About the presenter: Pamela Mertz is an active member of the stuttering community, including NSA and FRIENDS. She is a 5-year Toastmaster, currently serving as an Area Governor. Pam blogs at "Make Room For The Stuttering" and publishes the FRIENDS e-newsletter "Reaching Out". She serves on a Board of Directors for an agency that serves adults with disabilities. She is involved with a Story-Telling circle and also actively volunteers with The Arts Center of the Capital Region. Pam hosts the popular podcast, "Women Who Stutter: Our Stories". Pam is a full-time high school Access and Support Specialist. She lives in Albany, NY.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2011.

I Stutter! How in the World Can I Join Toastmasters?

by Pamela Mertz
from New York, USA

I have been in Toastmasters for five years. To say it has been a great experience would be an understatement. Toastmasters values and supports individual growth and fosters courage and confidence. I am proof of that!

I know many people who stutter who think they cannot possibly join Toastmasters just because they stutter. That is not true. Anyone can join and benefit from Toastmasters. All that is required is a desire to speak, participate and push outside of your comfort zone. A good Toastmasters club provides the rest.

And what do I mean by a good Toastmaster's club? I always recommend that people should visit a few clubs before joining. Like buying a pair of shoes, find the club that has the best fit. It is free to visit and observe as a guest. Most clubs welcome this. Look for a club with good energy, obvious camaraderie and support, and humor.

Make a mental checklist. Did you feel welcomed when you arrived? Did someone come up to you and introduce themselves? Did you get some material about what Toastmasters is? During the meeting, were you given a chance to introduce yourself? Were you given an option to participate or opt out if you prefer? Those are the things you should look for.

Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org ) has clubs everywhere, literally. There are chapters in 84 countries. Meetings are held mornings, lunch times, evenings and weekends. Some meet for an hour once a week. Others meet for two hours twice a month. Some are closed groups, meaning they are restricted to employees only of the corporate Toastmaster chapter. Others are "open" - meaning anyone can join. Those are the ones you should look for!

Joining Toastmasters is not just about practicing public speaking. It's also about having fun, getting to know other people, and developing new contacts and networks.

Having a safe environment to practice different speaking situations and know that people actually want you to succeed is priceless. We don't find this everywhere.

Workplaces and classrooms can be intimidating for anybody, but especially for people who stutter. It may be encouraged that you "speak up" but sometimes we fear negative consequences.

If you stutter, all of these situations can be even scarier. Toastmasters clubs welcome and encourage every member to build on strengths we already have and work towards personal and professional goals. It is a non-threatening environment where members simply support one another. Sometimes, we "nudge" each other along a bit too!

Over the last year, I have focused on leadership and mentoring new members. That's also part of Toastmasters - paying it forward and passing along what has helped us to the next person. I take meeting roles and enthusiastically participate whenever I can. All new members are assigned a mentor if they want one! Take advantage of that!

At a recent meeting, a person was to be Toastmaster of the meeting (like em-cee) for the first time. She was a little nervous, had spent a week emailing members, getting bios together and planning. She really wanted to do well. (I suspect she is a bit of a perfectionist like me!) There were two planned speakers on the agenda. Both backed out at the last minute.

While we were waiting for the meeting to start, I mentioned that some Toastmasters talk about having "back-pocket" speeches that they can do anytime. I half-jokingly mentioned that maybe we might have to do that at our meeting. Well, our Toastmaster called my bluff and asked if I would give an impromptu speech. How could I say no?

So, with only seconds to prepare, I rose to the challenge, walked up to the lectern and delivered a 7 minute speech called, "When It Rains, Get Wet". I talked about living life fully and shared the personal experience of participating in my first Corporate Team Challenge Walk (3.5 miles). Something I never thought I could do. Something way out of my comfort zone!

Unbelievably, it was one of my better speeches. I was comfortable, relaxed, animated. People commented on that in the written feedback slips we give to each other after anyone speaks. And when I finished, another member volunteered to give his second ever speech, off the cuff. Talk about risk-taking!

I share this for a reason. I was always afraid to take risks, especially speaking risks. I always feared that I would be judged as incompetent, just because I stutter. But I have learned that sometimes the best lessons are taught when we just let go and do it.

I have to share some of the feedback I got after my impromptu speech. It was so gratifying and affirming. I allowed these comments in and gave myself permission to feel good! We need to do that. We are so good at being self-critical, we also need to learn how to accept and feel praise.

"Smooth, fun story, nice build-up, happy ending, a lot of fun."

"Amazing speech! I felt your joy when you crossed the finish line. You inspired me to take a risk!"

"Great! Wonderful personal story! Engaging topic, excellent delivery."

"Pam, you are the ultimate risk-taker! Are you sure this wasn't planned? I wish I could be as confident as you. You did an awesome job. Great body movement and non-verbal cues. You totally rock!"

Normally, I would not share compliments like this. I often feel embarrassed. I know why - I used to feel I didn't deserve to be told I do/did a good job!

