Tag Archives: public speaking

A Stuttering-Dyslexic Brain Walks Into A Comedy Club: On writing and performing new comedy

NOTE TO READER:  In case you haven’t read my WordPress blog before, this is the raw deal.  I write in my full dyslexic glory without feedback from my regular editor.  It is likely that this will be a draft for another article or possibly one day a book, so please comment.  I would love to hear your differences in how your process speech or what science might say to explain my process.

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It had been awhile since I went hard on comedy.  I started working a full time job and a lot of my energy went into adjusting to my new duties and environment.  Luckily my job was with a college so in my winter break, and with an entering US president who offers so much richness to a Disabled comedian that I decided I needed to hit the open mics.  As my winter break ends I am reminded of the artistic process of doing comedy.  Developing material from the premises to bits, adding tags and experimenting with the intonation and timing of the delivered punchlines.  I am also reminded of how my dyslexia and stuttering interact with this process.  

 

As I stood in front of a small humble audience in Silicon Valley, that would eventually pay $8 for my gas money to drive 40 miles, I could see the juxtaposition of new and old material and how it interacted with my stuttering blocks and repetitions.  Old but trusted material was relatively fluent.  It reminds me of when I was religious affairs student government officer at Saint Joseph Elementary school.  The majority of my role was to saying morning prayer.  When I originally decided to run for the office I knew that the criteria of saying prayers would not be a problem because memorized and automatic scripts can eventually become fluent for me (this is not always the case for all).  I am sure when I was required to memorize certain prayers for my First Communion I may not have been fluent, but over time automaticity of speech takes over and bypasses the stuttering part of the brain.  Apparently my jokes about sexism in comedy and disability discrimination function similarly.  With enough memorization they become automatic and although I might stutter on some of it, I seem quiet fluent.  So fluent in fact that some audience members look confused about my stuttering material, as they did in the Silicon Valley bar for the first 3 minutes of my set.  Then we ventured into my new material and they quickly found out that I did actually stutter.

 

Most things having to do with language are processed on the left side of the brain.  Rhythmic prose seem to be processed from the right side of the brain.  Creating something that is language based and then speaking it tax the left side of the brain.  As a comedian with dyslexia and who stutters, my left brain is on double duty when I write and perform new material.  Knowing what topic pisses me off enough to talk about in front of an audience, figuring out the funny aspects in that topic, writing the setups, developing the punchlines, trying out tags (the extra little something after the punchline), trying out the material, often putting the word that I might stutter on at the end of the punchline, practicing the timing in the car, and finally manifesting this all in speech in front of the audience.  And then, as the shampoo bottle directs, RINSE AND REPEAT.  I do it again and again until I have each step down and it becomes so automatic that it is like saying the Our Father or Hail Mary.  Of course these jokes are far from the holy, but my guess is that they eventually get stored in the same place in my brain.  

 

I wanted to share this for a few reasons.  First of all we either talk about stuttering or dyslexia but there are so many of us that have both of these. It is like we have to chose one of these things as a community.  We rarely talk about their interaction.  I have observed that the more my dyslexia is highlighted in the function I am doing, the more likely I am to stutter.  I don’t know the neurology of how these two things work in tandem, but my guess is that the more my left brain needs to function, then the more my speech areas are exacerbated and the more I stutter.  Again I don’t know if a speech and language pathologist would say the same thing, but I know that this is my own experience of stuttering and how it feels.  

 

Secondly, I wanted to acknowledge the sometimes difficult experience of stuttering.  I almost always write about the discrimination or the social-emotional aspects of our experience.  I see these issues as the crux of the Disability experience.  Why should we be discriminated against because of how we, as dyslexics, process language, or we as people who stutter, express ourselves.  There is no known remedy of either of these aspects of myself, nor do I care about ridding myself of them.  I would love it if people not be assholes, so please work toward that.  Although I am not usually the merry sunshine type, I do like to talk about the positive experiences stuttering and dyslexia can bring like community and self-acceptance.  I usually do not focus on the function of language, in part because I think that is what people expect.  The media often focuses on how difficult it is for us to speak and not how attitudes need to be changed in how others accept our speech as part of neurodiversity.  Additionally, the nuances of speaking from dyslexia and stuttering is often ignored.  It just seems to complicated for the regular inspirational porn we tend to see on either stuttering or dyslexia.    

