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.

Public Speaking for Stutterers

by Russ Hicks
from Texas, USA

"The number 1 fear in the world is public speaking. The number 2 fear is death. This means that when you are giving a eulogy in front of an audience at a funeral, you're in worse shape than the guy in the box!" Jerry Seinfeld

Why is it we fear public speaking? It's easy to see why we fear public speaking more than death. You die only once, but you may have to speak in public over and over and over. It's the repetition that's so scary.

I know why we fear snakes. Those horrible, slimy creatures can wrap around you and bite you, maybe even swallow you whole. I know why we fear heights. Because we might fall and splatter ourselves all over the pavement. (Or in my case because I might jump! Eeewwww!)

But public speaking? Why is that so horrible? There are two schools of thought:

  1. The fluent speaker thinks, "My mind will go completely blank and I'll look like a fool.
  2. The stutterer thinks, "I may not be able to say anything at all! -- and I'll look like a fool.
"Look like a fool", eh? Maybe we as stutterers have more in common with fluent people than we think. Certainly no one wants to look like a fool, especially in front of people we are trying to impress.

From an early age, we learn to "be like other people," to fit in and become part of the crowd. We wear the same clothes, eat the same foods, dance to the same music. . . In other words we respond to peer pressure to be just like everyone else. Everyone else is cool. Everyone else is always in the "in crowd." We are weird and are not part of the in crowd. We are different.

Sound familiar? Of course. Regardless of who you are. But when you've stuttered all your life, you KNOW how it feels to be different. Regardless of how other people feel, we who stutter generally have always felt different from everyone else. We've always had a devil of a time communicating, sharing our thoughts and lives like we see fluent people do with so much ease.

As a result, we've developed two axioms, two pillars upon which we've built our lives and our own self-perceptions.

  1. We ARE different from everyone else.
  2. Other (i.e. fluent) people have no problems whatsoever communicating.
Regardless of the fact that both of those axioms are totally wrong, we who stutter have tended to build our lives upon those foundations. So when even the thought of public speaking enters our minds, we recoil in horror at our total inability to do it, and simply don't believe for a minute that fluent people can be scared of public speaking. (Hey, you're fluent! What can you possibly be afraid of? I stutter. I KNOW what I'm afraid of.) Boy howdy, we've got a lot to learn!

Where do we begin? Like most everything else, we've got to identify the enemy.

The very act of finding the enemy is tough. My mother used to have a tongue-in-cheek saying that goes, "It's like the bear at the window. If you don't look at him, maybe he'll go away."

Then she'd look at me and see if I knew what she was saying. Sure Mom. If I don't look at my huge pile of homework, maybe it'll just disappear. If I don't look at the gas gauge in the car, maybe the car won't run out of gas. I tried both of those ploys many times in my youth before I realized that that's just not how the world works.

In later life, we learn the far more serious consequences of such inaction. Maybe if I don't have annual physical checkups at the doctor, maybe I won't get sick. If I were a woman, maybe that lump in my breast isn't cancer. Maybe. . . maybe. . . maybe. . . Maybe I should look directly at the bear in the window. Ya think? Wouldn't it be funny if he turned out to be a teddy bear instead of giant, vicious grizzly bear I've always thought? Hmmm. . . I wonder. . .

I could write this paper as a dry academic thesis of how a person who stutters can succeed in public speaking, and that, by obvious admission, is the purpose of this paper. But instead of writing in abstract terms, I want to briefly tell you my story and take you along on a trip that I never thought would -- or even could -- take place.

I met a fellow named Lee Reeves at a local high school where both of our daughters were students. He noticed that I stuttered and invited me down to a meeting of the National Stuttering Project here in Dallas. To say that I resisted is a colossal understatement, but he was bigger and tougher than I was, so I went. It took me several meeting to get comfortable with the NSP.

The next year I got up the courage to attend the third annual convention of the NSP where I met a fellow named Jim Black. A cross between Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and Tarzan, Jim's main goal in life was to conquer every fear he ever had. He would actively go through life searching for things that he was afraid of -- and then conquer that fear. "Do a first!" he urged us. "Find something new every day of your life and do it just to prove that you have no fear of it." And he lived his own life that way. He was a smoke jumper in the Pacific Northwest, parachuting out of airplanes into forest fires. He climbed mountains and lead "outward bound" youth groups on fearless expeditions in the wilderness. He dived off tall bridges into raging rivers hundreds of feet below. He seemingly knew no fear. And, oh yeah, he stuttered just like I did. Amazing. . . !

