In 2000, I acquired techniques/tools (via a self-help programme) that enabled me to achieve a high degree of control over my speech. But although I was able to speak well in that reassuring setting, I suspected that it would be difficult to transfer those gains into the outside world.
I knew (from past unsuccessful experiences) that merely focusing on the mechanics of my speech had only limited value. In order to secure permanent benefits, I needed to change my long-established mindset.
Persons who stutter (PWS) and, indeed, those who do not stutter, develop a mental blueprint of themselves. This personal concept is shaped by their beliefs and life experiences. It is also heavily influenced by what they consider to be their failures and successes; their strengths and weaknesses; their competency and self-worth; and their perception of how other people have reacted to them.
Our beliefs and self-image create the script by which we act out our lives – they set the boundaries to our accomplishments. Disempowering beliefs confine us; they reduce our expectations, restrain our attitudes and limit our future attainments. Throughout my life, everything I did was in accordance with what I thought I was able to achieve. These views dictated the manner in which I lived my life, restricting me from undertaking many things that I considered lay outside my scope.
Having acquired an understanding of the adverse effects of avoidance (namely that every time we avoid something, it fuels our fears), I adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards all such strategies (including word substitution).
I then devised an extensive plan of action that routinely placed me in speaking circumstances that I would, generally, have chosen to avoid. In effect, I expanded my comfort zones and did the things I thought I could not do. The more I challenged myself, the more comfortable I became in undertaking those roles. As a result of confronting my fears (and demonstrating that I could fulfil such tasks), my self-image widened to accommodate responsibilities I had previously shunned.
When I commenced treading those unfamiliar paths, I had to deal with the self-doubts and uncertainties that arose. However, I gained reassurance from the fact that many (if not most) people encounter varying degrees of apprehension/insecurity when undertaking a new role. Such feelings are NOT unique to PWS.
The thoughts that occupy our minds prior to engaging in a speaking situation are hugely significant. What we believe about ourselves, as well as the manner in which we perceive the environment that we are entering (or the persons with whom we are due to come into contact) will, undoubtedly, influence our approach and expectations. In addition, it will almost certainly have a considerable impact upon the outcome. If we convince ourselves that we cannot do something, it is unlikely that we will successfully fulfil that task. In fact, we will probably avoid it.
Our minds are extremely responsive to the thoughts that we generate within. This inner conversation is a constant feature of life and usually takes place outside our conscious awareness. Negative self-talk is the foundation upon which self-doubts are built and can be hugely detrimental to one’s confidence.
When we monitor what we say to ourselves, it enables us to identify (and then reframe) the destructive messages that we are conveying. If I detected that I was saying something potentially damaging, I immediately evaluated its relevance and, where appropriate, amended the wording.
We travel in the direction of our most dominant thoughts. That’s fine when they are positive and empowering – but extremely unhelpful when they are brimming with fear and negativity. Many people focus on what they don’t want, rather than what they wish to achieve. I chose to concentrate on becoming a more effective communicator, rather than focusing on not stuttering.
Within weeks of commencing my challenging journey, I joined the Association of Speakers’ Clubs (a public speaking organisation similar to Toastmasters International). Addressing audiences had always figured prominently amongst my list of fears – so it gave me an enormous thrill to stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and hold their attention. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I soon secured membership of two further such clubs.
After initially giving prepared and impromptu speeches, I volunteered to participate in formal public speaking contests (in competition with fluent speakers). I surprised myself by winning numerous trophies.
I expanded my comfort zones further by involving myself in a multitude of activities that allowed me to sample new experiences and environments. I attended Speaking Circles seminars; drama/singing/dancing classes; and personal development workshops (that incorporated assertiveness, self-esteem, listening skills etc). Indeed, I enrolled for anything that happened to be available. All I wanted to do was TALK.
Having grown up with a stutter, I had developed certain reservations about how I should speak. For example, I felt uncomfortable when speaking in front of a group, particularly in a formal situation. The accompanying sense of power felt totally alien; I was not accustomed to speaking assertively. As I did not wish to come across too strongly to my listeners, I felt obliged to compensate by toning down and holding back.
One of the most frustrating aspects of my speech was that I, generally, enjoyed a considerable degree of fluency when alone. I found it exhilarating to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and chatter freely with myself. Yet, in complete contrast, I could struggle immensely when in the presence of other people.
As a young police officer, I was required to give evidence in court. In the days leading up to a hearing, I would rehearse my spiel so that I became more familiar with the content. If the opportunity presented itself, I would visit the empty courtroom (in advance of the proceedings) and recite my evidence from the witness box. In the absence of an audience, I frequently spoke with authority and confidence. However, when the real situation arrived (maybe only 20 minutes later), and I was confronted by a daunting sea of faces, I often found it difficult to utter a single word. (As the result of my oral struggles, I was withdrawn from operational duties and transferred to an administrative role.)
