Advertising Stuttering

by Patti Bohlman (Wisconsin, USA), Russ Hicks (Texas, USA), Mike Hughes (Canada), and Jim McClure (Illinois, USA)

The following four short papers tell the benefits the authors have found of "advertising" their stutter. You can post Questions/comments about the following papers to the authors before October 22, 2003.

About the presenter: Patricia Bohlman has been a speech and language pathologist for the Milwaukee Public Schools for 23 years. She has worked at several schools and this fall, changed to a new school within the MPS system. Patricia graduated from Marquette University in 1978 with a bachelors degree in speech pathology and theology. She finished her masters training at Marquette University in 1980 in speech pathology.† She has been a member of the NSA for over 13 years. She has a special interest in fluency as well as other areas in the field of speech and language. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and her 2 dachshunds. A Letter of Introduction
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 Balance
About the presenter: Mike Hughes is the executive director of Speak Easy Inc., a Canadian organization for people who stutter. Since 1984 Speak Easy has been providing information and support to adult stutterers, parents of stuttering children, professionals in the field, and the general public. Speak Easy's web site address is The organization also publishes a monthly magazine, Speaking Out, which is edited by Hughes, and has published over 200 issues. Truth in Advertising
About the presenter: Jim McClure is the co-founder of the National Stuttering Association's Chicagoland chapter. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and corporate public relations manager, and has headed his own public relations consulting business since 1990. Jim also is a veteran of the Navy and Naval Reserve, where he commanded two reserve units and retired as a captain. He served on the NSA's board of directors from 1997 to 2003, and received the NSA's convention dedication award earlier this year. Jim and his wife, Kathy, have two grown children. Advertising Stuttering: Overcoming the Barriers

You can post Questions/comments to any or all of the presenters before October 22, 2003.

by Russ Hicks.

I certainly don't have all the answers, but the idea of "balance" crossed my mind after reading what a couple of people who stutter shared recently. They said:

Let's say I have a GREAT big ugly purple scar right across the center of my face. I covered it up with make up flawlessly every day. I do such a good job of hiding it - people don't notice. So why would I want to point it out?? Stand up and yell...."Hey everyone - look at this GREAT BIG UGLY SCAR on my face....ewwwww!" that would be just plain silly. Then I'd be known as the great big ugly scar girl....where people would see the scar on my face - know I'm hiding it, and would always see it no matter what I did.
I'll never forget the experience when I first heard somebody else who stuttered give a presentation. He was a guest lecturer at a university course. I don't remember much of what he was talking about, but what I do remember is sitting there, absolutely mortified - oh my god, is that what I sound like! Then I understood that even the times when I thought I had been very fluent and overcome my blocks transparently, my blocks had stood out like giant towers. My mother used to say, "Everything in moderation..." to me over and over. I'm probably the most open person in the world about my stuttering. I'm involved with the National Stuttering Association and with several stuttering discussion groups on the internet. I frequently give speeches on stuttering. I'm also a significant stutterer. Listen to me for 15 seconds and there's no doubt that I stutter. I'm not severe in that I do 95% of my stuttering easily and openly, typically don't avoid words, and no longer struggle and get stuck in horrendous blocks that plagued me as a teenager. But I DO stutter and everyone around me for any length of time knows it.

HOWEVER, the one aspect of stuttering "advertisement" I struggle with every day is BALANCE. When is an appropriate time to talk about stuttering, and when is it NOT appropriate?

The critical factor here, in my opinion, is to truly try to understand how OTHER PEOPLE react to my stuttering. Not how I FEEL they react, but how they REALLY react. How much do they REALLY understand about stuttering and how big an issue is it with them? Yeah, it may be a HUGE issue for ME, but for me to assume they have my knowledge, passion, and interest in stuttering is probably not right. "A great big ugly scar" or "giant towers" which "mortify" them? Uh... probably not... Believe me I thoroughly understand that that is the way some of us may feel about OUR stuttering, but to assume other people feel the same way is probably a real stretch.

Let me give an example that recently happened to me. I was out on my walking trail one morning and this woman runs up to me and asks excitedly, "Please may I use your cell phone? I've just been 'flashed' down by the library!" I always carry my cell phone with me on my belt for emergencies so of course I said, "Sure, call 911 and I'll wait with you for the police." So we called 911 and walked up to the intersection to wait for the police. During all this time the conversation was TOTALLY involved with the flasher and oh-my-god-nothing-like-this-has-ever-happened-to-me-before.

As we waited and talked, I was stuttering as I always do and I gave her my business card which has "National Stuttering Association" on the top line under my name along with my phone number and email address. Did she know I stutter? OF COURSE she knew. Did we discuss it? No. Did I preach the gospel according to the NSA to her? No. We were both a million times more concerned with the flasher and the police and the kids than we were with my speech!

