Classroom Public Speaking Tips for Students Who Stutter

April 25, 2022
Carl Herder, M.A., CCC-SLP, BCS-F
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Public speaking often ranks highly on lists of common fears among the general public. It makes sense that people who stutter often experience even higher levels of fear related to public speaking, as stuttering presents a unique set of challenges. If you stutter and are facing a public speaking assignment at school, there are many ways to set yourself up for success.

Public Speaking Tips for Students Who Stutter

First, Talk to Your Teacher

As we discussed in a previous article about public speaking accommodations for students who stutter, it's very helpful to talk about stuttering with your teacher or professor. Like most people, they likely don't know much about stuttering, and they certainly don't know what types of accommodations you might need. Further, it's just helpful to know that your teacher understands what's going on if they hear that your speech sounds different than other students. Read more on this topic in a previous blog article, 3 Basic Rules of Self-Advertising Your Stuttering.

Talk to Other Students

It's often easier to build up the courage to speak when others around you understand that you stutter. For some, it's helpful to talk about stuttering with one other student in the class - perhaps a friend or the classmate you interact with most often. Sometimes it's worth it to talk to several students about it, especially if you're making a group presentation. It's a bold move, but some people take this further and self-disclose that they stutter to the whole class at the start of the speech.

Whether talking to one person or a group of people, the key is to be assertive and to the point. Something like, "by the way, you might notice I stutter, so if you hear me getting stuck on a word, that's just a stuttering block. The word will come out eventually!" Not the way you'd word it? Come up with a wording that works for you! If you're still not sure about telling others about your stutter, read this brief article to learn about Dr. Michael Boyle's research on the power of self-disclosure.  

Prepare!

Because of your unique experience with stuttering, you might have a history of over- or under-preparing for speeches. Some students who stutter spend an excessive amount of time writing, and a lot of this extra preparation is geared towards extra rehearsing or choosing the right words to maximize speech fluency. Others may under-prepare due to the sheer anxiety the preparation causes, or because they feel ad-libbing will improve fluency. But, you might find that these attempts at avoiding stuttering ultimately hinder you as a public speaker.

Consider this: how would you prepare for a speech if you didn't stutter? 

How would you...

  • tackle the assignment,
  • learn the material,
  • do the pre-writing,
  • choose between writing the speech word-for-word or creating bulleted talking points,
  • decide whether to read it or memorize it?

There is so much to consider when preparing a public speech, and worrying about stuttering can easily get in the way of important preparation. Now, not worrying about stuttering is easier said than done! But try to notice when this worrying is taking over your thought process, and get back to thinking about the many other considerations mentioned above. Whether or not you end up stuttering when giving the speech, doing solid preparation can be a real confidence builder.*

*If you notice that your preparation is leading to greater fear and anxiety, you're not alone. If it's causing extreme anxiety or panic, it is recommended you seek further support from a speech-language pathologist, psychologist, or counselor

Rehearse!

Beyond the writing portion of preparation, rehearsing can help you work out the kinks with timing, wording, and delivery. Additionally, rehearsals help you prepare for the thoughts and emotions that might arise. There are clear benefits to practicing your speech with a real audience, such as a classmate, friend, or family member. Further, the more you can do to simulate the real setting of the speech, the better. For example, many college students benefit from rehearsing in an empty classroom or a library study room.

Regardless of location, stand up and imagine the class is sitting in front of you. If you want to practice making eye contact, set up a few focal points in the room to look at while you rehearse. If the presentation is to be done in an online/remote learning setting, that can be simulated too! Turn on your webcam and practice delivering the speech to yourself.

"I don't stutter when I rehearse! Why can't I speak fluently during the speech?"

Because stuttering is so situational, there's an important caveat for people who stutter. You might be able to rehearse alone without any trouble with your stuttering! Therefore, you might find yourself rehearsing without stuttering, and then struggling with it when you give the actual speech. This is a perfect storm for developing feelings of failure, guilt, and shame. Think about accepting that some stuttering during your speech is inevitable. In preparation for this, consider adding some voluntary stuttering to your rehearsals. This way, you've prepared for some of the emotional experience of stuttering during your speech.

It's not your fault that you stutter, and stuttering during a speech is not "messing up." At AIS through the years, we've witnessed countless public speeches where a person stuttered, yet still gave a great speech. Ziauddin Yousafzai's AIS Gala speech is a fantastic example.

Common Public Speaking Tips - Applied to The Stuttering Experience

There are lots of tips available in books and on the internet - but let's consider some of these tips from a stuttering perspective:

Eye Contact

Public speaking experts usually agree that making eye contact with people in your audience is important for a variety of reasons. It can help you feel connected to your audience, project confidence, read your listeners' non-verbal reactions, and more. Eye contact is a common challenge for people who stutter, especially during a moment of stuttering.

