Stuttering VS fear of public speaking: Are they related?

Post: Stuttering and public speaking

Are you afraid of public speaking?

My first encounter with public speaking, other than regular classroom experiences, was at the age of thirteen. My dad had decided to throw a big bar mitzvah party for me. You see, he’d never had his own bar mitzvah, and it was very important to him that I have a proper one. And by “proper,” I mean that I had to give a speech. 

We’re not talking about just a “thank you, enjoy your meal” type of a speech, but a pre-written orthodox sermon. A very natural thing for a thirteen year old, secular kid who also happened to have a severe stutter. 

In the weeks prior to the event, I was excited. I dealt with who to invite and what to wear. I tried not to think too much about the speech. Since I’d made a great effort to avoid speaking in class, I didn’t really know what was heading my way anyway. How bad could it be?

At the event, with my ‘90s style oversized groom outfit and my Keanu Reeves hair (I still had hair back then), I was still completely unaware of what I got myself into.

Me at my bar mitzvah. Keanu Reeves hair, over sized shirt, and innocence.
Me at my bar mitzvah. Cute or what?

Once dinner was finished, I was led to the dance-floor, with a microphone in one hand and an extremely long written sermon in the other. There, in front of a hundred family members and friends, half of whom I didn’t know, I started reading.

And the trauma started.

I struggled with every syllable 
of every word, 
in every sentence.

Soon enough I realized that the best outcome of the situation would be that by the time I finished reading, the audience would be so bored that they’d have fallen asleep. 

After an eternity of butchering my rabbi’s history lesson and best wishes for the Jewish people, I got to the end of the page. The crowd’s anticipation for this mutual torture to end could had been cut with a butter knife.

And then, I turned to page two.

The sigh of despair that went through that poor audience is something I will never forget. Needless to say, public speaking would be associated in my head with humiliation from then on.


Stuttering, Public Speaking Anxiety and Social Anxiety

Many people find it difficult to speak in front of people. The fear of public speaking (or public speaking anxiety) is called glossophobia. It is estimated that three of every four people experience this anxiety to varying degrees. 

For some people, the fear of public speaking is worse than the fear of death! It’s easy to understand why this fear is so deep and common once we understand that our prehistoric ancestors relied on living in a group as a survival skill against the harsh elements and large predators. Public speaking exposes us to being rejected from the tribe, which in our prehistoric mind meant one thing: death.

Public speaking anxiety is a type of Social Anxiety Disorder (or SAD). In very broad strokes, while both revolve around the fear of being judged or humiliated, social anxiety is a persistent fear of social situations generally, and public speaking anxiety is focused on specific scenarios of speaking in front of a group of people.

Stuttering and SAD often share many of the same features. We all know these very well: avoidance of feared situations, hyper-sensitivity to our speech and to people’s reactions to it, anxiety and negative thoughts before talking, etc.  

These similarities can be explained by the biases we have when processing information during these stressful situations. In simple words, we focus more on our fears and negative inputs in these situations, rather than the positive inputs. This is a core feature that both people who stutter and people with SAD share.

Before you start panicking though, if your symptoms solely revolve around your stutter, you’re not going to be diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder.

That said, there have been many studies about stuttering and SAD that found an alarming correlation: 

Between a quarter to two-thirds of people who stutter meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder.

Want to test how much social anxiety you have? Check the source links at the bottom.

A man speaking to a mic

Stuttering VS fear of public speaking

Many years after my bar mitzvah experience, I stumbled across a Youtube video analysing a situation of a man hyperventilating as he tried to address a large committee. I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s what often happens to me when I have a bad stuttering day”. This similarity got me curious, so I started researching it and it led me to look for a beginners’ public speaking group. I had already jumped through many “rings of fire” and I felt I was ready for this challenge. 

In these public speaking practice sessions I got the chance to meet a lot of people who have public speaking anxiety. I found it fascinating how similar public speaking anxiety is to what happens in the head (and sometimes the body) of a person who stutters.