Although I frequently experienced difficulties when using the telephone, I was most relaxed (and fluent) when speaking to someone with whom I was familiar – particularly when I was on my own. However, the moment someone else wandered into ear-shot, my speech would deteriorate. As soon as I became aware of another person’s presence, I would consciously reduce the volume of my voice. I did not wish to be overheard, just in case I happened to stutter.
I also resorted to using a quieter voice when requesting a ticket at a railway station booth; speaking to a hotel receptionist; or making an enquiry where I felt that other people might overhear the conversation. I was always acutely aware of those who might be lurking in the immediate vicinity.
In all these instances, my responses were heavily influenced by what I perceived others might think about me. Many people (including those who do not stutter) are pre-occupied with such thoughts and adjust their behaviour(s) accordingly. Approval and acceptance are dominant features in our lives.
During recent years, I have refused to judge myself through someone else’s eyes. My self-worth emanates from within – I am not dependent upon the approbation of other persons.
My new approach involved adopting a policy of greater self-acceptance and openness. I reasoned that if my listeners were aware I had a propensity to stutter, then they would be less likely to express surprise should I have occasion to stumble. Introducing that fact early in a conversation lifted a substantial weight off my shoulders. I was no longer on tenterhooks worrying about whether or not I might display some dysfluency. If it occurred, I knew that my listener(s) would understand what was happening.
I began speaking about my experiences (mostly with complete strangers) in the street; at airports; in planes; on trains; in stores/restaurants – in fact, anywhere. In addition, I commenced an extensive (and ongoing) series of talks to community organisations in an attempt to create a greater awareness about stuttering.
I also subjected myself to television, radio and newspaper interviews – revealing (often to substantial audiences) how stuttering has affected my life and career. Disclosing my “darkest secrets” to all and sundry had a hugely desensitizing effect. I am now totally at ease when discussing the subject with anyone.
Earlier, I referred to my tendency to speak less audibly in certain environments – it was yet another of my many coping strategies. But such actions exposed me to divided intentions. I felt that I was being pulled in opposing directions. On the one hand, I wanted to speak (or continue speaking) in a “normal” voice – while on the other, I felt the need to “turn down the volume” so that any dysfluencies could not be overheard by others. The ensuing mental tug-of-war created confusion and uncertainty, as a result of which I, invariably, stuttered/blocked.
As a means of countering this holding back behaviour, I decided to speak with greater assertiveness. On the occasions that I held back, it felt like I was driving a car with the handbrake applied. However, when I released the handbrake (and spoke more forcibly) my energy and confidence levels increased. Instead of “withdrawing into myself”, I discovered that I developed a more commanding presence.
Having vowed that I would never again resort to any kind of avoidance, I applied my new assertive approach to that aspect of my life. If a “feared” word loomed large on the horizon, I attacked it head-on. I went one step further and purposely introduced such words into my daily conversations. This proved particularly effective in enabling me to say my name – something that had always created considerable difficulties.
Prior to 2000, I routinely avoided using half of the alphabet and relied heavily upon synonyms. Today, as a result of forcing myself to say words that I always neglected, there are no letters/sounds/words that generate an emotional charge. Word substitution is a thing of the past.
Similarly, when confronted by circumstances that I would normally avoid, I refused to take a backward step. Instead, I became proactive and intentionally sought out fresh challenges in order to continue the process of eroding my fears.
M y desire to explore a more fulfilling lifestyle resulted from a chance meeting with a PWS who had successfully embraced public speaking. Until that moment, I truly believed that such a role did not lie within the compass of someone who stuttered. That fortuitous encounter caused me to question my restrictive thinking – sowing the seeds of an empowering belief that subsequently changed the course of my life.
The manner in which you view, behave towards, and speak to yourself plays a huge part in determining who you will allow yourself to be; what you will permit yourself to do; and how you perceive and live your life. Your relationship with yourself is of prime importance. How you feel on the inside influences how you come across to the outside world.
Those who dislike public speaking often rehearse negative scripts in their mind – telling themselves that they are ineffective speakers. Such negativity can be projected to the audiences, making them aware that the speaker is ill at ease. What we show to the world, it reflects back to us. So, if our body language demonstrates a reluctance to be undertaking that role, our listeners are likely to reciprocate by mirroring that negativity. They are unlikely to show confidence in the speaker.
When I entered the public speaking arena, I found it useful to tell myself that the experience would be enjoyable. I visualized myself delivering speeches confidently and drew encouragement from the many empowering speaking occasions that had become a feature of my life since choosing to step outside my comfort zones.
