What to do when...

Making presentations

This section should be read in conjunction with the general section on managing stammering in the workplace. It offers some ideas that many of us have found useful. At the end of the section there is an opportunity to make comments on how well you feel these ideas work – and to add your own ideas.

The vast majority of people dread public speaking, regardless of whether or not they have a stammer. In 1973, The Sunday Times conducted a survey asking people to reveal their worst fears. The second most commonly mentioned fear was the fear of death. The most common was public speaking.

Stammering is no barrier to being an effective public speaker. While it may take more work to prepare effectively and develop our skills, people who stammer can become top-class orators. One of the greatest parliamentary orators of the twentieth century, Aneurin Bevan, was a person who stammered. Ed Balls, the former Shadow Chancellor and highly effective Parliamentary performer, talks publicly about his stammer (as well as his Patronage of the BSA).

For general ideas on how to become a proficient public speaker see the public speaking page.  This page concentrates on preparing for a specific situation you may face in work.

The general principles offered here should be useful:  focus on communication rather than avoiding stammering; set objectives in terms of work outcomes; get other people working with you.

When setting your objectives for the presentation, begin by thinking about the audience and what you have to give to them. What is the purpose of the presentation? Is it to provide information, or entertainment, or to persuade?

Being clear about the purpose of the presentation should lead naturally to the objectives you set yourself.

As regards the criteria that you use to evaluate your performance, it is good to pause from time to time to sense if people are clear about what has been said. If possible, arrange to get feedback from someone you trust and who has good judgement. This might be a friend or mentor.

Getting other people working with you means getting the audience relaxed and on your side. If you stammer, it is often good to acknowledge the fact, smile, and tell the audience they may have to be a little patient, but that you have some interesting things to say.

The only sure way to become relaxed in public speaking is through frequent practice, for example by taking on an assignment as a trainer, or by joining a public speaking group. However, a number of simple strategies can often be helpful.

As always, it is possible to adopt both “internal” and “external” strategies. Here are some ideas that other people have found useful.

Internal strategies

One key idea is to prepare well, and to feed the energy of nervousness into extra preparation and stronger delivery. Nervousness is simply power to be used to make the presentation more effective. At first the extra power can feel like driving a Ferrari when you are more used to driving a family car – it takes practice to handle the extra power that nerves bring with them and learn how to manage its impact on our speech.

Fear, on the other hand, is to be avoided. It is completely unhelpful. As the old adage has it, FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. If we are frightened, despite knowing that speaking situations are rarely, if ever, life-threatening no matter how much we stammer, then we should “Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway” (to quote the title of the excellent book by Susan Jeffers). Like a noisy puppy, fear should be told to stay in the corner.

Some of us tend to stammer more at the beginning of a presentation, others more as the presentation goes on. It is useful to work out what tends to happen and prepare for it. For example, if we know we tend to stammer more at the beginning, we can be more relaxed about that and wait for our speech to free up. If we tend to stammer more as the presentation goes on, it is useful to build in some breaks, for example by inviting the audience to make contributions.

If appropriate, provide hand-outs and consider using PowerPoint. Hand-outs have the disadvantage that they take the audience’s attention away from you, so that you lose the eye-contact which is an important part of good communication. However, they can ensure that the most important points are conveyed and take some of the pressure off your speech.

Rehearse the presentation several times, imagining the audience in front of you. There are a number of mental tricks that can be used to decrease fear of an audience, and these are useful for everyone, including people who stammer. One is to imagine your audience in a large bath each holding a yellow rubber duck. Another is to imagine they are young children. Yet another is to find a friendly face in the audience and talk to her or him, until your confidence rises. General books on presentation skills will provide this kind of advice.

External strategies

It may also be good to prepare the Chair to help you. For example, if you get stuck or blocked, or are losing fluency, it can be quite useful to be thrown a quick question to allow you to refocus. Again, you might want to ask the Chair to give you a little more time than usual.

After the presentation, do not forget to do a review, helped if possible by your observer, whose job is to help us judge our performance on how well we communicated what needed to be communicated.

One interesting question to ask our observer is how much any stammering interfered with the communication. It is often surprising to find that it made comparatively little difference. Despite what we feel, the success of a talk rarely depends on how much we did or did not stammer. The quality of the information presented is usually the crucial issue. Stammering can even have the effect of making an audience listen more closely to the words we are saying.