Category Archives: speaking tips

Something to Consider on International Stuttering Awareness Day…

It’s that time of year again! That’s right, October 22nd is International Stuttering Awareness Day! As a person who stutters, 10/22 represents something very near and dear to my heart. In my career as an author, comedian, and educator, spreading awareness is the common theme that drives all my work. But what does “awareness” really mean? Most people are “aware” of stuttering: they know what it is; they know that it exists. But beyond that? How stuttering affects our lives, how it affects the way we interact with other people—the really important stuff—those things rarely enter into the mainstream discussion. So, in honor of International Stuttering Awareness Day, I thought I’d make a quick list of things I think we should all be aware of. I encourage other people who stutter to add to this list in the comments, sharing some of your experiences. I certainly don’t speak for all of us!

1. Beware Completing People’s Sentences

The name of my new book (shameless plug) is Stutterer Interrupted. Why did I pick that title? Yeah, it’s a reference to the Wynona Ryder thing, but, more importantly, it’s a reference to the fact that we are always being interrupted! It typically goes something like this:

ME:
“I would like p-p-p–”

OTHER PERSON:
“Pumpernickel? Pizza? Pasta?”

Like the picture says, “I stutter! You’re gonna have to wait for all my brilliant ideas.” Having someone guess my next word makes things uncomfortable, which makes it harder for me to communicate. Plus, their guesses are almost always wrong! Things will go smoother if the listener just waits for the person stuttering to complete their thought. We love attentive listeners!

2. Beware Unwanted Advice (on Stuttering)

Unless I’m asking for it—or better yet, paying for it—I don’t want any tips on how to “improve” my speech. I’ve gotten unsolicited recommendations for “miracle cures” that range from homeopathic remedies to sexual acts to divine interventions. And let’s not forget that timeless classic, “just slow down and breathe.” Usually, the advice-giver’s credentials consist of “my third cousin once-removed stutters… or wait, was it Tourette’s?” Occasionally, they turn out to be an actual medical practitioner or speech therapist, but that doesn’t make it any less inappropriate. There is a time and place. And that time and place is probably not at a wedding where the person who stutters is supposed to be having fun!

3. We Don’t Need to Be Fixed

That’s right! It is up to every individual to decide how they want to speak. Some people may choose to engage in therapy to manage their stuttering. Others may not. It’s a personal choice. I personally don’t feel the need to be fluent (i.e., able to speak without stuttering). My speech patterns are a part of who I am, resulting from a difference in my brain (or neurodiversity, as many of us call it). There are many types of people, which means many types of communicating.  A person who stutters can communicate with the same clarity and effectiveness as anyone else. We just happen to have a less common way of doing it. Which brings me to my next point…

4. We Are Part of the One Percent (Not That One, the Other One)!

People who stutter make up only 1% of the adult population. Incredibly, only one fourth of that one percent are women! That’s why I refer to myself and my stuttering sisters as unicorns… because we are rare and elusive things of beauty! There are downsides to being a mythical creature though. Since we account for such a small part of the population, we don’t get a lot of representation in mainstream culture. You have to scour the ends of the Earth just to find a good stuttering role model on TV. If a person who stutters does appear in popular media, they are usually depicted in a gimmicky way that isn’t really empowering. That lady on Oprah who “cured” her stutter by wearing headphones for five minutes? Sorry, that doesn’t really do it for me. Growing up in the 1980s, the closest thing I had to a role model was a cartoon pig who didn’t wear pants. Yeah, I wish that was a joke. One of the best ways to spread awareness is through honest representation in the media… so let’s have more of that, eh?

5. There Is a Stamily Out There

Because people who stutter are few and far between, it’s an extra-special kind of awesome when we run into each other out there in the world. Sometimes it’s almost like finding long lost family, or “Stamily” as many of us call it. Growing up, I always felt like I was alone. I never knew there was such thing as a stuttering community. When I finally discovered that community, it changed the trajectory of my entire life. I was no longer alone. I suddenly had role models. I realized I could do anything, even be a stand-up comedian. I just wish someone had made me aware of it sooner… so you better believe I’m going to talk about it for Stuttering Awareness Day! There are so many amazing organizations around the world that support and bring together people who stutter: The National Stuttering Association (US), The British Stammering Association, The Indian Stammering Association, just to name a few. The International Stuttering Association even hosts an online conference in October, in honor of International Stuttering Awareness Day (check it out HERE). Many organizations also hold conferences and conventions that you can attend in person. I am not exaggerating when I say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without these conferences. To be surrounded by nothing but Stamily for five days is simply mind-blowing—there’s no other way to describe it.

For a partial list of stuttering/stammering organizations all over the world, please find it HERE.