 

Nonetheless, sometimes after a long day presenting at an all day workshop my jaw hurts (stuttering) and I could forget my husbands name (dyslexia).  It also takes me a really long time to figure out comedy.  I use to get double time for taking tests in college.  For every hour that you took the test, I would have two hours.  I needed time to process what I was being asked and then what I would respond back with.  It feels the same for me in comedy.  In addition to the writing aspects, there is remembering what I want to say.  I also attempt to say it the same way every time, which can be difficult to pinpoint what I feel works and what does not.  I even have someone transcribe some of my better sets so that I can see exactly what language was used.  I then have to see what words I will almost always stutter on and how that might affect my timing.  I then might have to structure my jokes so that timing is more efficient in delivering my message.  I then go and practice the jokes in front of others, because as any person who stutters will tell you, we usually don’t stutter when we are alone.  When I do stutter when I am alone, then I know this stutter will likely be even more exaggerated when I am in front of a crowd.  

 

Are you exhausted yet?  Just thinking about it makes my left brain hemisphere hurt!  

 

The other night at an open mic I started feeling the frustration of my speech which I usually have an incredibly high tolerance for.  I am like a stuttering Zen Master.  I know that repetitions and blocks are going to come and go.  I know that when my stutter is a bit more at times, that it will eventually become less.  I have found that there isn’t anything exactly that I can do for it, I just know it will fluctuate.  My recent surge of energy has brought some frustration though.  Working on my new 8 minutes and word smithing for comedy timing along with stuttering timing, all while having dyslexia finally got the best of me.  How does a stuttering-dyslexic comedian express their frustration?  I ranted and somehow threw Marilyn Monroe under the bus (please forgive me Saint Marilyn!).  

 

To introduce my newest joke I used a feigned exaggerated speech pattern hoping to be more fluent on the word “married.”  Frustrated that I even had to do this, I shouted about the brain and how using a phony voice would help to ensure that the word “married” would come out quicker. I mentioned that Marilyn Monroe used this technique. Of course her double M name took me longer to get out than “married” ever would.  And that’s when I pondered out loud what I had been thinking since I first learned that Monroe stuttered, “why would a person who stuttered give herself a double M name?”  Of course it was not said in that classy kind of way. There may have been a stuttering F-word somewhere in there instead.  You can check out the video below (warning, explicit language and Trump critique at the end).

 

My stuttering got to me this week.  It wasn’t because someone asked me if there was an intrusive brain implant that could cure my speech or say that they could cure me by something they could do to me sexually (yes, I have had both said to me on multiple occasions).  But I also discovered something about stuttering and comedy.  As a comedian I create music.  I know this because the more that my material transfers over to the right side of the brain (which is the hemisphere we sing from), I stutter less.  The lyrics, the rhythm, the timing, the automaticity of the words are what make up comedy and utilized when I am on stage.  Stuttering has helped me understand not only how difficult the chore of comedy can be but also the preciseness of speech.  Wordsmithing punchlines and tags while figuring out why timing works this way but not that way is part of all comedy, stuttering or not.  Many artists look down on comedy as a lesser art form.  I think I just proved that a prolific and talented comedian is creating a symphony, they may be using the 7 dirty words, and working independently might I add, but the result is no less great.  I don’t know if there are functional MRIs that show the different parts of the brain in creating comedy and delivering it, but my guess the whole brain is lighting up.  I am just lucky enough to be the one who shows people at a late night comedy show how it all functions.  

Watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks1tea2JXF4

 

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Five Tips For Stuttering Your Way Through Presentations

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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.