Help a former stutterer bolster her confidence before giving a presentation.
July 28, 2007 10:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for tips and tricks to ease public speaking anxiety in a former stutterer. Please help!

I'm asking this question for my sister. She's currently enrolled in college, and has spent the past summer working as an intern with a lab group. She's been tapped to give a presentation in August to fellow students, researchers, and professors. Here's the catch: she struggled with stuttering--sometimes severe, sometimes mild--all throughout her middle school years, and the problem still occasionally rears its head when she's nervous. (She has mentioned that she's much less likely to have trouble during an impromptu speech or presentation--it's only when she has a lot of time to prepare that she begins to overthink things and get nervous.) The prospect of giving this particular presentation is extremely daunting to her, and I'm wondering if anyone here has any suggestions for alleviating her nervousness and bolstering her confidence? We've brainstormed about the following: meditation, deep-breathing, a shot of Scotch, half a Klonopin or Xanax, etc. You get the idea. Does anyone have any experience with this specific situation--can any fellow former stutterers recommend tips or tricks to help her overcome this intense anxiety and reduce the likelihood of stuttering during the presentation itself?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you tell us a little more about the parameters of her presentation, like how long it's supposed to be or how many times it's to be given?
posted by mdonley at 10:32 PM on July 28, 2007

Klonopin plus beta blocker like Inderol.
posted by twiggy32 at 11:52 PM on July 28, 2007

One thing I've seen work for a colleague with terrific public speaking anxiety and situational stuttering, is that she imagined "singing" her talk to the audience. This helped her maintain good breathing, relaxed her throat and oral musculature, and gave her confidence in "animating" her voice pitch and inflection. She told me it was something she learned in speech therapy, and that it just required more preparation, and knowing her material very, very well, to the point she felt she could "sing" it from memory.

The only thing she was truly anxious about was handling questions spontaneously. We handled that by asking people to submit written questions, for which she could prepare answers in advance, or where that was not practical, by having people ask the questions of a second presenter, who repeated them back for the audience, giving her time to formulate her answers mentally, and again, imagine "singing" them to the audience. She stammered a time or two under adverse repeat questions, but was generally well received, otherwise.
posted by paulsc at 1:20 AM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Essentially, memorize the talk sufficiently so that what-to- say-next comes automatically. After memorization, the trick is to "act" like you are saying it naturally (i.e., not reading a script). If it helps, rehearse into a tape-recorder.

Repeated rehearsals seems boring and stultifying, and there is a tendency to get stuck on the opening few minutes. But that's ok, after awhile you will get into it.

I have used this technique many times for delivering talks/presentations. Don't know specifically how it would work with someone who has a stuttering tendency.
posted by Kevin S at 3:38 AM on July 29, 2007

Kevin S is spot on. Memorization and rehearsal are key; if you know exactly what you are going to say and how you are going to say it (she should practice inflections, gestures, even facial expressions - in a mirror) you are far less likely to get nervous. Ideally she should give her presentation without notes.

Also, a thorough understanding of the material to be presented is key here. This will allow her to deal with spontaneous questions without blinking an eye.

Also, if she is using graphics, put plenty of information on them so that the audience is focusing more on the images and text than on the speaker. This takes a lot of pressure off if everyone is looking at the screen behind her.

Other tips:

Time yourself while practicing. Knowing how long each segment of the presentation takes will give her additional control, especially if she is forced to cut parts out due to time constraints.

If the presentation is going to take place somewhere she is not familiar with, she should go ahead of time and get comfortable with the space.

Talk to the audience before the presentation; while they're coming in make small talk.

Look for two or three friendly/interested faces dispersed through the audience and alternate looking at them while giving the speech.

If looking directly at people make her nervous, tell her to look at the space just above the heads of the audience. It will appear that she is making eye contact, when in fact she is just talking to the wall.

Visualize. Tell her to imagine the scene with her giving a great presentation, over and over again. Imagine the positive reactions of the audience, imagine the perfect pitch and tone of her voice, etc. This sounds dodgy but it works, if done in good faith.

Oh, and breathe dammit!
posted by sic at 5:59 AM on July 29, 2007

It's true, I know of quite a few people who took singing lessons to overcome stuttering and it actually worked. Not sure how.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:18 AM on July 29, 2007

Although the advice Kevin S and sic gave would usually be spot-on, it might not work in this situation, specifically because you said: She has mentioned that she's much less likely to have trouble during an impromptu speech or presentation--it's only when she has a lot of time to prepare that she begins to overthink things and get nervous.