I began showing myself differently to others and was thrilled by the positive manner in which they responded to my more assured image and presence.
I abandoned my perfectionist trait and accepted that things might not always go according to plan. I also ceased to consider setbacks as failures. Instead, I chose to view them as learning experiences – stepping stones to future success.
I totally immersed myself in what I wanted to say, not how I felt I was saying it. I focused on the message(s) I wished to convey – refusing to be distracted by any unhelpful thoughts. Remaining `in the moment’ ensured that my mind did not stray from the task in hand. When we divert our attention and attempt to gauge how our talk is being received by the audience (or entertain concerns about possible mishaps), we lose focus. Our presentation will, invariably, suffer.
During the past 13 years, I have undertaken an extensive programme of talks on three different continents. I give myself permission to reveal whatever side of Alan Badmington I choose. I allow myself to let go of past inhibitions/restrictions. I can be humorous; I can be serious; I can be poignant; I can be informative; I can pause; I can vary the pitch of my voice, increase the volume or alter the pace. I do whatever feels natural, or appropriate, in that particular situation.
Every time I fulfil one of my many engagements, my intention is to make it a pleasurable speaking experience, irrespective of the occasion. I am driven by my intentions and do not focus upon any expectations of the outcome.
A few years ago I gave the eulogy at the funeral of a close friend. His death was sudden and unexpected – we had laughed and joked just 30 minutes before his sad passing.
I spoke with such commitment and passion that many of those present later confided they were reduced to tears. I didn’t deliberately set out to move the audience in that way; I spoke from the heart, harnessing my emotions to energize my delivery. It felt as though electricity was flowing through my veins. I was alive and vibrant, not focussing on controlling my speech in any way. I simply let go and fully invested myself in the occasion.
Similarly, ballet dancers pay scant conscious regard to the placement of their feet when performing “Swan Lake”. Concert pianists don’t inhibit themselves by focussing on the sequence of the keys. Proficient violinists/guitarists don’t concern themselves about the position of their fingers on the strings – the music simply takes over. Successful actors don’t concentrate on the individual words contained in the script – they engross themselves in the character they are portraying and “speak from that person’s lips”.
A good communicator is able to connect with an audience, even if he/she may not be fluent. As a public speaker, you stand apart from the crowd. Some people relish being in the spotlight, while others find it daunting. After a lifetime of dreading public speaking, it is now an exciting/integral part of my life.
By venturing outside my self-imposed boundaries, and entrusting myself to speak without holding back, I have discovered things about myself that I never knew existed. Skills/attributes/talents, that remained dormant for so many years, have finally surfaced. Unless we expose ourselves to risks, we will remain ignorant of our true capabilities.
Living a safe and predictable life denies us opportunities to discover just how
courageous and extraordinary we are. We gain strength and confidence each time we look fear in the face.
But, change doesn’t occur by retaining the status quo. If we continue to do the same things that we have always done, then we should not be surprised if we experience the same outcomes. I was dissatisfied with certain things that were occurring in my life, so I decided to examine the behaviours that were producing those unsatisfactory results. When I identified that certain behaviours were not serving me well, I chose to abandon them in favour of others that would enable me to follow a more expansive lifestyle.
If you do not challenge the beliefs that are holding you back, they will remain to shape your destiny. Your future will merely be a repeat of the past. My approach to oral communication is now so different. Throughout my life, it was simply a question of survival. Speaking was once a chore but now it is FUN!
I no longer have cause to utilise the physiological techniques to which I earlier referred. I abandoned them after a relatively short period of time. However, I readily acknowledge the important role that they played in providing me with a springboard (and confidence) to leave my safe harbour and explore uncharted waters.
Once I commenced my transformational trek, I gained momentum from the realisation that there are no limits to what we can achieve when we have faith in our inner resources. I learned that my past beliefs did not have to determine my future identity. I was fulfilling roles that I had always dreamed of undertaking; I was speaking in situations that I had principally avoided; and I was saying the things that I had always wanted to say.
The enhanced self-belief and self-efficacy (that I accumulated along the way) gave me the confidence to challenge myself even further. Having ignited the initial flame, I developed a burning desire to expose myself to greater risks. But, possibly, the most satisfying and unexpected aspect of my journey was the discovery that embracing uncertainty (and facing the unknown) can be such an exciting experience.
After years of frustration and under-achievement, I am finally participating widely on life’s stage.
When I worried what people were thinking
I surrendered my freedom of choice
To speak and behave how I wanted
It diminished my lifestyle and voice
Now I dance as if no-one is watching
An exciting new dawn has begun
I’ve abandoned my past inhibitions
And discovered that speaking is FUN
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