By Eddie Phillips
For many years now I have been following my dream, to be a public speaker. The problem, in case you hadn't guessed was I have a stutter. Undeterred by this minor matter (sic!) I have been speaking at meetings and conferences for 25 years now. Fluency used to be a problem until I discovered that it's not how you say it it's what you say that counts. Having listened to drivel delivered absolutely fluently by various nonentities over the years I thought that I had superior drivel! It appears that I wasn't wrong! On 9th March I arrived at Inverness for the Labour Party Conference where I went straight to the Conference Centre (the Conference had already started when I arrived) took my seat, waited for the debate to begin, raised my hand and...the Chairman ignored me! Undeterred by this I kept my hand up until I wore him down and he eventually indicated that I could speak. As I stood there in the queue with an MP and MSP (Scottish Parliament MP) waiting to speak I made last minute alterations to my written speech including a brand new last sentence. Then it was my turn.
When you're up there you don't notice the cameras, lights or audience. All that's important is what you're saying. I can't say it was 100% fluent (I always have a problem with my name!) but once into it there was no stopping me. The fact that I was to criticise the practices of the Minister for Social Justice's department with her sitting only 5 feet away from me didn't phase me either. I was there to do a job and speak up for my constituents, and I did.
The four minutes raced by and the red light (signal that your time is up) didn't panic me because I had timed my speech and knew that it would be pretty close to the time so over-running wouldn't be a problem. With my new last sentence delivered I thanked the Conference who reciprocated with surprisingly loud applause! Even before I sat down people came up to say well done. At the lunch break a couple of MP's came over to praise my contribution.
The debate was broadcast live and a lot of people phoned me to say they'd seen me. It was also on the highlights programme that evening. I was pleased with the response and the Minister when asked by me in the coffee bar afterwards if she was still talking to me after my comments said "No, but I still love you!" so that's alright then! (Can't fall out with the Minister, can we?)
People who know that I stutter ask me how I do the 'Public thing'. By that question do they mean how do I achieve almost total fluency in circumstances most totally fluent people would find difficult let alone me, or why do I volunteer to do it when it would be oh so easy to sit quietly and say nothing. The short answer is I treat meetings and conferences as an actor would a live performance, the difference being that I don't need to memorise my lines (though I make impromptu speeches without notes regularly as well). Apart from that I cannot say what makes me do it, probably ego!
I held a session at the BSA Conference in September (2001) around the issue of public and private speaking. I believe that stammerers should speak out unconcerned at the reaction of others because we are better and it's ignorant fluents who have the problem not us!
From the Spring 2001 edition of Speaking Out
(updated as to BSA Conference 2001)