Being asked to be Best Man at a wedding can be a proud moment... until you realise you have to make a speech. Trevor Bradley explains how he prepared for his by working on changing his mindset.
Appreciation. Fear. Avoidance. All of these thoughts flooded into my mind when my grandson Stefan asked me to be Best Man at his wedding within two years. Plenty of time, I thought, to prepare a speech. What would I say? What couldn’t I say? How would I or my audience react when I stammer?
At the age of 62 I have acquired what I call a ‘toolbox’ of therapies, some useful, some not. Luckily I am a member of the Doncaster Stammering Association (DSA) self-help group, with Chair Bob Adams. There, we practice speaking circles, a great aid for overcoming anxiety of public speaking. Both the audience and the speaker have mutual respect and what you say is not the ultimate aim. You don’t need to be funny or interesting. In fact you don’t need to say a word, it’s the connection of eyes and minds, the giving and receiving. It’s OK to be you. At the end the applause you receive from the audience is a thank you for being you! This positive outcome was what I needed to focus on, not the need to be fluent.
Understanding the way I speak to myself is important. If I keep thinking negative thoughts then what outcome will I have? I had the opportunity to add to my toolbox by attending a two-day intensive course organised by Hilary Liddle and Cheryl Orr at the Doncaster Speech & Language Therapy Department. In the group we discussed icebergs. No, not the ones that that can sink a ship, but the ones that float around in our subconscious, threatening to sink ourselves. What we show on the surface is not always mirrored below. I have always tried to hide my stammer by constantly changing words, pretending to forget someone’s name, avoiding taking risks in socialising, and always taking the back seat. At the end of the session we made a list of what feelings lie beneath the surface. Mine included humiliation, shame, fear, anger, and thoughts of ‘I’m not good enough’. So on the wedding day all I needed below the surface was a positive attitude to the way I communicate.
My main anxiety was how I could make the speech as amusing as possible. I practiced it in front of the DSA but didn’t get many laughs. In fact it read like a short autobiography and I wasn’t pleased with the result, although the group said it sounded OK. I needed to find additional guidance for my toolbox and found Barbara Gomersall, a Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner whose course I attended in 2008. She recommended changes such as reassembling the words to make it punchy, like stand-up comics do, and to anchor feelings of fun, pleasure, relaxation and speaking with expression. Now my iceberg contained positive thoughts - no longer ‘is this good enough?’. With this in mind I practiced at home using three mirrors: one placed in the centre, one to the left and one to the right, making eye contact with each and visualising people laughing with me, not at me when I spoke. I also used a voice recorder.
One last technique Hilary taught me was voluntary stammering, the behaviour I spent most of my life concealing. Far from being embarrassing on the day of the wedding, it proved to be liberating. Before the speech I felt happy to be among family and friends but I waited nervously for my time to come.
The speech was there in front of my eyes. It seemed a blur of words I could not focus on. The fuse had been lit. Nothing could stop it now.
The time had finally arrived - the Best Man’s speech. Nervous yes, but my iceberg beneath the surface was full of positives. I unfolded the pieces of paper from my pocket. The speech was there in front of my eyes. It seemed a blur of words I could not focus on, just the memory of many hours spent practicing speaking and gesturing at the correct moments. The fuse had been lit. Nothing could stop it now.
“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is T-T-T-Trevor and I am Stefan’s granddad. You may have noticed that I sssssssstammer. The good news is, if you don’t hear me the first time you’ll hear me the ssssssss... 8th time.” Bob gave me permission to use one of his quotes to advertise my dysfluency so that I could laugh at myself in a positive, accepting way and to allow the audience to laugh with me. I relied on physical and vocal memory to carry the performance and I ended with: “And finally, will everyone stand and toast Stefan and Lauren.” Applause rang out around the room and many came over to congratulate me. At the end I was happy; relieved, with a sense of accomplishment that I gave it my best and my best was good enough.
Without the help of the four people mentioned I would not have had the inner belief that I could communicate effectively in the public arena. You could say I had made myself bulletproof from the fear of failure and being judged. I had practiced to succeed.
From Speaking Out Spring 2014, p9