirational first speeches they had heard.
A year later, I gave my 10th speech, and Jim was my evaluator again. He referred back to that night, and many of the same people were there. I still go over time a lot, I still get emotional when I share personal stuff, but that’s what makes for compelling speeches.
People want to hear things that are interesting. Even people who don’t stutter can relate to identifying fears, working to overcome them, doing things anyway, feeling struggle and triumph at the same time.
Lots of people in my club affectionately refer to “Pam’s first speech” as an example of what Toastmasters can do for a person.
In my remaining 9 speeches of the first level, I talked about stuttering twice.. One objective was to speak on something I had researched. So I spoke about the origins of stuttering, best estimates at causes, resources – including support and therapy. I demonstrated the different ways a person might stutter. That was easy. I knew how to stutter.
The other speech was on Voluntary Stuttering, as related to helping people get over fears. I related fear of water to a person gradually stepping in, getting their face wet, holding their breath, dunking in water, etc, and what a person afraid of heights might do. Then I explained how voluntary stuttering helps to break the fear someone may have of stuttering publicly. I had everyone try it with a partner and had them do repetitions on their names.
Tackling the fears we have at Toastmasters is as easy as talking about what we know best. When we talk about what we know best, its easy. We already know the material.
Sounds easy coming from someone who has already done it, but I will never forget how it felt when I made that first speech. My heart thumped, my chest heaved, my cheeks were warm, my eyes were moist. How it felt walking up to the front, how it felt walking back to my seat, how it felt watching everyone write those little feedback slips – WHICH I STILL HAVE – and how it felt to hear a veteran Toastmaster say in his evaluation that I had inspired him and others.
We all have a first time doing everything. Members of my club tell me all the time they still have their first comments slips, they still remember the anxiety, the fear, the relief, the PRIDE. Everybody feels it – stutter or not. Most people rank public speaking as the greatest fear, even over death. At a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.
We all have to communicate in life. Toastmasters gives ALL OF US a place to practice, get feedback, and realize, that everybody has their own sweaty palms, dry throat, pounding heart, nervousness, desire to flee . . . . not just us.
Toastmasters has the potential to change lives. Check it out. Find a meeting near you and visit.