The physical aspects

Some of the symptoms they talk about can be attributed to general stress or excitement that are not necessarily speech-related; things that everyone experiences like pounding or fast heartbeat, blushing, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty or cold hands, muscle tenseness, etc. Other stress symptoms can manifest themselves in the speaking system as well, like a constant urge to clear the throat, and cracking or changing of the voice. In all these cases, people are aware of what’s happening to their speaking ability but feel they’re not in control of it; much like with a stammer.

There are also external physical nervousness symptoms people with public speaking anxiety have during their speeches. It’s not uncommon to see people in the group speak while knowingly or unknowingly pacing back and forth, constantly pulling their shirts, leaning on things, speaking very quickly or monotonously, etc. It takes them a conscious effort to notice and control these behaviours. They don’t actually need to do them, but it’s their body’s way of dealing with the uncomfortable situation; sounds familiar, right?

Doesn’t it remind you of all those secondary stuttering behaviours, all those things we do with our bodies, sometimes subconsciously, that for some reason we feel would help us get through uncomfortable stuttering situations?

For example, sometimes I catch myself walking while I’m on the phone, and I’m limping on certain words, as if it’ll help me to get the words out. Then I’m immediately thinking “why did I just do that”?

Painting of anxiety

The Psychological aspects

This is where it really hits home. The similarity of the psychological aspects of public speaking anxiety and stuttering is astonishing. When listening to someone talk about their mental stress about public speaking, it sounds exactly as if they were talking about stuttering. Here are just a few of the examples people shared with me:

      • Random changes in anxiety levels on different days that can’t be explained.
        — Exactly like there could be random good or bad stuttering days.

      • “Playing a role” is always easier than talking as yourself.
        — It is also known that people who stutter will often be completely fluent when “playing a role”. Even more so if it includes any kind of speech modification (different voice, accents, etc.).

      • A type of “death row” feeling as anxiety grows more and more while waiting for their turn to speak (e.g, introducing  yourself to a group).

      • Anxiety that starts building weeks (or months!) ahead of the speaking event.
        — The levels of anxiety can build so high, one person told me he intentionally caused a car accident in order to avoid a stressful work presentation.

      • Different public speaking scenarios could be more challenging than others. Some find it most stressful reading aloud, while others find it harder to introduce themselves, or even speaking at meetings.

Sound familiar?

The differences

For most people I’ve met who have public speaking anxiety, the fear before speaking in public is usually worse than the situation itself. They can “ride the wave” once they start speaking, even if there’s some degree of anxiety. Often times, it’s hard to tell when a person was very anxious before or while speaking, as their symptoms, for the most part, aren’t physical. This means that for the majority of people, the more they practice public speaking, the more their related anxiety lessens. 

For most people who stutter, the basic fear of stuttering almost always comes true; and if that weren’t enough, it happens every time we speak, not just in specific situations. 

We fear that we’re going to stutter    we usually do    it gets worse  →   someone might ask us if we forgot our name (negative feedback)    our prehistoric mind yells “I’m gonna die!”    the fear is reinforced and the cycle continues.

The fear of stuttering - a self reinforced cycle
The fear of stuttering - a self reinforced cycle

Because of this cycle being engraved so deeply within us from an early age, if left unattended, the fear of stuttering might grow so deep that we’ll try to avoid speaking and expressing ourselves verbally altogether. I’m exaggerating to make a point, though I have met some people who meet that description. If you can’t relate to any of this, consider yourself very lucky to have had parents and teachers who did such a good job.

“Individuals who stutter have a much higher risk of developing SAD than the general population due to bullying and negative peer responses that often begin in childhood, and it has been suggested that social anxiety increases the risk of relapse for adults who stutter following speech treatment due to situation avoidance.” (Flinders University on Medical Xpress, 2018)

This is why it is crucial that we keep working on our well-being and eradicate the fear of stuttering, rather than stuttering itself.

But how?

By constantly challenging ourselves, pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones, and strengthening our mental and emotional resilience.