Jim had an electric influence on me. He spoke directly to my mother's "bear at the window" and before I knew what I was doing -- and how scared I was -- I joined a Toastmasters club at Texas Instruments where I worked. I was the only stutterer in the group of fluent people, but Jim's example of facing your worst fear and doing it -- with gusto! -- forced me to begin my life-changing adventures in Toastmasters.

My personal journey into the world of public speaking and Toastmasters has been told in several forums over the years, and I won't repeat all of it here. However here is the general sequence of events over my 11-year history in Toastmasters.

1985 - Met Lee Reeves and joined the NSP
1986 - Attended my first NSP convention, met Jim Black
1988 Joined Toastmasters and began giving speeches
1989 - Achieved the rank of Competent Toastmaster, CTM
1991 - Elected President of my club
1993 - Achieved the rank of Able (Advanced) Toastmaster, ATM
1993 - Appointed Area Governor over 5 clubs, about 100 Toastmasters
1994 - Elected Division Governor over 30 clubs, about 500 Toastmasters
1995 - Founded Callier Communicators, the first NSP Toastmaster club in the world
1995 - Won District (Northeast Texas) Humorous Speech Contest over 2500 Toastmasters
1996 - Won Region (SW United States) Humorous Speech Contest over 30,000 Toastmasters
1999 - Achieved the rank of Distinguished Toastmaster, DTM, the highest rank in Toastmasters

During this time I learned many important lessons, the main ones being. . .

  1. We're more like everyone else than we ever imagined.
  2. Fluent people are equally as (sometimes even more) frightened of public speaking as we are.
  3. Toastmasters are wonderfully supportive people. Our stuttering is not a major issue with them as it is with us. We're all in this together.
  4. Public speaking is a learned art. Anyone can learn it, stutterer or not.
  5. Effective communication is not a function of fluency. Communication and fluency are different concepts.

Over the years, I've been asked many questions about how stutterers can become effective public speakers. In the computer world, where I professionally come from, we call them FAQs, or Frequently Asked Questions. So here is an "interview" with myself, exploring a lot of these FAQs in a Question and Answer format. . .

Q.Don't you have to be brave to join Toastmasters? To voluntarily subject yourself to ridicule because of your stuttering?

A.Maybe. But I sure wasn't. I was forced into it virtually at gunpoint. If it wasn't for Lee Reeves and Jim Black, I'd have never done it in a million years. It would have never crossed my mind.

Q.Why would you do such a thing as join Toastmasters? Are you masochistic?

A.Hardly! I'm as chicken as the next guy. Would I join the Snake Handlers Society? Over my dead body! (Literally!) But handling snakes is something I'm not required to do very often. (Thank God!) But I'm required to communicate almost every day. Communication is what ties us to other people. It makes us more effective members of the society we live in. Bottom line, communication is extremely important for people. And it's important to learn to do it well.

Q.You talk about communication and public speaking as though they are different. Are they?

A.Yes, they are different, but they're related. Toastmasters concentrates on public speaking, but the principles you learn in public speaking are very applicable to general personal communications.

Q.What do fluent Toastmasters think of your stuttering? Were they surprised that you joined Toastmasters?

A.Ha, ha! The fluent people who joined at the same time I did were FAR more concerned about their own problems than they were with mine. No, they really didn't give my stuttering much thought. Far less thought than I gave it! They were interested in it, yes, but they certainly didn't obsess about it like I had. They were extremely supportive.

Q.Did they comment about your stuttering? Ask questions about it? How did they handle it?

A.Of course they recognized it. In my case you'd have to be deaf not to realize I stutter. Yes, they asked some questions about it, but they accepted simple answers about it very easily. It was far more of a non-issue than I ever imagined.

Q.What did they say about it?

A.Most of them gave me credit for courage to face my fears. Several times people would come up to me and say something like "If you can face your fears, then I can find the courage to face mine. You're a real inspiration to me. You're a real role model!" That made me feel very, very good! Imagine me, a role model!

Q.A role model for other stutterers?

A.Well, yes, I guess, but there's even more. Fears come in all flavors -- but they're still fears. One of my proudest times was when I was asked to help a group of Chinese employees of TI form a Toastmaster club for them. They were very hesitant about their own ability to communicate and they realized they needed help. Their problems are extremely similar to stuttering! I was amazed and very honored to be able to help. Their club has grown remarkably in the last few years, and hundreds of Chinese people have been helped by their work. And I helped start all that. That makes me very proud. Very, very proud.

Q.Speaking of forming new Toastmaster clubs, didn't you form one for the Dallas NSP?

