About the presenter: Russ Hicks has stuttered significantly all his life. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and joined 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 is currently a DTM, a Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest rank in Toastmasters International. He founded the Callier Communicators Toastmasters Club in Dallas, the first Toastmasters club in the world devoted exclusively to people who stutter. He is a past president of the Dallas Chapter of the NSA. Russ was the NSA national Member of the Year in 2000 and serves as a webmaster for the national NSA website. He has a personal home page at www.russhicks.com.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2006.

Because I Stutter

by Russ Hicks
from Texas, USA

Let me be totally honest with you: I don't think I was ever discriminated against because of my stuttering. Probably I was just lucky, I know. I was always a good student, got my Bachelors in Electrical Engineering and Masters in Business Administration. My folks were always very concerned about me getting a decent job because of my stuttering so they insisted that I get a Master's degree just to level out the playing field.

My stuttering is very overt and moderate to severe. Listen to me for 10 seconds and you'll KNOW that I stutter. But my stuttering HAS changed considerably over the years. Let me tell you some of my story...

I started stuttering probably when I came out of the womb. By the time I was 10 years old it was severe enough that my parents sent me to a "speech correction" camp in Michigan where I learned - over and over and over again - the principles of fluency shaping. It worked for a month or so after each of my four summers in camp, but each time it came back with a vengeance. After my fourth summer, I was stuttering probably worse than when I started. It was very depressing.

I was always a geek throughout high school and college. I struggled greatly with my stuttering, but somehow I managed to get by. I never discussed stuttering with anyone except my parents and the people at camp. It was a taboo subject.

After graduating with my MBA I got a job in the defense industry at Texas Instruments in Dallas. I was a manufacturing engineer which was a pretty good blend of engineering and business. As long as I could get parts built and shipped on time, they could care less about my speech. I was never given any slack in oral presentations, and I just struggled through them. In a high tech company full of geeks - Geeks R Us - getting the JOB done was paramount. And I was damn good at that.

At TI I began working with computers. I flung myself into that business and became one of the founders of manufacturing computer systems there. I let other people talk while I worked tirelessly on those systems. I loved what I was doing and I helped TI build some of the most complicated systems in the world. And I didn't have to talk that much.

But speaking was something that was almost foreign to me. Yes, I had to give presentations, but I simply gritted my teeth and got through them. I knew that I could never be a decent speaker. But that was fine with me. Let me be a geek and leave me alone!

Then in about 1983 my world collapsed on me. I was relocated from Lubbock back to Dallas and I met a guy totally by accident who put a gun to my head and forced me to come to a meeting of the National Stuttering Association. Gosh, what a horror! I had a brief flash of hope that in the last 20 years they had found a cure for stuttering, but listening to the other people at that meeting, that hope vanished immediately. They sounded as a bad as me! I couldn't wait to get out of there. But amazingly enough that guy (who, in a cosmic turn of fate, turned out to be my dog's vet!) kept that gun to my head and he kept dragging me back to those meetings. I began to realize that maybe I could help other people out even if there was no hope for me. So I decided to stick around a while...

Two years later I had an opportunity to go to an NSA national convention in San Francisco. That sounded like fun, so off I went. At that convention I met another guy - with a gun! - who eventually forced me to join Toastmasters! My world was spinning out of control! All of a sudden I was getting involved with public speaking, the one thing in my life that I KNEW I could NEVER do.

But my hands were tied to that tiger's tail and before I knew it, I was hip deep in Toastmasters - and amazingly enough, thoroughly enjoying it! I couldn't believe it! My whole life was devoted to avoiding speaking and being a geek, but now I was thrust into the limelight in Toastmaster leadership positions and speaking contests - and I was LOVING it! I still stuttered but my speech was becoming much more relaxed and open. And I talked about stuttering at every opportunity.

One day TI asked me to be on a team of people giving technical demonstrations to junior high school students. OMG, not me! I stutter! But I was also in Toastmasters, so I figured it probably wouldn't be fatal. So I went to the school and stood up in front of a class of 8th graders and mentioned that I stutter, so just bear with me. Then I began to talk about radars, computers, modems, and all sort of cool geekish high tech "stuff." I must admit it was fun - stuttering all the while.

Then after class a girl in the back of the room came up to me and give me a folded up note and quickly vanished out the door. Puzzled, I opened up the note and it was a beautifully hand written letter which thanked me for coming to her class and making it so interesting. She said that she cries when people make fun of her because of her "problem." She ended with the words, "I will try to be like you and ignore my problem and go on towards success."