Practising Public speaking

We need to invest in redirecting the fear of stuttering into a drive to express ourselves, to stop thinking about fluency as a goal and start thinking about the bigger picture of how we want to convey our message.

Speaking, in a way, is similar to playing an instrument. It’s one thing to perform really well in your practice room, but the only way to be prepared for performing in front of people is to perform in front of people.

Having seen the confidence of people who once had public speaking anxiety, and seeing the changes in myself and in other people who stutter, I know public speaking is an amazing practice tool for people who stutter.

If you are ready for such a challenge, here’s what you can gain from practising public speaking:

When I prepare for giving a talk and imagine how successful I want my performance to be, the first image that always springs to my mind is being fluent. The yearning for fluency is so innate in a stutterer’s mind; we need to be conscious of it. I always need to consciously teach and remind myself that fluency is not the goal. What’s more important is what I want to say, how I want to say it, and what energy I want to convey.

This is a lifelong journey.

The ability to comfortably express ourselves in front of people whether giving presentations, in a meeting or just a friendly chat, is an essential skill in every part of life. You might as well invest in yourself and practice it, stutter or no stutter. 

Go express yourself!

Sources and deeper read:

Breaking the stutter shell: From a quiet loner to centre of attention

Post: Meeting-new-people

Breaking the stutter shell: From a Quiet loner to centre of attention

I would usually argue that stuttering is an internal issue. Nevertheless, its impact is so-called “double external”; the first external impact is obviously our disfluent speech. This often causes a chain reaction of negative social feedback, which ends up with us adapting behaviours we otherwise wouldn’t have.

We think we do it to fit in or protect ourselves, but what we’re really doing is building thicker and thicker shells to hide ourselves in. We retreat deeper and deeper into the shell, exposing less and less of ourselves to the outside world.

About a year ago, I came home after a friend’s wedding and thought to myself: “Wow! What a transformation I’ve made!”

Looking back at who I was during my old school parties, I was the guy who sat alone near the wall, trying to look nonchalant while everyone else was dancing and chatting.

I was that guy who sat in the back, talking to one close friend at the most. From time to time, a “cool” girl with a good heart tried to drag me out to the dance floor, but I would decline politely yet firmly.

It’s not that I was concerned about my dancing skills, it was the small chats between, and sometimes during, songs that I couldn’t handle.

I wanted to be on that dance floor with everyone else. they all seemed to have a great time.

I wanted to accept the “cool” girls’ hands and dance with them, but I was stuck deep inside my shell of “the stutterer”.

A pretty girl taking you by the hand

Fast forward twenty years (already?!), at my friend’s wedding with my gorgeous wife and kids, and I’m a totally different person. I’m a conversation starter, moving from one group of people to another, introducing myself to anyone who looks interesting.

The funny thing is, most of the change I’ve made is internal.

Yes, I do still have a stutter. Although I did improve my speech a lot (as long as I’m below the two beer mark), I feel that’s only the top 10%, the tip of the iceberg. The real change-maker is the big invisible chunk, the 90% that’s underwater.

I want to share with you the lessons that helped me to get to where I am.

If you have a stutter, keep these three things in mind when meeting new people

Understand the other side

Often times, we tend to think about the way we stutter only from our own perspective. We get stuck in a loop where we’re only aware of our speech and the emotions or fears it arouses within us, but we forget the other side of the conversation.

Let’s focus outside ourselves for a minute.

In many cases, people won’t understand why you do what you do when you speak. Even though statistically most people should know one or two people who stutter, since they make up 1% of the population, that doesn’t mean they comprehend that what they hear (and see) is actually a stutter.

Imagine talking to someone who suddenly, out of the blue, starts spitting billiard balls out of her mouth. That’s the reason for all those silly “Did you forget your name?” questions.

Most people wouldn’t say anything but remain uneasy, focusing solely on that thing you’re doing they can’t understand, rather than what you’re saying.

A small side remark acknowledging your stammer can potentially eliminate all that discomfort and restore the focus of the conversation to things that actually matter.

