Speak my mind: My journey towards effortless, not fluent speech – Jasper Syswerda

About the Authors: My name is Jasper Syswerda. I am a 25-year-old recent graduate from Wageningen University, The Netherlands, where I studied to become a meteorologist. Right now I am looking to get a job in that field. I have been stuttering since I was 12 years old. I enjoy playing the French Horn, playing in an orchestra and reading.

 

For a long time, I’ve strived to speak fluently. I thought that if only I would speak fluently, my life would be perfect. I would have lots of friends, say anything and everything I wanted and be the most popular person in town.

Does any of this sound familiar?

My guess is that it does. But stop and think about that assertion for a while. In fact, that would imply that our friends who don’t stutter all lead perfect lives. But we know that that is not the case. They too, strive for all kinds of things they don’t have. A degree, a job, a promotion, a husband, a wife, a house. In some respects, reaching for fluency is a lot like reaching for perfection.  I will come back to this point later. But first, let me introduce myself.

My name is Jasper Syswerda, I am Dutch, and I graduated recently from university. I stuttered since I was 11 years old. Now I am 25. Since I stutter two questions related to stuttering have been on my mind. Firstly, how can I overcome it, and secondly: why is it the case that I can speak perfectly well in situation A and yet totally lock up in situation B?

The first question is one many people who stutter have asked themselves. How can I stop stuttering? Is there a cure? Sadly, there isn’t one quick fix. There is no red pill we can take that makes the whole thing go away. Possibly someday, an overall cure will be found, but that day hasn’t come yet.

The second question I have asked myself endlessly is: why does fluency fluctuate so much? Why is it so that I can speak perfectly fluent one day and struggle so hard to get a word out the next? This is a question, I feel is not asked often enough. And that, in my opinion, is unfortunate, because asking this particular question leads to all kinds of interesting discoveries, and that has induced me to speak my mind in this ISAD paper today.

For one thing, if we’re able to speak fluently in certain instances, that clarifies that stuttering is not a permanent part of us. It seems, ironically, that the harder we try to not stutter, the worse it gets. If, on the other hand, we’re not particularly thinking of stuttering – if we’re just having a good time and aren’t focused on our speech that much, the words flow more easily.

It dawned on me that for example every time I was ordering something in a restaurant, I would be very focused on saying the words. Breathe well, form my words carefully, speak at the right volume. All the while the waiter would be looking down at me, sometimes a little impatient, and I would be struggling to get my order out. What if, I asked myself one day, I did it in another way? Henry Ford the founder of the Ford Motor Company, has said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” So instead of giving my order, and feeling pressured to do it quickly, I asked: “What do you recommend I take?”, or some similar question. Then the waiter responded to me, and we would have a conversation. When I did that, something funny happened. In some sense psychologically, the waiter stopped being a waiter. Instead he became a fellow human being. Someone you can just have a conservation with.

I feel that we people who stutter, have conceived the idea that speaking is a very difficult undertaking. That it takes effort to get words out. That we have to speak as fluently as possible and that we, therefore, have to speak perfectly.  Striving for perfection is a very human trait, as I said in the second paragraph. But aiming for perfection in speech seems to, ironically, cause stuttered speech. The only thing we, in contrast to people who do not stutter, have taught ourselves is that speaking asks for an effortful approach. In mildly stressful situations, we try to say every word, because every word in a potential threat. Also, we have established a forward-looking radar, which scans all the words we want to say. That radar puts red flags on potential stutterwords. A lot of the time, those potential stutterwords are the most important ones in our story, the ones we really HAVE to say, in order for our story to make sense.

My point is, that in situations I stutter more, I subconsciously or unconsciously try to speak with more effort. I try harder. But in situations in which I am having fun, I feel less the need to try hard to speak. In those situations, I speak in the same way as people who don’t stutter. In an effortless way, without the need to try hard to get words out. But then, when I am made aware of my stutter again, the need to try to speak kicks in again.

Since I have been made aware of this, speaking has become much more fun. I don’t speak fluently, but that is not my ultimate goal, no more than doing everything perfect all the time is my ultimate goal. While speaking I am focussing on the thoughts I want to convey, and I am focussing on the message I want to get across, and not so much on the words that the thoughts consist of.

I got all these insights from a number of books I have read over the last year, written by amongst others John Harrison, Bob Bodenhamer, Barbara Dahm and Ruth Mead. I also like to thank the Broca Brothers, two Dutch guys who paved the way for me.

