Public speaking can be a daunting task for anyone, but it can be especially challenging for people who stutter, like the leader of the free world.
President Joe Biden’s preparations for the highly consequential State of the Union speech last week included notations on his printed speech to help him navigate his stutter. His aides have observed that his markings on the page look like he is preparing a musical composition.
Though he describes his stutter as part of a painful past, Mr. Biden admits that he has learned much from having to deal with stuttering. He said in a 2016 speech at an American Institute for Stuttering gala: “It gave me insight into other people’s pain.”
The challenges faced by people who stutter (PWS) and former stutterers, including myself, offer valuable lessons in communication for anyone who seeks to improve their ability to connect powerfully with others.
Let’s explore those lessons and how they can make you a better speaker in any sphere. Here are eight ways to communicate better using some of the techniques used to manage stuttering:
1. Annotate your script
Preparation is key for anyone who speaks in public. This often involves writing out a script and making notations to account for your speech patterns and the outcome you want to achieve. Mr. Biden draws lines and blank spaces between words to remind him where to take a breath. He asks his speechwriters to write in clear and short sentences and to avoid acronyms.
Other modern-day presidents who did not stutter also made notations in their significant speeches. Ronald Reagan drew hash marks on his scripts to designate each chunk of 30 seconds, which he claimed allowed him to end his speeches on time. George W. Bush, who was not known as a strong public speaker, practiced with index cards and underlined words for emphasis.
2. Slow down and breathe
Many PWS learn to control their stutter when speaking in public using a variety of techniques. These may include slowing down their delivery, using pauses and breathing exercises, and focusing on the rhythm of their speech.
I find that taking more frequent breaths, particularly in anticipation of sounds that tend to trip me (R and P words are challenging), allows me to prepare my lips and tongue to articulate without delay. As well, enunciating every syllable makes for a staccato delivery that may sound awkward yet smooths the rough edges of long words.
3. Speak less and listen more
PWS tend to talk less and listen more. This is a wonderful skill to hone. Everyone wants to be heard, understood, and validated. We all want to be respected. And respect starts with listening. Really listening. When someone is speaking to you, resist the urge to prepare a witty response or place yourself in their story. “I know how you feel. The same thing happened to me.” Don’t speak right away. Learn to give undivided attention first. Being a skilled listener is the other half of what makes for good communication in every aspect of your life.
4. Make good eye contact
Listening to someone who stutters requires patience and kindness, particularly when they are struggling to get the words out, and may take much longer than a fluent speaker. Listening to someone who speaks with a heavy accent is not much different. This is your chance to “listen with your eyes” and refrain from finishing the person’s sentence or saying the word they have difficulty uttering.
5. Enunciate and substitute words that trip you
Covert stutterers and those like me who have learned to avoid certain sounds rely on word-switching and circumlocution tactics. That means using simple words with fewer syllables and avoiding verbosity. I find that breaking complex sounds into syllables helps navigate troubling letter combinations. This technique can also work for non-native English speakers with accents. For example, why attempt to say the word cir-cum-lo-cu-tion when com-plex speech would do?
6. Practice relaxation techniques
Deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness help PWS feel more at ease when speaking in public. By accepting their speech patterns and relaxing into the moment, stutterers are often able to speak more fluently. The opposite is also true: the harder they try to be fluent, the more tension mounts, and the struggle multiplies. This applies to people who don’t stutter, too. The more you surrender to anxiety and fear, the worse you will speak. Though small doses of fear serve to energize your performance, a major case of stage fright will sabotage the best-crafted speech and all your preparation.
7. Get help and support
Having support from others who understand your challenges can be a huge help when it comes to public speaking. PWS can gain valuable guidance by joining a support group or working with a speech therapist. Similarly, non-stutterers can derive great value from working with a public speaking coach or participating in a local Toastmasters club. These resources can help individuals get out of their comfort zones and gain confidence in their speaking abilities. My leap out of a pattern of silence and avoidance came when my undergraduate studies in broadcast communications required me to host a radio talk show. Speaking into the microphone was my “life or death” moment which showed me that I could control my stuttering when it really mattered.
8. Accept your unique qualities
I often write about loving your topic, your audience, and yourself as essential to good public speaking. This mindset is fundamental for people who don’t stutter as well as those who do. The secret is self-acceptance and the belief that you have something of value–gifts of knowledge and inspiration–to offer your audience. By accepting your speech patterns and making peace with your perceived weaknesses, such as stutters, accents, lisps, and other disorders, you can all learn to become masterful communicators.
Public speaking can be a challenging task for anyone, but with the right preparation, techniques, and support, you can become a confident, impactful, and engaging speaker regardless of whether you stutter or not. The stuttering community promotes acceptance of disfluency as a different way of speaking and encourages stutterers not to let their speech patterns hold them back from greatness. You, too, would benefit by not allowing fear, foreign accents, mental blocks, and other barriers to keep you from communications excellence.