articleThis content is more than 5 years old.

Content Wins More Respect Than Style

David Adams | 01.09.1996

David Adams, Chief Executive of the £11 billion Railways Pension Fund, has stammered all his life. On leaving school 41 years ago, he would have laughed bitterly at anyone who had prophesied a successful career for him. He hopes his article may encourage others to fulfil their potential.

David AdamsWe block out painful memories to help cope with the present. But memory can protect us against arrogance and help us empathise with others. In roughly chronological order some painful memories of my stammer go something like this.

Standing outside a neighbour's house, aged about twelve and realising as the door opened that it was the wrong house; the fear of total speech block was trebled by the additional task of explaining my mistake. The result: total speech blocks to the embarrassment of the neighbour. Standing up in school a few years later for the English reading test, drying up completely and being put out of my misery by the teacher. A good friend whispered "Why did you do that? He'd have given you a good average." This well-meant advice served only to pour salt in the wound.

The young are not renowned for rational thought. Instead of pursuing my education I left school at 16 to get a job to prove myself worth. After a year the bank manager gently told me to leave.rove my self-worth. After a year the bank manager gently told me to leave. He had not, in all conscience, been able to report any improvement in my speech and head office could not see any prospects of promoting me.

After a year the bank manager gently told me to leave

My teenage years were generally miserable. Natural shyness developed into resentment. Anger was directed particularly against anyone daring to offer advice or encouragement. Self-worth was minimal and evidence to the contrary was totally discounted. In my new job, I studied to affirm self-worth rather than for career advancement.

I little realised the favour my friends were doing me in insisting I took my place at crowded bars to order complex rounds with a barrage of hated consonants in every drink. Talking to girls, later young women, was so loaded with possibilities for humiliation that for some years I opted out. The embarrassed laughter of others was always interpreted as damning personal judgment.

As for speaking in public, that was avoided at all cost. And of course, public meant any gathering of more than five people. At my brother's wedding, the best man got his father to make the speech. When I did steel myself to give a lecture to an audience of work colleagues, the result was as bad as had been expected.

The road back from this catalogue of despair was long and uneven. With hindsight, two aspects of the journey stand out. As it progressed, the mountains became foothills - or very large molehills - and the potholes were easier to avoid.

Since no one seems really to understand the causes of stammering it would be impertinent of me to counsel others. What follows is my personal journey. If it offers any encouragement or help to others this article will have been more than just an act of self-indulgence.

The truth is that things started to improve when I took advice which, when younger, had been resentfully rejected. Put crudely that advice was to confront my impediment at every opportunity.

Importantly, others believed  in me and value me more than myself.

Understanding this, and it took a long time to register, boosted my resolve and my confidence. With hindsight, it is also clear that all my employers after the unfortunate year in the bank looked behind the stammer and backed the person. Genuine goodwill characterised those employers' attitudes towards me.

Genuine goodwill characterised those employers' attitudes towards me

For 30 years, I worked in local government finance. Promotion in local government involves attending Council committees to advise councillors. Promotion was offered and my attendance at committees was taken for granted. Behind the scenes, my superiors paved the way for me. Committee members were uniformly patient and courteous, even during political knockabout. And in time - it took about 10 years - my confidence, my performance and my speech improved enough for me to obtain first a post of deputy finance director and then finance director in London boroughs.

Even then, in my mid-30s, I avoided public speaking and pregnant pauses at committees were not uncommon. There were still mountains to be scaled and I still found it difficult to believe that the hardest part was the first steps up them. It took another 10 years for me to be confident of my ability to hold the attention of a large audience well enough to deliver an effective message. By then, I had become chief executive of a London borough. As a very good friend remarked: "David, don't you think you have compensated enough for your stammer?".

My last ten years have been spent at a large pension fund, first as finance director and now as chief executive. Next year I retire but have been offered a three-year appointment as director of CIPFA, the public service accountancy institute. The twelve year old standing tongue-tied outside the neighbour's house 45 years ago could not have been persuaded to believe in such a scenario.

I still stammer every day. That is no longer important

I still stammer every day. That is no longer important, even when it is embarrassing and annoying. Speaking slowly and carefully has its advantages. People listen more than to very rapid, fluent speakers. And content wins more respect than style.

I still cringe when friends joke about my speech. I have to restrain my annoyance when occasionally it is suggested that the stammer has been deliberately used for effect. But none of the comments are malicious. They merely underline a simple fact it took more than 40 years to understand. No-one could help me manage my minor disability unless I had self-respect based on the respect of others. To those who helped me gain it, including my loving wife of nearly 30 years, my friends, colleagues and employers, a heartfelt thank you.

From the Autumn 1996 issue of 'Speaking Out'