For T-shirts that say “I stutter! You are going to have to wait for all my brilliant ideas!” at: https://arkansas-tees.com/products/nina-g-stutterer-interrupted-brilliant-ideas-t-shirt

Thank you for reading this! And for celebrating International Stuttering Awareness Day! ❤

Photo and ballonery by Michael James Schneider

Transforming How We Think About Stuttering

I am happy to share one of the chapters from my book Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen (debuts August 6, 2019 but available for pre-order now).  One note before you read this offering.  I encourage everyone reading to think about how they think about stuttering (whether or not you are a person who stutters) and what you would like to think and feel about stuttering.  To assist, I have included a blank iceberg that can be used by people to create their own version of the stuttering iceberg.  You have permission to use this for your presentations, clinical work and wherever else it might be helpful!

berg brand

 

Transforming The Iceberg

I have very little control over my stutter. I wouldn’t even call it control; it’s more like I have to bargain with it. “Hey Nina’s Stutter, if I put on my ‘business voice’ and totally not sound like myself, will you let me get through this one phone call with a stranger?” “If I allow this word or that word, will you at least stay out of my next sentence?” I get exhausted just thinking about it. If I planned my day around Nina’s Stutter, there wouldn’t be time for anything else. Life is short, and I’m not going to waste it trying to control what I can’t control.

Stuttering is one of the few constants in my life. My hair has changed, my clothes have changed, my address has changed—but Nina’s Stutter is here to stay. It has never changed, and it probably never will. But the way I think and feel about it has changed.

 

I used to hate Nina’s Stutter. I was ashamed of it. I devoted the best parts of my youth to fighting it, instead of doing things that made me feel happy or productive. The more I missed out on life, the more I blamed Nina’s Stutter, doubling down my efforts to kill it. If only I were fluent, everything else would fall into place! I could speak freely. I could have boys ask me to prom. I could even follow my dreams and be a stand-up comic. All I had to do was stop stuttering!

When I write it down, it seems so ridiculous. How can some pauses and a few extra syllables take control of a person’s life?

That question became a point of focus for Joseph Sheehan, a clinical researcher and psychologist where?. Throughout his career, he observed that stuttering was typically more disruptive to a person’s emotional wellbeing than it was to their actual speech. In Stuttering: Research and Therapy (1970), Sheehan writes that “stuttering is like an iceberg, with only a small part above the waterline and a much bigger part below.” According to Sheehan, what most people think of as “stuttering” is only the tip of iceberg—the outwardly observable symptoms on the surface. But the emotional baggage that it carries—the invisible pain underneath—that’s the bulk of the ice. Sheehan organized these murky, underwater emotions into seven categories: fear, denial, shame, anxiety, isolation, guilt, and hopelessness. According to Sheehan, as the stutterer resolves these issues, the negative emotions begin to “evaporate.” This in turn causes the “waterline” to lower, until, finally, all that remains is the physical stutter. 

Sheehan’s book became highly influential in its field. The iceberg theory advanced a more holistic view of stuttering, inspiring professionals to consider more than just the sounds coming out of a person’s mouth. It also helped me think about my own experience. I have all those emotions below the water. I have felt guilty, for making people wait through a stalled sentence. I have felt isolated, especially before discovering the stuttering community. But most of all, I have felt shame, simply for speaking the way that I speak.

 Although it provides a useful framework, I don’t think Sheehan’s Iceberg presents the full picture. Sure, it explains the negative things we feel, but what about the other emotions? Just like everyone else, the life of a stutterer is filled with ups and downs, victories and defeats, good times and bad times. Even if your overall situation doesn’t change, things might look better or worse on a given day depending what side of the bed you wake up on. It’s all a matter of perspective.

If you’ve ever laid on the grass and looked up at the clouds, you know how easily perspective can change. One minute this cloud looks like a dragon; the next minute it looks like a bunny rabbit. Unless El Niño is brewing up an apocalyptic tornado, that cloud probably hasn’t changed much in the last sixty seconds. Instead, you let your eyes wander, reoriented your perspective, and unknowingly formed a different mental picture of the same thing.

If it can be done with literal clouds, then it can be done with metaphorical icebergs. Stuttering doesn’t have to be a bad experience if we change our perspective. Before I found the stuttering community, my perspective was all negative. I was isolated, ashamed, and everything else Sheehan packs into that sad popsicle. But when I found the National Stuttering Project during that summer in high school, something changed. I was no longer isolated–I had found a community. I was no longer ashamed. Maybe even… proud?

Sheehan writes about negative emotions evaporating until only a stutter remains. I disagree. When bad feelings subside, other feelings have to take their place. We don’t refer to happiness as “not sadness,” or confidence as “not embarrassment.” The negative emotions in Sheehan’s Iceberg all have positive equivalents. I propose that we can do more than simply make the bad feelings go away; we have the power to transform fear, shame, anxiety, isolation, denial, guilt, and hopelessness into feelings of courage, pride, comfort, community, acceptance, kindness, and hope.