But taking this huge risk felt great and proved that good things happen when we go way outside our comfort zone. Toastmaster's clubs give us those safe, supportive environments to take risks.

But how does a person who stutters actually plunge in and "break the ice" and let other members of your Toastmasters club know that you stutter? We have to do that in order to make the stuttering a non-issue. Here's an example of how I did it.

One of the best topics for a person who stutters is to speak about stuttering. And stutter, of course! That's how I desensitized myself when I joined 5 years ago. In my first speech, the "Ice Breaker", I told my stuttering story, complete with how I tried to hide stuttering, fake being fluent, how I pulled it off, my feelings, denial, etc.

The "Ice-Breaker" is supposed to be 4-6 minutes. Mine was 15 minutes, because I got choked up, and did not think I could finish. There was this huge long pause - a wait, actually - and I felt all eyes upon me. This was the first time I had ever told people I had been hiding stuttering all my life. I joined Toastmasters in April 2006 and gave this speech on May 23, 2006.

While the room waited for me to compose myself, a funny thing happened. I could feel the energy in the room shift. No one was annoyed, no one was rolling their eyes, and no one was looking at the clock. In fact, I could feel most of them "willing" me to finish. I don't think they were going to let me out of that room unless I finished.

No one said a word. It was utter silence for 1-2 minutes, which seemed forever, and I willed myself to plod along and finish. I swear I felt that energy push me to the finish line.

When I was done, they all clapped like they do for everyone as I walked back to my seat. By then, my heart was pounding and tears were streaming down my face. There was more silence, as everybody wrote little comments about how I had done and put them in a basket and passed them to me. Next, the person who had been assigned to be my formal evaluator stood up and gave his opinion of how I delivered my first speech.

As he spoke, fresh tears erupted, as I realized what had happened. I had just done the scariest thing I could ever have imagined doing, to a bunch of strangers. My evaluator, Jim (who became my unofficial mentor) stood at the lectern, smiled, and then began by uttering one word: "Bravo".

He said he and every person in the room learned as much as they ever would that night about me, about my courage, resilience, desire to communicate, my writing skills and my spirit. He talked of things like wearing my emotions on my sleeve, risking vulnerability, daring to be so authentic in a first effort. He also reminded me of time limits, which I can laugh about now, and how I had started a journey that he knew I would be compelled to finish.

People came up and hugged me when the meeting was over, and I did not read the little feedback slips till I got home. All of them said something similar - that is was one of the most inspirational first speeches they had heard.

A year later, I gave my 10th speech, and received my Competent Communicator (CC) award. Jim was my evaluator again. He referred back to that first night, and many of the same people were there. I still go over time a lot, I still get emotional when I share personal stuff, but that's what makes for compelling speeches.

People want to hear things that are interesting. Even people who don't stutter can relate to identifying fears, doing scary things anyway, feeling struggle and triumph simultaneously.

Lots of people in my club affectionately refer to "Pam's first speech" as an example of what Toastmasters can do for a person.

In the remaining 9 speeches of the first level, I talked about stuttering twice. One objective was to research a topic. So I spoke about the origins of stuttering, best estimates at causes, and resources, including support and therapy. I demonstrated the different ways a person might stutter. That was easy. I knew how to stutter.

The other speech was on Voluntary Stuttering, as related to helping people get over fears. I explained how fear of water might include a person gradually stepping in, getting their face wet, holding their breath, dunking in water, etc, and what a person afraid of heights might do. Then I explained how voluntary stuttering helps to break the fear someone may have of stuttering publicly. I had everyone try it with a partner and had them do repetitions on their names.

Tackling the fears we have at Toastmasters is as easy as talking about what we know best. When we talk about what we know best, it's easy. We already know the material.

Sounds simple coming from someone who has already done it, huh? I will never forget how it felt when I made that first speech. My heart thumped, my chest heaved, my cheeks were warm, and my eyes were wet. I remember how it felt walking up to the lectern, walking back to my seat, watching everyone write those little feedback slips - WHICH I STILL HAVE - and how it felt to hear a veteran Toastmaster say in his evaluation that I had inspired him and others.

We all have a first time doing everything. Members of my club tell me all the time they still have their first comments slips, they still remember the anxiety, the fear, the relief, the PRIDE. Everybody feels it - stutter or not. Most people rank public speaking as the greatest fear, even over death. At a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.

We all have to communicate in life. Toastmasters gives ALL OF US a place to practice, get feedback, and realize that everybody has their own sweaty palms, dry throat, pounding heart, nervousness, desire to flee . . . . not just people who stutter.

Joining Toastmasters has the potential to change your life, like it did for me. Check it out. Find a meeting near you and visit. Toastmasters International is about getting better at communication. Being an effective communicator has nothing to do with fluency. I learned that right away.

So will you!

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the authors before October 22, 2011

SUBMITTED: July 13, 2011
Translate this page into your language

Return to the opening page of the conference