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Comments

Speak my mind: My journey towards effortless, not fluent speech – Jasper Syswerda — 26 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your paper, Jasper. It reminded me a lot about the book, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, he talks about how, for example, a professional tennis player doesn’t have to think about how to swing his or her tennis racket in order to hit the ball. But once he or she thinks about it, the swing doesn’t end up hitting the ball. I’ve often noticed how sometimes I don’t stutter when I don’t think about it. I guess it’s this phenomenon in action!

  2. Very good paper Jasper. I very much agree with your conclusions. I have all the books you mention and attended a Bob Bodenhamer course in London some ten years ago. John Harrison was also there. The way ahead nowadays seems to be the less interference the better. Good luck in all you do.

  3. I like how you are so self aware with stuttering and that you have decided to have more fun and essentially “free” yourself of the perfection of getting the words right so that your speech is more effortless. You mentioned that you are able to speak more fluently when you are not too focused on your speech. Would you say your speech is more fluent or less fluent when you’re with family at home?

    • Well, that depends on my state of mind when I speak to my family, but generally I’m more fluent. Glad you liked my paper.

  4. Hi Jasper,

    Thank you very much for your paper, and for sharing your experiences and thoughts about stuttering. You bring up wonderful points, that we could debate and enjoy for hours, but I would like to address two points and give my thoughts on them.

    I do agree with the assertion that speech should be effortless (thank you, Ruth Mead!), and that the more we interfere with it the more interrupted it becomes.

    However, I, personally, do not find that simply not thinking about my speech results in stutter-free speech. I do not find that if I am having fun then I do not stutter. I think that we are doing PWS a disservice by telling them to not think so much about their speech.

    Being focused on breathing, on saying the words right, on controlling the volume, and, in the extreme of fluency shaping, controlling our vocal cords, does, in my experience, make my stuttering much more of a struggle than it needs to be. This ties directly in to your point about perfectionism.

    For me, I have decided that I do not need to speak perfectly, as determined by someone else. Fluency shaping caused me emotional (and financial) harm.

    I can be perfectly aware of my speech, and I am aware of it all the time, and still have it flow. If I am not fighting against my stuttering and my fear of stuttering, my speech flows well even if I am stuttering. When I apply effort, I stutter more, but this does not mean that stuttering is due to the effort in the first place.

    But, these are simply some of my thoughts and opinions about what you wrote. Thank you very much for your paper.

    Hanan

    • I’m glad you liked my paper. I put some controversial things in there, and it’s entirely probable that you have some different ideas regarding some things than I do. Everyone’s thoughts and feeling towards stuttering might be different. I’m not having fun all the time I speak fluent or effortlessly (you simply can’t have fun ALL the time :p) but I do think there is less chatter in my mind when I speak without thinking of all the words I say. To some extent it’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing. Which one comes first?

      In my view it does have to do with perfectionism. But to what extent and in what form might be different for everyone who stutters.

  5. Hey Jasper – great thoughts. I totally agree with you. I had similar “aha” moments when I finally realized that if I just stop trying so hard to not stutter, I’ll stutter easier and therefore much more comfortably.

    I do not mind stuttering now as much as I used to. I used to be absolutely consumed with worry over how others might judge me, fear of sounding stupid or being laughed at, made fun of or just dismissed.

    Now that I just stutter, things are so much easier. I “stutter fluently.”

    Pam

    • Thank you for your comments, Pam.

      By the way, I like your podcasts, and listen to them with great interest:)

  6. Hi Jasper,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with the world! I am currently a graduate student studying to become a speech-language pathologist, and I was wondering (if you don’t mind me asking) were you ever enrolled in speech therapy, and if so, what was your most beneficial activity/strategy your therapist introduced you to? We have learned about various techniques/strategies in class, but that doesn’t always generalize very well. Thank you in advance for your time! -Elizabeth

    • I did have speech therapy when I was about 13 until I was 16, but that wasn’t of much help, unfortunately. I do follow some occasional therapy now, via the Broca Brothers, whom I mention in the paper. What helped me now is the notion (provided by the Broca Brothers) that fluent speech is in some sense not something that needs to be sought. Because we already speak fluent (or effortless) when we are alone, fluent speech is not a concept that needs to be taken from the outer world, we have it in us already. That might be a somewhat controversial notion, but it’s one that helped be to view stuttering from a different angle.

      Glad you liked my piece!

