About the presenter: Russ Hicks has stuttered significantly all his life. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and joined the National Stuttering Project (now the National Stuttering Association) in 1985 and Toastmasters in 1988. He has had great success in Toastmasters, winning the Southwestern United States Regional Humorous Speech Contest in 1996, and recently attaining the rank of DTM, a Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest rank in Toastmasters International. He is currently the president of the Dallas Chapter of the NSA. Russ was the NSA national Member of the Year in 2000 and has a personal home page at www.russhicks.com.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to Russ Hicks before October 22, 2002.

The Gift of Stuttering

by Russ Hicks
from Texas, USA

The "Gift of Stuttering" eh? Is that anything like the "Gift of Typhoid?" Yeah, I know it sometimes feels that way, but I want to share with you some thoughts that may change your mind about that. Let me tell you three very personal stories that have gone a long way to convince me that stuttering is, indeed a gift. Just so you know, I am a VERY "overt" stutterer. You talk with me for 15 seconds and you will KNOW beyond any doubt that I stutter To know me is to know that I stutter. In truth that's probably made life a little easier for me than for those who have the skill to hide their stuttering. As my good friend Vicki Schutter recently said on Stutt-L in response to the statement "You can run but you can't hide," she said, "Yeah, I guess that's what's easier for us 'obvious' stutterers. When you know you can't hide, why bother running?" Yep, that's me.

Story number 1: You Can Reach People That Other People Can't Reach

Many years ago in the early 1990's I got "volunteered" to speak to some junior high school students about all the cool technology stuff that Texas Instruments builds. (I retired from TI in 1998.) The objective was to interest kids to science and math and the neat technical stuff that's involved in the high tech industry. I was scared to death to do that, but I thought oh well, how bad could it be? So with butterflies going crazy in my stomach, I charged on down there armed with disk drives, guided missile parts, integrated circuits, transistors, computers, calculators, modems, etc., etc. and launched into my pitch. I knew enough by that time to simply announce that I stuttered right up front - which I did. Just be patient with me even though it may take me a little longer to get my words out. No big deal. The class was actually a lot of fun and we talked about all sorts of things, technology stuff mainly, no mention of stuttering except at the start.

After the class was over, this little girl whom I had never noticed came up to me and handed me a folded up note. I smiled and thanked her for it, but I continued to talk with the teacher. The girl left the room and after a few minutes the teacher asked me what was in the note. So I opened it and here is what it said:

Mr. Russ Hicks,

I really appreciate you coming to our class to talk to us. Texas Instruments is a big company and I'm sure you are usually very busy, but you took time off to talk to us. I admire you because you have courage. Whenever someone talks to me and I have a problem and they make fun of me and I cry. But you aren't scared of your small problem which is why I admire you because you are a wonderful man.

I will try to be more like you and ignore my problems and go on towards success.

Thanks a lot,

I was pretty stunned and the teacher was absolutely floored. Sandra was a little Mexican girl who was really struggling with English as her second language. As a result of all the mental translating she was having to do, she wasn't as "fast" as the other students and she was in serious withdrawal in school. The teacher said to me, "Mr. Hicks, you are the ONLY person to have reached her since she had been in school this year. What you have done is amazing. You've just changed her life!"

I have that note in a frame on the wall in my office to this day. It is one of my most prized possessions.

Story number 2: Stuttering IS Your Message I am very much involved with Toastmasters, the public speaking organization. In 1995 I was a Division Governor in Toastmasters having 30 clubs (about 500 Toastmaster members) in my jurisdiction in North Texas and I was very open with my stuttering. As a Division Governor, when I visited my clubs I was treated like royalty, red carpet and all. I always let each club know when I was coming and they were all pretty excited to see THE Division Governor visiting THEIR club. On the vast majority of occasions I got to the club meetings at least 15 minutes before it started to give myself the opportunity to meet each person one on one, and to let them hear me speak - and STUTTER! I didn't want to have any surprises when I would speak to the entire club.

When a Division Governor comes to a club meeting, it's general protocol to give him or her an opportunity to speak. I always directed my remarks to the new Toastmasters in the club and encouraged them "go for it" and overcome their fear of public speaking. I got pretty good at delivering that message, and told my story of when ** I ** started out in Toastmasters and how terribly frightened I was. I ended up with words like "for goodness sakes, if ** I ** can do it, so can you!" There was always lots of nice laughter and nods of agreement, yes indeed, that's GOT to be true.

Then came that awful day.... For some stupid reason I was late leaving the house and got tangled up in the awful Dallas rush hour traffic. I finally got to the restaurant where the meeting was and had terrible time finding a place to park. Jeez.... not one of my better days! Anyway, I finally stumbled into meeting and didn't know a soul. Complete strangers. I hate it when that happens! Anyway I walked into the meeting about 10 minutes late to the words of "Here he is now, fellow Toastmasters! Please help me welcome our Division Governor, Russ Hicks!" Clap, clap, clap... I stumbled up to the lectern and smiled and launched into my standard spiel of when I started out in Toastmasters and how scared I was, yada, yada, yada, and "if I can do it, so can you!" ...