The world does NOT revolve around stuttering!

When the police officer arrived, he talked to both of us and - amazingly enough - the subject of my stuttering never came up! She got in the police car and I continued my walk. About 30 minutes later by the library I saw three police cars with their lights flashing. They caught him! And the woman was waiting in the police car to identify him! I stopped and the woman and I talked for some time about what had happened -- again - the subject of my stuttering never came up. Did I feel guilty? No. Jeez, we'd just collared a criminal! (At least helped collar one.) And the subject of my stuttering - ever so obvious - just never made it far up in importance to mention.

Since that time, the woman and I have met on the walking trail several times and have gotten to be friends. She's Shirley and I'm Russ and we sometimes share parts of our walks together. She's married with three kids, going to acupuncture school, is caring part time for her father in California, etc... I've laughed a few times when I've gotten stuck on some words, but we've always had more interesting things to talk about than my stuttering. Will I tell her - "ADMIT" to her - sometime that I stutter? Sure, I will. It just hasn't risen high enough on our morning topics to be that important yet. Top 10 list? Yeah. Probably 7th or 8th. But we haven't gotten down past 3 or 4 yet. Of course the flasher is topic 1 and school and acupuncture and family round out the top 4. Dogs will probably be next because I know she has two dogs as do my wife and I. Stuttering is definitely on the topic list, too - but IN ITS PROPER PLACE.

The moral to this story is to keep stuttering in perspective - the OTHER PERSON'S perspective - not yours. Balancing your passion to either talk about stuttering and your possible passion for keeping it a deep dark secret along with finding the balance point of the other guy's knowledge and interest in stuttering is not an easy task. It takes work and effort to understand things from the other guy's point of view. As my mother used to say, "Everything in moderation..."

Truth in Advertising
by Mike Hughes

"To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou can'st not then be false to any man" (Shakespeare).

Many years ago I attended a "stutterers' convention." During the course of one of the social hours, a young man was bemoaning the effect stuttering had on his life. He described going through different stuttering therapy programs, attending several similar conferences, and testing the effectiveness of an electronic device that masked the sound of his voice. He stated that, although he had found the device effective, it now was hidden away on a back shelf in his closet.

I asked him why, if the device had been so effective, he was no longer using it.

"Because," he replied, "when I wear it I can not hear my own voice."

"But," I exclaimed, "that is exactly what makes it work!"

"I know," he returned, "but I like to hear my own voice. In fact, I LOVE to hear my own voice."

I was dumbfounded by his answer. He had just gone through a recital of all the troubles caused by stuttering, all the techniques he had tried, all the conventions he had attended, all the money he had spent. He had done these things in an attempt to get rid of his stuttering. These attempts clearly proved that he DID NOT like the sound of his own voice, yet he still proclaimed that he did!

Not only was he lying to me but, more importantly, he was lying to himself.

Over the years, I have met many people who stutter. Some of the most zealous are those who have attended one or another stuttering therapy clinic. Upon completion of a clinic's course, many of them preach the virtues of the course, how it changed their lives, how it cured their stuttering, and all sorts of other miraculous claims. They earnestly preach this gospel, even while continuing to stutter severely! It is not that they can't hear their own stuttering; it is just that they refuse to accept reality.

I have been interviewed about stuttering frequently by all forms of the media, from newspaper to radio to television reporters. One of these reporters was a severe stutterer. As we finished our interview, I said to him: "You and I both know that we have to accept our stuttering before we can begin to manage it."

He glanced at me with a shocked expression on his face.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "I don't stutter. Sometimes I get mixed-up and forget how to say certain words or sounds; but I DON'T stutter." Anyone who knew this reporter would state that he stuttered. In fact, his name had come up in countless earlier conversations for that very reason. However, it would have been of no benefit to anyone if I had attempted to "burst his bubble." He wanted to avoid the truth--who was I to insist that he accept reality? I shifted the conversation to a safer topic.

The Stuttering Foundation of America produces some fine literature on the topic of stuttering. One of the best books, in my opinion, was "To The Stutterer," a collection of essays by experienced speech-language pathologists. A central theme running throughout the essays was the need to admit that you stuttered, to accept that you stuttered, to advertise that you stuttered. Several of the quotes are pure gems of honesty. To mention a few:

For most of us, stuttering is a life-long reality. Chasing the "Fluency God" or denying that we have a problem merely prolongs the agony. Before we can stop stuttering from controlling our life, we first have to accept the truth. We have to admit that we stutter; that we don't like how it affects our lives; and that we may never be "perfectly fluent." Once we take a good look at ourselves and accept who we are, we have taken the first step towards learning how to control our stuttering, or at least lessen its impact on our lives. We have to stop lying not only to others, but to ourselves.