I showed that letter to the teacher in the class and she was dumbfounded! The girl was extremely introverted and no one at school had been able to communicate with her - until now. English was her second language and she had to translate back and forth between English and Spanish and as a result her communication skills were slower than the "normal" students. No, she didn't stutter, but she could relate to ME. The teacher said that I was the first person at the school who had broken through to her. I could hardly believe it. I could reach people who no one else could reach. Did I have a gift? Gosh... I stutter... no way... (I still have that letter hanging on my wall. It's one of my prized possessions.)

In Toastmasters I began to develop speaking skills and gaining confidence every day in my communications ability. It was like opening a door to a life I never knew.

When I was a Toastmaster Division Governor in North Texas (a fairly high ranking officer), I was asked to give a short talk at an officer training session on why we should progress through the Toastmaster educational training program. It was a fairly ordinary speech on a fairly ordinary topic ("Toastmasters is good") but my main point was that by developing your skills in Toastmasters, you have the opportunity to reach out and touch other people's lives. Toastmasters is not about Toastmasters, it's about LIFE! And the Toastmasters educational program allows you to develop those skills so that you can really DO those things required to touch other people's lives. That's ultimately why we're in Toastmasters.

It was not one of my better speeches but it filled the bill that day. And yes, of course I stuttered throughout the entire speech like I always do. No big surprise.

At the end of that session a fellow who had been sitting at the back of the room, a new Toastmaster who I had never seen before, gave me his business card and on the front he wrote "You've touched another life!" And on the back he had written some amazing thoughts about how my speech had affected him. He said that he was totally impressed at how I was able to deal with my "problem" and how amazing it was to listen to me talk without fear. He had some problems himself (don't we all?) and my short talk had inspired him to face his own problems and strive for success - like I had done!

I was dumbfounded that such an ordinary speech could have such an effect on anyone. I was also struck by the similarity to the girl's note in school that time several years before. Would I have had such an effect on people had I not stuttered? Uh... probably not... I carry that guy's business card with me in my billfold all the time. Along with the girl's letter, it is one of my most prized possessions. It's why I do what I do.

One day at TI a little Chinese girl came up to me and asked me to form a Toastmasters club for her Chinese Communications Support Group. They had problems communicating in English, they held back in group discussions because people would think they were stupid because they couldn't talk like other people. Fear of talking ruled their lives. "Hey," I said, "do you people stutter too?" The similarity of their communications problems and stuttering was amazing. No, they didn't stutter, but they faced the same problems we face every day! So this little Chinese girl reached out to ME for help.

So together we formed a new Toastmaster club at TI dedicated to Asian people. And this time ** I ** held a gun to her head and forced her to become the president of that club! She screamed and hollered in protest, but she went on to be the perfect president for that club. In later years she went on to form several more Asian-American Toastmasters clubs and has had a major impact on the Asian community here in Dallas. She even beat me to the rank of DTM in Toastmasters, and she always refers to me as her "best coach." She says, "Before Russ Hicks and Toastmasters, I was less than five feet tall. Today I am a ten foot tall GIANT!" Needless to say, I am extremely proud of all she has done. Together we have touched the lives of soooo many people!

Lee Reeves, the founder of the Dallas NSA chapter and a former NSA board chairman - as well as a good friend of mine - has always said "You never know who you touch." I never really understood the profound truth in that until I experienced it many times myself. The girl in school, the guy in Toastmasters, the little Chinese girl at TI, and many other people, most of whom I will never know, have showed me the truth in that statement. By simply standing up and facing your own fears you can be a role model to so many people who desperately need help facing their own demons. My fear was speaking, and by showing people how I was able to face my fears straight on - and still stutter! - I could be the role model that they so desperately needed in their own lives. It was a life changing revelation to me. My stuttering had given me a tool that I could use to reach out and touch other people's lives!

Today I speak to classes of SLP students at several universities and give talks on stuttering to lots of civic organizations. I give regional workshops to NSA chapters all over the United States and have given several keynote addresses to several national conventions. I have entered (and won!) some Toastmaster speaking contests - while stuttering like I always do. I am currently a DTM, a Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest rank in Toastmasters. I am still very active in Toastmasters, mainly in coaching, mentoring and judging these days, and living a speaking life that I could never have imagined prior to 1983.

And all this BECAUSE I STUTTER. If I would never have stuttered, I would never have had the opportunities that I've been given. I am living a truly blessed life because of my stuttering.

A professional speaker told me once that the most difficult problem for any speaker is to find a subject to talk about. But he said that I had a BUILT IN topic! I had a very important and personal message to tell the world. Now get my tail in gear and DO IT!

Is stuttering a gift? I don't know, but it's certainly been a gift for ME!

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2006.

September 29, 2006
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