Overcoming stammer by speaking in public

  • Learning new techniques: Joyce Smith’s life was changed by working with speech coach (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

    Learning new techniques: Joyce Smith’s life was changed by working with speech coach (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

For years, Joyce Smith was terrified of speaking to anyone who wasn’t a family member or close friend.

She didn’t want them to hear her stammer.

“In school the children would laugh at me,” said the 73-year-old who gets emotional about the memory even today.

“I’m still scarred from that. Talking to strangers, I was always worried that they too would laugh at me. I think all people who stammer fear being judged.”

As she got older, it didn’t get any easier.

It was nearly impossible for her to ask strangers for directions; office receptionists filled her with terror.

She gave up on her dreams of becoming a nurse or a doctor because she worried about having to communicate. Instead, she became a healthcare assistant, caring for elderly people in their homes.

“I don’t fear talking to them,” she said. “They are very kind. I tend to stammer a lot less when I’m calm.”

Ms Smith, who moved to the island from Jamaica after a family adopted her in 1963, took several courses in the hope of conquering her problem.

In 1998, she found one that worked. She spent 15 weeks in Britain with The McGuire Programme, after which her stammer nearly disappeared altogether.

“I came home from that programme, I was excited and thought, ‘I’m not a stammerer any more’,” she said.

“I stopped doing my speech exercises — and soon went back to stammering.”

Real change came after she signed up with Michael Williams, a speech coach based in California.

“In 2012, I was struggling to use a new laptop,” she said. “I was taking out my frustration by banging away at the keys then somehow YouTube popped up.”

She typed in ‘speech impediments’ and started watching the videos. One was made by Mr Williams.

“He said he was himself a stutterer,” said Ms Smith. “He said he couldn’t cure stammering altogether, but he could help you speak more smoothly.”

He worked on her confidence as well as her speech and, a year later, suggested she might benefit from Bermuda Toastmasters Club.

The 35-member group meets on the first and third Tuesday of every month at the Chamber of Commerce offices.

They work on their public speaking skills by giving speeches with varied topics; each presentation receives positive feedback and instruction.

“At the beginning of my first meeting I was sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” Ms Smith said.

She would have left but other members encouraged her to give it a chance. Little did she know that she would have to give a brief speech introducing herself to the group.

“I was shaking like a leaf,” Ms Smith said.

One of the hardest things about stammering is suddenly going blank and not being able to say anything at all. To avoid this happening, she writes down her Toastmaster speeches five times, and then commits them to memory.

“I talked about what it is to be a good friend. I also talked about the importance of smiling. In one speech, I talked about how to tell a child that a loved one has died.

“After five times, I don’t know why, but I don’t really stammer while I am speaking. The first time I finished a speech, I was on Cloud Nine. That was the first time I was really able to express myself.”

She describes it as a life-changing experience.

“I think the main thing the group has given me is the confidence to not be intimidated by other people. They are humans, just like myself. That fear is an emotion that arises from the perception of danger.

“Therefore, I can now approach and interact with others, ask and answer their questions and I am not afraid to give an honest opinion, tactfully, in ways that no feelings get hurt. I could not have done that before joining Toastmasters.”

Look for Bermuda Toastmasters on Facebook or telephone 518-2670

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Published May 2, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated May 2, 2018 at 6:31 am)

Overcoming stammer by speaking in public

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