If you're currently struggling to make eye contact when speaking in the classroom setting, it may be too much to expect yourself to make consistent eye contact during a public speech. If you're feeling ready to work on it, try to pick a few people in the audience (left, right, and center) that you can look at for a few seconds at a time. Like many speaking challenges, eye contact is something that gets easier the more you do it.

Body Language

"Body language" has a huge impact on non-verbal communication. Your teacher might encourage speakers to stand in an upright, open posture, place feet shoulder width apart, keep hands out of pockets, etc.

Like many aspects of public speaking, good body language gets easier with time. If you're unsure about yours, ask a trusted friend or colleague to watch a rehearsal of your speech, and ask for their feedback!

Some aspects of your body language can be impacted by the way you stutter. For instance, you might be concerned about secondary movements like hand, foot, or head movements, eye blinking, etc. Consider talking to your professor about this aspect of your stutter. Some students may opt to self-disclose their stuttering at the start of the speech, and this is a good moment to mention what the listeners might notice (more on self advocacy and accommodations).

Purpose

There's plenty of information out there on the three main purposes for public speeches, 1) to persuade, 2) to inform, or 3) to entertain. It's also important to help your audience understand the more specific purpose to your speech - the who, what, where, when, and why questions that you intend to address.

Let's dig deeper into purpose for people who stutter. Throughout the preparation, rehearsal, and actual presentation of your speech, you might find yourself paying extra attention to your speech fluency. This engagement on fluency takes up mental energy, and can take your attention away from the actual content and purpose of your speech. One of the ways to face the discomfort of speaking and stuttering publicly is to catch yourself paying attention to fluency, and re-focus your attention and energy on the reason you're giving the speech in the first place.

Let's say you're assigned an informative speech, and because you're an athlete, you decide to speak about the fundamentals of basketball, your favorite sport. You might catch yourself worrying about stuttering on certain words, and can remind yourself about the real purpose of the speech - to help this group of people understand some of the important fundamentals of the game you love so much. It may or may not reduce your stuttering, but it can help you feel more engaged in the content, and sound and feel more confident.

Speech Rate and Pausing

Pausing is a helpful way to pace your speech, remember what you have to say next, and help with listener comprehension. It can also help you signal to the listeners that you really want them to think about what you just said. In classroom speeches, this is often an essential skill that is being evaluated.

But what about pauses due to stuttering blocks? What about faster rates of speech related to stuttering or cluttering?

  • Fast Talkers - Let's say you clutter or have a faster-than-average rate of speech. It certainly can be an aspect of the stuttering experience, and it can be worth making sure your teacher knows that this is harder for you to control than others. Also, because your speech rate tends to be faster than average, your gauge on speed might be a bit skewed. So, an important rule of thumb is to speak slower than you think you need to speak, pause more often than you think you need to pause, and pause for longer than you think you should.
  • Silent Blocks - If silent blocks are part of your speech pattern, your listeners will hear both pauses related to your speech delivery as well as the silent blocks. You might find it helpful to let the audience know that you stutter, and that they may hear silent blocks in your speech. It's a bold, assertive move, but extremely helpful for those ready to give it a try.

Silent blocks, cluttering, and other speech patterns unique to stuttering are an unexpected aspect of a student's speech. If you do choose to speak about stuttering with your teacher, you have an additional opportunity to make sure your stuttering doesn't impact your grade.

Fear and Nervousness

For most people, some level of fear and nervousness are inevitable when public speaking. Keep in mind that if you try to ignore and suppress these feelings, you can actually enhance the negative impact. Rather, try to accept the nerves. They’re normal! Also, try these known strategies -

  • Self Talk - prepare self-talk to repeat to yourself right before the speech. Something like, "I know I might stutter, and I'm going to get up there and give the speech anyways, I got this!" This kind of mental preparation won’t erase the nervousness, but allows you to accept the nerves, and focus on your grit and determination.
  • Positive Visualization - Research has proven a psychological benefit to creating a positive visualization of a desired experience - and this applies really well to public speaking. Close your eyes and visualize yourself giving the speech. Imagine yourself speaking with confidence and skill. Imagine an audience that listens with interest, smiles at you, and applauds afterwards. Keep the visualization rational and positive, and the more detailed the better!

Finished? Give Yourself Credit!

Once you’re through the experience - whether you stuttered during your speech or not, you've done something that is worthy of praise! Public speaking can be really hard, and you showed up and did it. No one can take that away from you.

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The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY, Atlanta, GA, and Minneapolis, MN, and services are also available online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

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