  7. Hi Jasper,
    What an inspiring story. I am also wondering, as Elizabeth asked earlier, did you learn your techni

    • Whoops, the computer cut me off there! As I was saying, did you learn your techniques solely from the books that you mentioned or did you receive some form of formal therapy? Based on your recommendation of the Broca brothers, I looked them up and found their TEDx talk. I agree, they are very inspirational! As you mentioned, they too talk about re-configuring their view of a situation by removing the negative associations in order to be able to fully express themselves. I think that idea is embodied with your effort to humanize those around you, such as the waiter, as it makes it easier to then speak fluently. Have you tried similar techniques with strangers you meet say at the gym, waiting in line at the bank, etc.?

      Thanks again for sharing! Anna Park

      • Thank you for your comments. Regarding your question, I do try to use those techniques in other situations, and they work, to a variable degree at least. In job interviews for instance, it still feels more difficult to see people as just human beings without their role as employers. But I’m working on it 🙂

  8. Jasper,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with the world! I very much agree with everything you mentioned in your paper. It is incredible on how much you have learned throughout the years! Continue doing what you are doing and good luck to you!

  9. Jasper,
    Thank you so much for sharing your journey to a way of being that feels more free to you. I really love how you bridged the mental divide of mine between people who stutter and people who don’t in that the striving for an image of perfection isn’t what betters us in any case, but rather finding out how we work best and focusing on that. As a new student of SLP this has given me a very important perspective!

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience, Jasper! I loved how you spoke about striving for perfection and how changing your attitude towards this helped you relax and even enjoy conversations! I can understand how daunting it may be to be consistently stressed about the words you need to use. I’m glad you were able to find a way to have fun for the sake of interacting and connecting with people- what communication is really about! I wonder though, as many PWS report, that this is an ongoing thought process? I find myself even in waves of anxiety versus confidence and always have to practice little reminders to get back to a state of relaxation. Do you have any practices like this?

  11. Jasper, what a great point of view you have! I have never heard or thought about your take on what makes your stutter worse. I like how you turn that stressful situation into something more “normal” to make your speech more effortless and less stressful. Have you found this works for you more often than not? Thanks for sharing your story! As a future SLP, I’m glad to be able to learn from this!

  12. Jasper,
    Thank you for sharing your story. It was very interesting to hear that point of view. I was wondering, since you say that feeling like you have to speak perfectly make your stuttering worse, what is something that you have been able to do to help you from feeling like you need to be this perfect speaker?
    Thanks again for sharing and I hope to hear back.
    Brianna

  13. Jasper,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story about your journey! You seem to have a very positive perspective and outlook on your stutter. Do you believe you have reached a point of acceptance? If so, would you say that an SLP was supportive of you throughout your acceptance process? I am a future SLP and I would love to know how to properly support and encourage a client who stutters.

    Thank you!
    Emily

  14. Hello! I am currently a undergrad student studying to become a speech-language pathologist, and was curious if you ever enrolled in speech therapy? What was your most helpful activity or strategy your therapist familiarized to you? Thank you so much for sharing your story! -Nicole

  15. Jasper,
    Thank you for sharing your experience with stuttering. It is very informative for those of us who do not stutter to get an insight on the views and perspectives of those who do. I agree being perfect is not an ultimate goal, but I love how your outlook on stuttering is very positive. It’s great how you strive to find different strategies to aid you in communicative situations. Thank you again for sharing!

  16. Hi Jasper,
    I am a speech student and I enjoyed hearing your point of view and thoughts. I was very interested in how you brought up the different situations in which you may feel more or less pressure to speak clearly and how that actually effects your speech. What could those without a stutter do to help those with a stutter more comfortable in speaking? or avoid doing to not make the person more pressured or nervous?
    Thanks for sharing!

    Sam

  17. Hello Jasper,
    This is such a great paper. I was wondering, and I am not sure if this is a stupid question, I am also musically inclined and I was wondering if your stutter affected your playing of the french horn. My understanding of stuttering deals with airflow, so I was wondering if that is affected or just the use of words when oral resonance occurs.

  18. Hi Jasper,
    I am currently a undergraduate student, studying to be a Speech Pathologist. What an awesome perspective you learned on fluency. What you are saying is exactly more important than how you convey it or how you are able to say it outloud. It is unfortunate there is not an entire cure for stuttering, but allowing yourself and all people in general to accept that we are not perfect human beings and just foucs on the goal in front of us is important. Instead of focusing on how perfect something can be, it is like you said more fun if you enjoy it more and it becomes easier along the way. Have you learned any other techniques that have enhances your ability to convey a message, whether it was through Speech Therapy or simply advice from others?
    Thank you so much for sharing!
    Mariah