October 21, 2020

Public Speaking: Managing a Stutter


Resources , Public Speaking , Presentation Tips

Joe Biden has said his struggles as a boy who stuttered increased his capacity to feel empathy and gave him a fighter's spirit. He's also said that reading poetry aloud has helped him conquer his stammer. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

“Seventy-three million people have their eyes on your face right now. And you know that, in the view of many, what’s at stake in this performance is much more than the election.”

– Nathan Heller, writing about Joe Biden's debate speech and his stutter

For most of us, the pressure of public speaking is nothing to dismiss. Most people feel their nerves kick in—maybe a little, maybe a lot. Then, in debate and in many professional presentations, you have to be ready to veer from the script, to handle tough questions and challenges, and find a way to express your best ideas, think on your feet, and make sense.

Whew.

Now imagine you add another concern: You speak with a stutter.

Count us among the people who admire former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and anyone else who stutters for being able to deliver a speech with that extra challenge weighing on them. Because we know, from working with speakers at our school, it takes both courage and hard work. 

Biden's stutter and his honesty about his struggles have brought greater awareness to how stuttering affects people and some techniques for managing through it.

What exactly is stuttering?

As defined by the Boston University Center for Stuttering Therapy, stuttering is:

a speech disorder where the flow of speech is broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), prolongations (l-l-l-l-l-i-ke this), or blocks, which are abnormal stoppages (no sound) of sounds and syllables.

Stuttering is not caused by nerves or anxiety, though being nervous can make a stutter more pronounced or make stuttering more likely. The real cause is how the brain is wired, with a stutter usually appearing during childhood when the ability to speak is emerging. 

One approach to coping

An article in BU Today details the two-pronged approached the Boston University center takes to help people who stutter—breathing techniques and self-acceptance. According to experts, the two go hand in hand. 

Here's how Diane Constantino, director of the Center for Stuttering Therapy explained it:

You can do different things with breathing and your speech production that will actually give you more forward flow and less tension and struggle. If you're thinking, "I have to hide this," though, it's a different world than if you're thinking, "Okay, I stutter sometimes, and I'll do something different to try to manage it."

No single solution—yet

Writer Nathan Heller speaks with a stutter and wrote about Biden's debate performance for The New Yorker

On September 29th, Biden's verbal style was typical of smooth-speaking stutterers: fluent and dominant when he had a straightaway, recessive and halting at on-ramps and during lane changes.

Biden has noted that he usually marks up his addresses with places for breaths. Debates are harder, because the exact arrangement of material is extemporaneous—any breath planning also happens on the fly.  

Heller also points out that very little is known about what truly helps manage a stutter, despite the fact that people who stutter make up around one percent of the population: 

Physiologically, it seems to emerge from a locking of the vocal cords….But nobody really knows why the vocal cords lock.

Basically nobody stutters while singing, or speaking in unison, or talking with loud noises in the ears. In all these cases, it's unclear why. 

Learn more:

Find Nathan Heller’s complete article in The New Yorker about the miracle of Biden’s debate speech here.

Learn more about Boston University’s approach to stuttering and read some of their success stories here.

To find resources for speakers who stutter, try the National Stuttering Association website.

For more on Biden's early struggles with stuttering, see this story in The Atlantic by John Hendrickson. (Hendrickson also speaks with a stutter.)

And see how Joe Biden inspired one young man who speaks with a stutter to find the courage to make a speech, in the video below:

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