I’ve already featured stammering quite often on this blog (see tag). Rather than expecting you to listen to this in the form of a six-hour podcast, these notes may serve partly as a reminder for myself, for others wrestling with vocal fluency, and indeed for anyone who knows anyone who is. But they may be of wider interest too: effective communication isn’t merely about disorders commonly identified as “stammering”.
We all labour under various habitual ailments through life, but on reflection the constant struggle with fluency is still an extraordinary experience. “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”, I spent the first forty years of my life trying at all costs to avoid stammering—indeed, to speak in public at all. And the more one struggles to avoid it, the harder it is to modify:
stammering is what we do when we try to avoid stammering.
It’s largely thanks to China that I have been gradually and belatedly chipping away at the iceberg of fear. I’ve even grown used to presenting the Li family Daoists and the Zhihua temple group on their foreign tours.
It’s a good start to confront the event itself, but monitoring one’s speech as one goes along is another challenge: I rarely catch myself in time as I use all the habitual fruitless little avoidance techniques—backtracking, trying to get a run-up (like crashing through a hurdle), and so on. In the end, it just about works, but there’s always room for improvement: a gamut of physical and conceptual techniques is available.
Among the substantial literature, from the days when I was doing occasional group therapy courses (and it’s not a one-off fix), I remain most impressed by
- Malcolm Fraser, Self-therapy for the stutterer (1987, 11th edition 2010!), available here,
which I heartedly recommend, even if I make only sporadic progress in implementing its suggestions. I note that it has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Lithuanian, Finnish, Slovakian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Zulu, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Arabic, Polish, Thai, Portuguese—and Chinese (5th edition here; for less helpful techniques reported in the China Daily, see here; and for my encounter with a stammering shawm player, here). That still leaves plenty of worldwide stammerers in need of the book’s guidance.
Like Life, speech therapy goes through fads. We can dismiss short-term solutions like sing-song inflection (indeed, singing), metronomic speech, finger-tapping, foot-stamping. Even prolonged (slurred, or perhaps legato) speech, while an important part of one’s toolbox, is only a temporary relief. We need a wide range of approaches at our disposal, without depending on particular crutches.
Of the major therapists (mostly sufferers themselves), great pioneers were Charles van Riper and Joseph Sheehan. So here’s yet another iceberg: we need to reveal all the accumulated covert behaviour that makes up our stammering. Therapy pays as much attention to psychological as to physical techniques.The basic aim is eliminate all such behaviour and avoidances, at various levels:
- To stop avoiding situations themselves. Of course, some situations are more stressful than others. At one end of the continuum would be spending time with a small group of old friends; at the other, delivering a worldwide live TV broadcast on an unprepared topic that one knows absolutely nothing about. Naked.
- To stop avoiding particular words (staggeringly common!): to catch ourselves substituting words, and stop it!
- And then, when stuck on a word, or anticipating a block, we mustn’t fear/avoid/postpone the sound of stammering.
Our goal shouldn’t be “fluency”, and certainly not to “avoid stammering”. Strangely, in solitary preparation at home, where blocks don’t naturally occur, it’s about reminding myself what they feel like when they do—manufacturing, monitoring, and then modifying them.
Conversely, during and after a presentation (or indeed just routine conversation), often I don’t experience fluency, I’m merely relieved at not stammering too badly. But to build on fluency we need that sensation.
- pausing: well-meaning encouragement to relax, take a deep breath, and so on, are of little avail when one’s efforts aren’t based on thorough preparation, So—instead of
internalize the experience of taking pauses (breathing!!!) while you
- keep moving forward—a major step to replace backtracking, postponing, or trying to get a run-up;
- monitoring: finding out what you do when you stammer, including extraneous bodily movements and eye contact; superfluous and counter-productive filler words;
- desensitizing and “easy/voluntary stammering” (stammering on purpose on non-feared words, in a variety of ways!): this can be an amazing sensation. See also here.
- modifying blocks: easy onsets, light contacts, extended sounds.
Putting it into practice
Thing is, modifying habitual addictive behaviour needs a lot of work: an investment of time and energy. One tends to have other things to do, and accept one’s wretched fate.
“It’s easy for you to say that…”
We should aim to enter speaking situations with forethought: to bear goals in mind. We’re advised to prepare before making a phone call, or asking for things in shops, or even talking with friends; again, the goal can be modest, like remembering to pause, or using a deliberate (easy) stammer at least once in such situations…
In private practice, extreme slowed speech is a great feeling; after all, public speakers vary in their speed of delivery, and some of the most effective are those who speak remarkably slowly (see below). But both this and voluntary stammering may be tough to practice in the heat of the social moment, as we flounder around helplessly, lurching from one crisis to another.
Conversely, in the company of the Li family Daoists I generally rise to the occasion. Whereas in London, not only do I rarely talk in public but I hardly ever talk to anyone at all, at my happy meetings with people in Yanggao, and on tour with the band, I’m propelled into constant sociability, often in the company of a large group; and then I manage public speaking with quite minor preparation. It’s so much easier when I’m on a roll. I love Li Manshan’s comment:
“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jieka “stammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”
Still, simply talking regularly isn’t a panacea if one merely reinforces negative behaviour. And even after relatively successful presentations in Beijing and the British Museum this year, I was taken aback by my disfluency at a more recent London appearance—a film screening that I had already successfully negotiated many times. With this reminder that I still constantly need to put in the work, I prepared more thoroughly for my latest presentation, and it went better again. I still wasn’t exactly monitoring and modifying, but at least I wasn’t avoiding blocks; I got through it, somehow—and that’s progress.
It can be tough for the audience too: I sometimes put in a little aside to help defuse mutual embarrassment, like “You may also like to entertain yourselves by trying to work out what goes wrong when I encounter a helpless b-b-block!”. Intriguingly, this sentence tends to emerge rather fluently—just to show how it’s all about being open.
Anyway, by now, with positive experiences to build on at last, I think I can just about do it; but it requires constant vigilance. I need to keep hearing myself stammering, which may involve manufacturing blocks in preparation, and then getting into the habit of modifying them.
* * *
To be fair, the bar for academic presentation is rather low. More often than not, the goal here seems to be merely to fulfill the embarrassing task of speaking at all, rather than the noble pure aloof form of silent text—an audience being no more desirable than in the toilet. One often witnesses mumbled delivery, avoidance of eye contact or any physical attributes that might suggest human communication, as if engaging the audience, even making one’s topic sound interesting, is some demeaning concession to populism. Stammerers probably shouldn’t find this a consolation.
Whether or not we’re afffflicted with a recognized bona fide imp-p-pediment, effective public speaking is much to be appreciated. While I’m deeply envious of fluent communicators, they too achieve their results with practice—like Robert Peston, whose random hesitant delivery, with its arbitrary accents and intonation, is brilliantly compelling, even while suggesting someone taking the p-p-p-mickey out of
de-li-ber-ate sssslo-o-owed speeeeech.
Effective therapy is based on getting the problem out in the open, and even posts like this are a tiny part of that.