I have a fluency problem too (see this question I asked) and it only gets worse the more I prepare what I am going to say. If, however, I just have an outline and know my subject matter backwards and forwards, I tend to disgorge a good presentation (I say "disgorge" because a side effect is rarely remembering exactly what I've said, although profs and colleagues have told me it was very good).

If she's ever done any presenting before, she'll likely know almost automatically whether the "learn it by heart" or the "ad-lib like crazy" method works best for her.

Another possible help (using my method or the reverse one) is to have visuals... power points, slides, whatever... that she can distract the audience with if she gets stuck or starts getting nervous.
posted by sarahkeebs at 6:50 AM on July 29, 2007

[A mefite asked to have this reply posted anonymously.]

I'm a stammerer who gives lots of presentations, and usually stammers during them. Things that help me: rehearsing, but not too much, as I'm more fluent when spontaneous (it wouldn't help me to know the text by heart); knowing the material well so I don't feel I'm going to be thrown off balance by questions; making absolutely sure the technology will work, if it's presentation using PowerPoint or DVDs; having paper copies of the presentation, including one I can hold on to and wave around; saying at the start that I'm a stammerer and asking people to be patient if I stammer; and having a friendly colleague or two in the audience who knows the material and can, if absolutely necessary, interject a comment or question to restart me. I wouldn't try drugs or alcohol myself unless I'd used them before and knew they wouldn't make things worse - some people do stammer more when they're drinking, for instance. You also might want to contact MetaFilter member christinetheslp directly for her comments/expertise - I haven't had good experiences with speech therapy, but YMMV.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:03 AM on July 29, 2007

I'm a stand-up comedian who used to HATE giving speeches (in high school, et al). Then I discovered that most people have a fear of public speaking (Death is the 2nd most common fear, and as Jerry Seinfeld says "if you're at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy").

So, I realized : you don't need to sit there and imagine everyone naked. Just realize, instead, that everyone out there looking at you is very glad THEY'RE not the ones giving the speech.

Use comedy. That's the best ice-breaker ever. If you're worried you might slip or stumble, start off the presentation with something that addresses that point (i.e. "I may have had a bit too much coffee and too little sleep. My roommate/kids/wife/husband/sig. other was/were playing Xbox all night") and they'll laugh a bit, and you'll feel 1000x better.

Memorization is over-rated. The idea is to just get comfortable with the talking points. Maybe just have notes that start off the subject at hand :

and then some quick notes below
"- people aren't wearing enough of them"
"- They can help block out sunlight"
etc etc

This way, you've got the basics, and you know HOW you're covering them, but maybe not tripped up on specific wording.

Again, try to keep it a bit on the lighter side and if you get some laughs here and there, it'll only help to bolster your confidence up there. And, the people you're speaking to will come away remembering "that was a very good presentation" and it will also help warm-up the room and make everyone a bit more comfortable.

If you need help with lead-in, don't be afraid to borrow some one-liners from famous comedians (maybe even give credit with "as so-and-so once said..").

Alas, I don't have much experience with stuttering, but I was definitely shy for a long time and I didn't think I'd ever be able to give a speech in front of people without freaking out.

Anyway - that's my $0.02
posted by revmitcz at 2:23 PM on July 30, 2007

No advice personally, but THANK YOU for this question. My boyfriend stutters, especially when he's nervous, and he's shied away from public speaking opportunities sometimes because of this. However, he is actually quite an eloquent and brilliant speaker when he takes up the opportunity. I'll pass this on to him (hello Mark :D) and see what he thinks.
posted by divabat at 8:10 PM on July 30, 2007

this is divabat's boyfriend Mark, just thought i'd see if i can help.
Reading through the answers already here, they seem to be good suggestions. My difficulties with public speaking seem to be the opposite to yours - I prefer preparation time to impromptu.

Anyway, I've found that knowing the subject matter inside out never hurts. It is much easier to talk about something you know and enjoy, than reading from paper. You could try writing sentences for the talk,but only take notes with you. This is my preferred way - i rehearse with the sentences in front of me, but use only notes in the talk. Then it's more about me making the sentences, than just reading.

Having a friendly face is a great idea. Look around a bit, check out the expressions, and find people who look kindly or interested. Talk to them, don't worry about the guys sniggering at the back, or the bored looking group at the side.

I guess the most important thing is to not worry too much. work out your material, write the talk, rehearse, but give yourself plenty of time inbetween for other things, to take your mind off it. You'll be more relaxed and prepared to give the talk if you aren't tired of working on it.

I hope some of that helps. Good luck! M
posted by divabat at 12:19 AM on August 1, 2007

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