So how do we do that? Although the negative emotions in Sheehan’s Iceberg are common to the stuttering experience, they are common because we live in a society that treats people with disabilities as substandard. But we don’t have to buy into it. All the weird looks we get in public, all the shitty images we see in the media, all the lowered expectations that people project onto us—they can all be thrown out and replaced with something better. Instead of struggling to conform to the ideals of a culture that makes us feel deficient, we can cultivate our own perspective and learn to love ourselves as we are. Every person who stutters has the responsibility to create their own iceberg—one that reflects their best possible self.

How we are perceived is largely influenced by how we perceive ourselves. When I began to accept my stutter, so did the people around me. Friends and family stopped offering advice on how to improve my fluency. People stopped thinking of me as a weirdo (at least after high school). Obviously there is a limit to how much self-perception can determine the views of others: I can’t force an asshole to stop being an asshole, as we’ve seen countless times in this book. But I can determine my own worth and decide which assholes are beneath me. I can share my values with the world, doing what I can to sway us from that asshole culture toward something more loving and equitable.

Promoting stuttering acceptance has been one of my greatest missions in life. Everyone who interacts with us, thinks about us, studies us, works with us, produces movies and TV shows about us, reports on us—they all have stuttering icebergs too! The strange and shitty ways they treat us stem from murky emotions below the tip of the iceberg. If we are ever going to overcome discrimination, we have to address the emotional baggage of these people as well. It’s not going to be easy. It’s hard enough to understand my own feelings toward stuttering, much less model them for others! All I can do is put myself in front of the public and try my best—in bars and comedy clubs, on college campuses, in online videos and social media, and now on in this book. Changing minds isn’t easy, but I’ll take that over trying to change how I speak.

 

Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen is available for pre-order now through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ingram, Baker Taylor and your local bookstore.  Debuts August 6, 2019!

apetizer
Image is a JPG, but a high quality version in PDF is linked below.

high quality base iceberg

Five Tips For Stuttering Your Way Through Presentations

brilliantideas

Most of my comedy life is getting up on stage and telling jokes.  Most of my professional life is getting up in front of people and training them.  All of my life is lived as a person who stutters.  People who stutter and even those who don’t, are surprised that an individual who stutters can command a room or have the “guts” to stand in front of people and talk.  I enjoy it and with the exception of neck, back and jaw aches on some days, I am pretty unaffected by my speech.  Of course, there was the one day when I stuttered and a piece of my breakfast flew out of my mouth and landed on one of the participants’ fingers but other than that stuttering doesn’t interfere with my stand up or when leading groups.

People who stutter email and message me all the time on Facebook and ask me how I can get up in front of people and talk and if I have any tips.  I thought I would offer some suggestions that would help my stuttering brothers and sisters, but might also help a broader audience.

  1. “I stutter and you are going to have to wait patiently for all my brilliant ideas”

When do you tell a person that you stutter?  Do you let it happen organically?  Do you talk around your the words that you think you will stutter on and strive for complete fluency?

These are all questions that I have asked myself.  I remember being in high school Speech class and constructing speeches where I took out every word that I thought I would stutter on.  Once I even did a horrible rap (on Doxidan-a popular laxative at the time) because I knew that I could be fluent if I rapped or put on a voice.  Oh my God, it was just awful!  Another time I had to work with a partner to review a movie.  We chose “Strange Brew” and I spent the entire time talking like Bob and Doug McKenzie (“take off, eh?) to achieve fluency.  No wonder I wasn’t popular with the boys!

Through the years I have embraced my speech.  Being around others who stutter has helped significantly, which is why I highly recommend finding a National Stuttering Association chapter or conference.  Seeing and experiencing people who talk like you is validating and an important step in self-acceptance.  With self-acceptance comes a level of comfort with how you speak and subsequently self-disclosure.  I personally, disclose my stuttering in stand up comedy or when doing presentations as early as possible.  If I am doing stand up, I do the first part of my set on stuttering.  If I am doing presentations or even when I am on a job interview, I state early “just so you know, I stutter so you are going to have to wait for all of the brilliant things I have to say.”  This usually breaks the ice plus I just told the people I am meeting with how I want them to respond to my speech and that I am a capable person.  The reality is that most people don’t know how to respond to our speech since we might be the first person they have ever met who stutters.  If we can mold their response to us it can save some awkward moments later on.  If time allows in my presentations, I will go more in-depth and share more tips and even talk about the cause of stuttering (current research indicates it is neurologically based).  I have included a clip from a presentation I did for the MGM Grand on Disability Awareness where I offer tips on how to talk to a person who stutters.