How do we lessen stuttering's impact? We must stop trying to hide our stuttering and, instead, begin advertising that we stutter. We'll never make progress with our speech until we stop lying to ourselves and begin admitting the truth, both to ourselves and to the world. We may never become perfectly fluent--but we can become good communicators. We all know that stress affects the degree of our disfluency. The more stress we're under, the more disfluent we become. Why would we want to increase our stress level by trying to pretend that we don't stutter? Do we truly believe that we are fooling our listeners; that they can not detect our disfluencies? Come on now--face it! We are certainly not deceiving our listeners; if anyone is being duped it is ourselves.

As weird as it sounds, perhaps it is a benefit to be a severe stutterer. We know that we can not successfully pretend that we do not stutter, so it is useless to try. This knowledge can be liberating. Some of the most outgoing people I know are severe stutterers--but they have not imprisoned themselves by pretending to be something that they are not. Free of false pretense, many of them have become excellent communicators. Fellow topic contributor, Russ Hicks, is a fine example of such a person who has accepted the truth and gone forward to make the most of life.

At the same time, some of the most unhappy and bitter stutterers I know are moderate to mild stutterers who believe that they can hide their disfluency. They add a great deal of stress to their lives and put even greater strain on their speech. No one is fooled; not their listener, and not themselves. As a result, every misstep is seen as a risk of exposure and fills the speaker with dread at being found out. They must focus all their energies on continuing the deception and the inevitable mistake is seen as a failure which reinforces their fear of stuttering. Brick by brick, bar by bar, syllable by syllable, they construct their own prison until they permit stuttering to take control of their lives. Wouldn't it be easier to abandon this pretense and advertise our stuttering? To follow the principle of truth in advertising?

The truth will set you free!

A Letter of Introduction
by Patti Bohlman

I just transferred to a new school this year. In my past schools, (I had been at the old one for 14 years) there were always a few teachers that had great concerns about my working with their children. I was young and naive and didn't know anything about advertising. This time I decided to talk to the principal before school began. I also wrote a letter to the staff. I heard one positive response to it. But the other speech-language pathologist in the school heard many additional positive responses. The neat thing, is I didn't have any anxiety that first day because I didn't have to expect shock reactions to my speech. I am grateful to the NSA because I learned about advertising there. I knew about it, but didn't discover the power of it. Below is a copy of my letter:

August 27th, 2003

Dear Riley Staff,

I'd like to introduce myself to those who may not have already met me. I am Patti Bohlman, your new speech and language pathologist. While I am new to Riley, this is the start of my 24th year with Milwaukee Public Schools.

I have worked at Benjamin Franklin and 20th Street School (now Wheatley.) I have spent the past fourteen years at Siefert Elementary School. I am looking forward to becoming part of the Riley team.

When you meet me, it will be obvious that I am a person that stutters. In the past some staff members have had a concern about my stuttering. If you have concerns, please come talk with me. You will not offend me. Even if you don't have a concern, but just want to know more about stuttering, feel free to ask me questions. I am always willing to talk to anyone about it. I have taken a special interest in stuttering and have co-authored an article IDEA '97 and Children Who Stutter: Evaluation and Intervention that Lead to Successful, Productive Lives. (Published last year) I taught my first Mcpherson class this summer-The School Age Child that Stutters. I am active in the local stuttering support group of the National Stuttering Association. If you know of a teenager or adult who stutters who might want to attend, please let me know.

If children ask about my speech, please be open and discuss it with them. I usually tell them that the connection from my brain to my mouth doesn't always work right. This is a very simplified answer and not completely correct-but it satisfies most children at this age. For the classrooms that I pick children up from-if they are uncomfortable or curious about it, I am available to come in and discuss my stuttering with them. I have done this in the past with great success. It usually starts with me talking about my stuttering and then asking them if they know of anyone else that stutters or has another disability. The children tend to open up and discuss family members, relatives and friends with disabilities or serious medical conditions. It ends up being a very special time where the children feel good about being able to express their feelings about the "special" needs or concerns in their families.

Besides stuttering, I have taken a special interest in the writing process as well as the language that children need to know to understand math. I want to work with the staff to help the children on my caseload succeed in the academic areas. I also want to be active in the academic piece to help all the children at Riley. Collaboration of speech/language pathologists and staff can only help children. I am excited to be working with Pam Klemm because I know she has set a great example of doing this at Riley.

I look forward to working with all of you and the children this year and in years to come.

