What to do when you have to talk

I’m a member of a few groups on Facebook for stuttering. Frequently on there I’ll see someone saying something along the lines of, “I have a speech tomorrow, and I’m so nervous, I don’t know what to do!” For whatever reason people are reaching out for help hours before they need to go up on stage or whatever to address an audience.

Now I think that the requesters probably skew young — you have a speech for class, or a presentation or whatever for a grade. I get that. Students aren’t the best at … planning.

But here’s the thing. You stutter. You knew when you started high school or college or whatever that you might have to speak. It’s been in the syllabus since Day 1. So what needs to happen is instead of looking at the syllabus and freaking out, preparations need to be made.

I know for me early on I’d see such a requirement and block it out of my mind. I’d freak out, but not in a constructive way. Since then, I’ve been able to slowly change my mindset. And I’d hope others could as well. What you should be doing before practicing any breathing exercises or pre-speaking mouth rituals, is making sure you’re head is in the right place. Instead of dismissing it like a long-term paper or other big project until the last minute, you have to accept that you’re different. You stutter. Your preparation for this is different than it is for others. Your friends can “be so nervous in front of crowds” and still pull off what looks like a nice fluent speech. You can’t. You never have, and that’s fine. But you need to make an exception to your preparation and go above and beyond.

Once you get it into your head that you can and will do this, it’s time to start getting ready. Let’s say it’s an oral book report. Here’s what I’d recommend — and what I’ve done before that’s worked for me.

  1. Read the book. Like, really read it. Don’t just skim it, don’t just read summaries, read it. Know it. Inside and out. Read some criticism of it if you can.
  2. Read parts of it out loud in private. Start to feel the flow of the words and how the author has strung the story together. Practice your breathing while doing this. Take a deep breath before every sentence, and then let it slowly out as the sentence unfolds.
  3. Prepare your report. Write it out, type it out, edit it. Scribble, revise. All of it.
  4. Read your report out loud. One paragraph at a time. Pay attention to your breathing, your pacing, your shoulders. Relax your shoulders! If you’ve been to therapy, practice what you learned there.
  5. Bonus: practice in front of a friend. I know, I know. It’s really hard. You’re covert, and you don’t want your friends to know.
  6. Bonus: practice in front of a few friends.

That’s what I’d say for doing a speech — you need to make time for it. Otherwise you’ll be up against it, barely having said a word of it, and barely being able to finish.

Remember that the idea here is to make better memories of your stuttering. If you do nothing, you’ll make the same memory. And as you grow older, your connection to a speech will be negative. If you put in the time to make the speech a little better, you’ll make that mental connection that preparation equals comfort, and comfort equals less stuttering.

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