Everyone is going to disclose their stuttering differently.  You should develop a way that you are comfortable with and even try it out on different friends and family to see their response.  Remember, it is your stuttering, your presentation and your audience.  So many times as people who stutter we feel our speech is out of our control.  When doing presentations, you may not have control of your stuttering, but you do have control over your presentation so seize it!

One more thing.  Don’t apologize for your speech.  Your stuttering is a part of you.  Saying, “sorry but I stutter” is like me getting up and saying, “sorry guys, but I am a woman.”  How wrong would that be?!

 2.  Be passionate about what you are talking about!

You know what I don’t do presentations on and jokes about?  Things I don’t care about!  As a person who stutters I know that what I want to say is sacred.  I have not always been comfortable talking and when I have chosen to interject, it is because it is something I am so passionate about that I can’t keep quiet.  When presenting on a topic, be passionate and knowledgable about it.  If the thing you love is the civil war and the modes of transportation used at this time, then do your presentation on that (although make sure you have the right context to present).  If you love the thing you are talking about then your audience will appreciate what you have to say and the excitement for the topic will be contagious.  I always speak from my heart and try to relate to practical things in my own life.  Through the years I have developed an arsenal of stories that I use on different topics.  These stories can be planned into a presentation or, even better, may come up at spontaneous times, so people look like you are speaking off the cuff, but meanwhile it was already planned.

Loving what you talk about gives you context and expertise.  Participants will be impressed with your knowledge and you will feel that you are in a zone to be successful.

3.  “I just said three P words in a row.  Try saying that if you stutter!”

There might be times where stuttering may get in the way or come to the foreground of your presentations.  For example, in my stand up, when I am quoting someone who said something awful about my stutter and I stutter on what they say, I will add “but they didn’t stutter when they said it, that is probably a key point.”  I acknowledge that my stuttering is somewhat out of context.  I poke fun at the process of speaking but I don’t necessarily make fun of myself.  Another example, from my stand up act is when I say three P-words in a row (for the sake of keeping this essay PG rated I will leave the direct quote out).  After saying the sentence, I add “try saying that if you stutter, I had to practice that a lot in the car on the way here to say that fluently.”

The other day I was showing off Google’s speech to text software where you can speak into your phone and it appears in Google docs.  One of the workshop participants said she wanted to learn about hieroglyphics, totally a word I would stutter on, which I did when I spoke into my phone for the demonstration.  The software butchered my word and it came out funky.  I said, “Google speech obviously doesn’t like people who stutter.”  This demonstrated that the software had some issues for people who might not have standard speech and that I could have a sense of humor about the process of talking, but I remained a good communicator.

4.  Remember, good presenting isn’t all about you!

Not everyone gets this one, especially my professors I had in university.  When presenting, yes you are the focus but it isn’t all about you.  I think sometimes as people who stutter, we feel we have to command the room at all times and talk the entire time.  It is more helpful to think of yourself as a facilitator rather than a speaker.  Your goal is that your audience takes ownership of the topic you are presenting on.  Helping them develop what this means for them is a big part of that.  Some ways to do this include:

-Pair and Share: put people in pairs (sometimes I will have them find someone with the same sock, eye or hair color) and direct them on what to discuss.

-Walk and Talk Activities: have participants walk around the building or the block for a few minutes and discuss a topic that you give them.  This involves them in the topic and rejuvenates their brains to be able to sit through the next part of your presentation.

-Small, medium, and large group discussion.  People need to construct their own knowledge of a topic in order for them to buy into it.  Just sitting there listening to you is not going to do that.

5.  People who Stutter can be good communicators!

Many people who stutter have internalized the fallacy that we are bad communicators.  One has nothing to do with the other.  There are plenty of fluent people who could improve their communication skills and plenty of people who stutter who maintain strong communication skills.  Strong communication skills for presenting, whether or not you stutter include good eye contact, fluctuating the tone of your voice, body language, and using distance to emphasize your talking points.  Using these techniques in a way that is authentic to who you are is key.  I tend to be a silly person, at times kind of weird, and even in professional situations I try to remain true to who I am.  Using different voices, hand motions, walking around the room and making eye contact with every single person in the room helps to convey my objectives.

Using multiple modes of expression (visual, auditory, and hands-on) also helps communication.  Using powerpoint slides with pictures, videos, and music can also facilitate what you are presenting.  I even do an interpretive dance to describe the brain of someone with dyslexia.  Using other modes of presenting is just good teaching and presenting.  You are more than a speaker, you are orchestrating your audience’s learning and your mouth is just one of your instruments.

Nina G is America’s only female comedian who stutters.  She is also a keynote speaker, educator and author of the children’s book Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities.  New for 2015 she is consulting with individuals to make their presentations fun, dynamic and hilarious.  For more information about Nina and the services she offers, go to www.Ninagcomedian.com.  Also look for the debut of her one person show Going Beyond Inspirational in April.