Sincerely yours,

Patti Bohlman

Advertising Stuttering: Overcoming the Barriers
by Jim McClure

Advertise your stuttering? Certainly the concept makes sense: Let people know up front that you stutter. That desensitizes both you and your listener and, in turn, reduces your tension and helps you speak more fluently. For me, however, putting this compelling logic into practice has been easier said than done (even when I block on the "a" in "advertising").

One barrier to advertising has been that like most of us, I grew up believing that stuttering is a bad thing to do. This is the traditional view of stuttering, of course. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted instinctively ≠- sometimes desperately -- to stop stuttering. The belief that stuttering is undesirable behavior has been the driving force behind centuries of stuttering treatment. There still are many speech therapies that aim at eliminating stuttering behavior, and no one who claims an instant remedy for stuttering is likely to go broke.

Because advertising your stuttering flies in the face of all of this social and emotional programming, it's counterintuitive: an unnatural act. Even though I am getting more proficient at bringing my stuttering out in the open, there's still a voice somewhere in my head shouting "ARE YOU INSANE? STUTTERING IS BAD! DON'T DO THIS!"

If you stutter severely every time you open your mouth, advertising your stuttering may not be that big a deal because it's obvious to your listeners anyway. Covert stutterers, however, have an additional challenge because they often can hide their stuttering successfully by substituting words or managing speaking situations. If your near-primal instinct is to NOT stutter, and if you have the option of passing yourself off as a fluent speaker, there's more incentive to hide your stuttering than to advertise it. That was my situation for many years. Because I am mostly fluent in many situations, I was a covert stutterer for decades and became a master of substitution and circumlocution.

I became attracted to advertising my stuttering for two reasons. First, I found it impossible to fool all of the people all the time despite my skill at putting up a fluent front. Severe blocks still tripped me up occasionally despite the speech modification skills I learned in therapy and my own avoidance footwork. Even when I was not unmasked by a stuttering block, my listeners often thought I was nervous, shy, indecisive or on the verge of a seizure. Being recognized as a stutterer began looking more attractive than the alternatives.

Second, I changed my belief system by participating in stuttering self-help. Organizations like the National Stuttering Association are changing the rules about stuttering. While I still want to speak as fluently as I can, I have learned that stuttering is NOT a bad thing to do. If you attend gatherings such as the NSA's annual conference, you quickly learn that we CAN speak freely while stuttering openly. Stuttering is no barrier to becoming an effective communicator and even an award-winning public speaker like Russ Hicks.

This mind-shift has made me a believer in advertising my stuttering. In the last few years I have been working on ways to let people know that I stutter without making a big deal of it, especially in situations in which I generally speak fluently.

I now mention my stuttering without fail whenever I'm in a public speaking situation. This vaccinates both my listeners and myself. People often react nervously to stuttering because at first they don't know what's going on. That's especially true for me because my stuttering typically takes the form of silent blocks instead of the repetitions usually associated with stuttering. Mentioning my stuttering up front lets my audience know that if I suddenly freeze in mid-syllable, nothing is amiss: I'm merely stuttering.

While I want to be considerate to my listeners, the main reason I advertise my stuttering is to help myself. Revealing my stuttering up front gets me off the hook for trying to hide my stuttering and removes any pressure to speak fluently. This frees me from the self-imposed pressure of worrying about my speech and saves the energy I used to spend anticipating verbal disaster. As a result I frequently do speak more fluently. And when I block, neither my listeners nor I get upset about it.

Here are some of the stuttering-advertising openers I have used:

When I was giving a talk on technology, I mentioned that I am a person who stutters. I told the audience that if I hit a speech block during my talk, it's not because I don't know my material but because my brain processes speech differently. I said I'd seen some recent research that suggested that stutterers' brains were wired differently... and that I was glad to hear that because I had always thought it was a software problem (which got a chuckle).

I was the last speaker on a panel talking about public relations disasters and how to recover from them. When it was my turn to present, I reminded the audience that since I am a person who stutters, they could get a real-time demonstration of Murphy's Law. My presentation had them rolling in the aisles and we all had a great time.

When I introduced a program on professional ethics, I noted that I am a person who stutters. "Like many stutterers, I stutter more on some words than others," I said. "By the luck of the draw, I tend to stutter more on the word Ćethics.' So if I stumble whenever I mention ethics, it's not a result of deep-seated feelings of guilt about my own ethical standard... it's just my pathology talking."

I am still working on ways to incorporate advertising my stuttering into my daily life. Advertising works for me in public speaking situations, and I hope to extend my advertising tactics to daily conversation, meetings, voice mail and other speaking situations. Changing the rules about stuttering is something each individual can do on a personal level, and being open about our stuttering is the first step.

You can post Questions/comments to any or all of these presenters before October 22, 2003.