A.Yes. The President of Toastmasters International came to one of my officer training sessions once and I told her about my involvement with the NSP. She was very interested and asked if I had ever thought of starting a Toastmaster club for stutterers. She thought that was a great idea. I admitted that, yes, the thought had crossed my mind, but. . . She interrupted me and told me to get that club started before she left office in less than a year. It was an order, not a request. When the President of Toastmasters International tells you do something, the correct response is "Yes ma'am."

We formed the Callier Communicators in June 1995 from the core of the Dallas NSP. Today the club is going strong and is a viable force in District 50 of Toastmasters International. About 75% of the people in the club stutter, the other 25% are fluent people, students, SLPs, and just people off the street who like to have fun. Next year the District Governor will come from this club. He joined us recently because he had heard that we are a fun club. Indeed we are. We have a blast! And in Toastmasters, the name of the game is FUN!

Q.Have you even been criticized for your stuttering at Toastmasters?

A.No. Never. Not one single time. Sure, my stuttering is mentioned on occasions, and people certainly don't avoid it. I've taught them not to. It's a topic to be discussed just like any other topic. Toastmasters don't criticize people for anything. It's a positive, supportive group, and criticism has no place in there. In the evaluations, we typically focus about 80% on a person's strengths and about 20% on suggestions for improvement. We work together as a good team, not as competitors tearing each other down.

Q.No competition? What about the Toastmaster contests we hear about?

A.Even contests are a team effort. We work with the winners so they can continue winning. When I won the District and Regional Humorous Speech Contests in 1995 and 96, I could never have done it without the support, help, and encouragement from my fellow Toastmasters. When I won at Region, the entire convention center erupted in more shouting, yelling, whistles, and applause than I've ever heard in all my life. It was a defining moment in my life. It was at that single moment that I knew that stutterers could compete with the best public speakers in the world.

Q.Did you stutter during the contest?

A.Ha, ha, ha! Sure! I stutter all the time! It's just that the judges didn't care. They thought I communicated more effectively than the rest of the contestants. I was more amazed than anyone else in the audience.

Q.Do you think any stutterer can do what you did? Be as successful in Toastmasters?

A.Yes, they certainly have that capability. I worked hard, very hard, to learn how to communicate as effectively as possible. I didn't work controlling my fluency at all. Within reason, that isn't important. Communication is what counts. And that's a learned art.

And I was lucky too. In speaking contests, there's always a large element of luck. Anyone who thinks it's all skill is wrong. The contest judges try to be as objective as possible, but in the end, it's really very subjective.

Q.How much time do you devote to Toastmasters?

A.Ha, ha! A lot! I belong to three clubs, participate in District activities and leadership, speak to many outside groups, and do lots of other Toastmaster "stuff". If you let it, it can consume your life. Some people collect stamps. Others square dance. Still others sing barbershop. I do Toastmaster things. And I love it.

Q.Is Toastmasters for everyone who stutters?

A.No. Toastmasters is for anyone who wants to improve their communication and leadership skills. Not everyone wants to do that. My wife, a fluent speaker, would rather be shot than speak in front of a group of people. She likes to knit and be a mother. Thank heavens we're not all alike!

I've often wondered if there wasn't some level of minimum fluency that makes public speaking worthwhile. My initial reaction is yes, there is. But just when I try to define it, a severe stutterer comes along and proves me wrong. I still wrestle with this question.

Q.Are there any other organizations like Toastmasters who can help stutterers in public speaking?

A.Yes. There are two that I know of. One is Speaking Circles, championed in the NSA by John Harrison. Its main focus is on the speaker-audience "connection" and the use of TV to see yourself as other see you. From what I can tell it's a good program, though certainly not as extensive as Toastmasters. It also operates with fewer people than Toastmasters does. A Speaking Circle can operate with as little as 4 people. It begins to break down at over 12. Toastmasters, on the other hand, generally requires about 10 people to operate smoothly, and can handle groups of up to 40 with no trouble.

The other program is a new one called SSP, or Situational Speaking Program, championed by Randy Hoover in the NSA. This group is similar to the Toastmasters basic Communication and Leadership program (the first 10 speeches in Toastmasters) but has been purposefully tailored for stutterers. I don't know much about this program yet, but with Randy Hoover behind it, it's got to be good!

If you're a stutterer and want to work on your communication skills, the moral to this story is JUST DO IT! Certainly, after being in Toastmasters for over a decade, I'm a little partial to Toastmasters. But just like saving money, it's getting started that's most important. Don't spend an inordinate amount of time shopping for a bank before you start saving. Do a little research, ask your fellow NSA members, your neighbors, your coworkers, and do what they do. You'll be amazed at who you can become.

I'll close with another of my favorite quotes:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

August 19, 1999