Dead silence... no smiles... you could hear a pin drop! I was aghast! What in the world had happened?

My mind raced at supersonic speed desperately trying to figure out what was going on and suddenly like a lightning bolt out of the blue it hit me! I had been fluent! All during that "wonderful" speech, I hadn't stuttered a single time! It was one of those wildly erratic fluency times for me! God, what makes that happen? And why did it have to happen NOW, of all times? The fact that I did NOT stutter made me exactly like everyone else there. I had ZERO credibility with my fear of public speaking! What was I talking about? What was my message? At that point there was NONE, and my speech had fallen flat as a pancake! Having people KNOW I stutter and SHOWING them what it was like WAS my message. But to them, I was just another guy flapping his lips.!

Anyway once I realized what the problem was, I threw in a TON of voluntary stuttering, and made at least a partially successful attempt to redeem myself. Once they SAW and HEARD me stutter, my credibility slowly returned and I was able to pick up most of the pieces of my message. To say that I learned a BUNCH that day is the understatement of my life! My stuttering IS my message to the world, and my victory overcoming that difficulty is what they needed to hear. Not becoming fluent for cryin' out loud! But stuttering and "feeling the fear and doing it anyway." That's a universal message and people respond to it! My WORDS were really nonsense. My ACTIONS in speaking to them was the real message.

Story number 3: You Never Know Who You Touch Several years later I was asked to give an address to a bunch of new Toastmasters in officer training. My topic was why they should work hard and advance in Toastmasters. I told them that Toastmasters is ultimately NOT about Toastmasters, but it's about PEOPLE and LIFE. That you use the skills you learn in Toastmasters to help other people, to reach out and touch other people's lives, to make a real difference in the world. Yeah, it's good to get your CTM, ATM, and DTM ranks in Toastmasters and to be Distinguished Clubs and accomplish all those things that Toastmasters pushes so hard. But that's only the school, not real life. Your real life accomplishments occur when you USE all the neat things that you learn in Toastmasters to touch someone else's life. Life is ultimately not about YOU but what you can contribute to OTHER PEOPLE. That speech was about 10 minutes long - a good speech, but certainly not a great one - and everyone applauded when I got done. Did I stutter? Does a bear live in the woods? Of course! Any time I open my mouth I stutter. That's just who I am. Anyway, after the session was over, this guy came up to me and gave me his business card. He was a total stranger to me. But on the front of his business card he had written:

"You touched another life."

And on the back in some of the smallest print I've ever seen he had written:

"Dear Russ Hicks: You AMAZE me! Sandra said it best, "courage" ... We all fight fear to overcome the obstacles that stand between us and our destiny. When we are faced with fear, we have two options: 1) Face it head on and deal with it, and 2) run from it. Oh how much we miss because we avoid our fears! The Bible says, "... in our weakness, there is our strength." There was a great power in your presentation because you made yourself vulnerable to encourage others. What a leader!!!!"

I carry that card with me at all times in my wallet. I felt - and feel to this day - so honored.

Those are just three of many stories I have about how my stuttering has actually HELPED me in life. I was able to reach the little Mexican girl BECAUSE I stuttered. I was able to reach the new Toastmasters BECAUSE I stuttered. I was able to touch that guy's life BECAUSE I stuttered. If I had been fluent, I couldn't have done those things.

To summarize:

  1. We are probably more sensitive to the human condition than most other people. There are tons of exceptions here, of course, but on the bell shaped curve of people, the middle of the bell for stutterers is probably skewed slightly more toward the sensitive side than the middle of the bell for fluent people. We inherently understand more what it's like to be "different" than most other people do.
  2. We are more courageous than other people typically are. Heck, we face challenges every day that a lot of people don't face in a month - or maybe a year. Courage could be our middle name - if we show it.
  3. We can be role models quite easily. By SHOWING our courage as we speak - facing our fears and doing it anyway - we can impart courage to other around us. We don't have to run into burning buildings or even risk our lives. All we have to do is speak.
Finally, I need to add that those of us who stutter also have an additional, very special "gift." We have organizations around the world that support people who stutter. I have found personally that such an organization (the NSA here in the United States) has become my family, and the love we share with one another is beyond amazing. I probably have more close friends than 95% of my fluent friends here in Dallas. And my friends are all over the entire world! I've been to more places and had more fun than almost anyone I know. I've stood in places like Boston and Chicago and Denver and San Diego... and asked myself if I would even be here having this much fun and be surrounded with my friends if I didn't stutter. And the answer for me is very simple: No way. No pink pill for me! I'll take my life just as it is thank you very much!

As you can tell, I really enjoy MY Gift of Stuttering!

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Russ Hicks before October 22, 2002.

August 12, 2002