It’s also important to remember that people find all kinds of physical traits unappealing; what’s appealing for some can be off-putting for others. Just like height, body shape, smell, colour, even tooth shape (the list is truly endless) — the way you talk can be a turn-off for some people. That’s natural and out of your control, so don’t dwell on it!

Be open about your stutter

I know this will be very hard for some. I’d like to try convincing you to start opening up about your stutter.

If you think about it, I don’t believe FLUENT is on anyone’s checklist for their ideal partner, boss, colleague, drinking buddy, etc. My theory is: if someone declines your company, your stammer probably had very little to do with it. If anything, it would have more to do with the way you hold and present yourself.

When I started opening up about my speech, I began receiving all kinds of positive responses and perspectives I didn’t expect:

– “It’s part of your charm”

– “I always saw it as a style of speaking rather than a stutter”

– “It’s kind of cute!”

By opening up about your stutter, you’ll also be perceived as more confident, and you’ll feel more confident too. One of the best things I’ve learned from positive psychology is that we judge ourselves the same way we judge others. This means that if you see someone being open about their weakness, you’ll probably think they are strong, brave, and self-confident. By doing that yourself, you’ll think these things about yourself too.

A confident man

Be mindful about your first impressions

One of the biggest concerns we have in every new interaction is making a good first impression. This is usually an even greater concern for people who deal with a stutter; we worry a lot about how we’re perceived because of it.

People usually talk about first impressions in one of two ways:

Facial first impressions: This is the kind of impression we get about people solely by looking at their face, or at a photo of their face. Believe it or not, studies have shown that this type of first impression takes only a tenth of a second to form. It relies solely on physical attributes of the face, so you can’t do anything about it, except maybe cut your hair and take a bath.

First impression by interaction: This is the kind of impression we get about people by their general appearance and the way they interact with the world. It includes things like clothes, body language, voice, facial expressions, and speech. Some say that this type of first impression is formed within about seven seconds of the first interaction.

There is a lot of information available on this topic throughout the internet. A good start would be to learn about simple body language tools that will help you create better first impressions with people you meet. The important thing is, of course, practising these tools and being mindful of real-life situations.

After you’ve done your best to make a good impression, there’s nothing else you can do! So let other people worry about what they think!

The other side of first impressions

There is often a second side to first impressions that is never talked about.

In every first encounter with someone, you don’t just get a first impression of them (and vice versa), but you also get an impression of yourself with them: that is, the feelings and images you had of yourself while meeting that new person (e.g. did you feel confident or anxious, engaging or introverted, etc.). Let’s call this “self-impression”.

This can, of course, be affected by the state you were at the time of the meeting and by how this new person (or your first impression of them) made you feel.

As we know, first impressions stick. Next time you meet that person, you’ll naturally become who you perceived yourself to be during that first meeting; you’ll become that imprinted version of yourself from that first encounter, and that creates inertia, which is hard to break. This is relevant because of the psychological elements of stuttering.

We all know that we tend to speak more freely with certain people more than with others. Interestingly, I often find that the severity of my stutter with someone usually persists in the same manner after the first encounter.

If you’re like me, your speech is directly linked to your mental and emotional state. Given this, your speech level with someone depends on the self-impression you “recorded” on the first interaction with that person.

Furthermore, this self-impression can explain why we find it difficult speaking with certain archetypes, e.g. authority figures, alpha types, tall people, etc. We form these imprints at a younger age and they stick with us throughout our lives.

Our self impression impacts the level of our speech with someone new

Walking the Path

Though it isn’t possible to directly change other people’s first impression of you or the way they behave around you, there’s no reason to let your past insecurities trip up your present self and how you feel in this moment.

Mastering all these tools requires continuous inner work on ourselves: dealing with the underwater part of the stuttering iceberg, melting it bottom-up.

Easier said than done, of course, but by focusing on raising our awareness to the present moment and getting to know ourselves and who we want to be, we can get closer to that ZEN place of responding in the moment, rather than reacting to the past.

This is a life long journey, not a quick fix.

But it’s a journey worth taking.

Post: Meeting-new-people

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