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Stammering is a funny thing

Arwel Richards | 01.06.2013

Businessman and writer Arwel Richards explains what made him want to become a BSA patron, and how treating his speech like a performance helps him control his stammer.

Arwel Richards“But you don’t have a stammer!” was the reaction of a friend when I told her that I was being made a patron the BSA. I then spent ten minutes convincing her that I do. Stammering is like no other disability. You can’t control blindness and I suppose hearing can be enhanced, but the afflicted are still deaf. So what is it with my stammer? Well, the fact that some of my friends don’t know that I stammer is probably testament to how well I control it. Readers, I know it can be annoying to hear about someone successfully controlling a lifelong affliction, but bear with me.

My late father had a bad stammer. He once joked that if he ever were to record an answering machine greeting, someone calling from a phonebox would run out of pips before he’d finished saying “Hello”. As a child in the 1950s, he’d been given elocution lessons by a former actress. If you’d met my father you’d know that it didn’t work. He lived with it throughout his life. Now, in his memory, I have become a proud patron of this charity, which offers the greatest resource to people who stammer in the country.

Wanting to entertain

One resource I’d like to share with you is this: I treat my speech like a performance. When I say performance, I mean just that: a conscious effort to portray a slightly different persona; the confident you, not the shy you. In every social interaction I encounter I try to entertain, whether it’s buying a pint of milk or chatting someone up at a party.

Arwel with interviewerIt was hard at first, like maintaining a foreign accent. I’d forget and my speech would falter, my face would freeze. But slowly, over the years, this performance has become a subconscious second personality. Gradually the performance part started to kick in, slowing my speech down, without, um, making me sound slow. As my speech became better my confidence grew; one feeding off the other - a sort of bi-polar speech pattern: one part shy, embarrassed and socially awkward, the other confident, outgoing and witty.

Talking to myself helps (obviously not in public). I noticed that all traces of the stammer evaporated when I had a conversation with myself. So I started to imagine being interviewed by Michael Parkinson. Yes, I know that sounds conceited, but if you watch old clips of famous interviewees, you’ll see each one giving a performance. Michael Parkinson once said that the actor David Niven would, just before going stage, be violently ill. Then he would appear, strolling jauntily down the steps, as suave and witty as ever. You can see this with many performers - stage fright can cripple them, and then, like flicking a switch, they put the game face on. What is stammering but a variation of stage fright?

One of the most frustrating things my stammer had stopped me from doing was delivering a joke’s punchline, or a witty comment that’s only funny for a nano-second. I hated the look of pity or fake laughter from people just because the wiring in my brain decided to malfunction. But my stammer also perfected my dry sense of humour; it gave me a chance to sit and listen, and then when appropriate (or more often the case, not) give a deadly one-liner or a pithy put-down.

I treat my speech like a performance. In every social interaction I try to entertain, whether it’s buying a pint of milk or chatting someone up at a party.

Local celebrity

Arwel on sofa being interviewed by two presentersBecause of the work I’ve done in Wales, such as a stint as director of a film festival and my syndicated magazine style columns, I have often been asked to appear on TV and radio. I learnt early on in pre-recorded interviews to swear profusely after each stumble (DON’T do this live!). This guarantees that the stumble doesn’t get into the final cut. When I started doing live broadcasts, I was always mindful of a stumble, of dead air, a frozen face or a twitchy eye, which is my particular stammering tic. Thankfully it very rarely, if ever, happens. When I’m on stage, compering at a charity auction for example, it disappears completely. Sometimes, if I’m on a date, I drop into the conversation that I have a stammer, just in case she thinks I’m having a stroke mid-conversation. In fact, I rarely stammer, especially in new company.

I start to stammer if I am talking to another stammerer, because I am thinking about not stammering. So it proves that the subconscious performance part of my communication works, for me. I’m not an expert, and like you, I can only comment on my own experience. But, I have never let my stammering control my personality or my career choices. Instead, I control it.

From Speaking Out Summer 2013, p12.