As Challenges Go... Giving a TED Talk
18th November 2022
Writer, artist and lecturer Sean BW Parker tells us all about how he came to do TEDx talk about stammering in Istanbul.
In 2013 I was living in Istanbul and working as a musician, writer and English teacher, and found myself about to step on to a stage to deliver a TEDx talk in front of a packed audience...
I'd been a person who stammers since I could talk, around five years old, which led to a degree of despair in my speech therapist mother and drama lecturer father. I remember being perfectly happy just watching my strangely dysfunctional family but being also aware that my older brother felt some resentment due to my presence taking some attention away from him.
After my parents separated when I was nine, our father took us off to live in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, away from our distraught mother, still in Exeter. This move led to even more social exclusion, as our new secondary school was a hotbed of Welsh nationalism. Having a stammer didn't help and I tried to avoid it; rugby or indie music became the only feasible routes to self expression.
I went off to university and achieved a Fine Art Masters degree. I had a powerful inner urge to teach and was determined to somehow manage my stammer in order to do so, so I found myself enrolling on a stammering therapy course at The City Lit in central London. The course helped immeasurably and the techniques of voluntary stammering, bouncing and sliding and positive (but still realistic) self-talk all played their part.
Moving to Istanbul
Within a year I found myself relocated to Istanbul, having met some Turkish people beforehand in London (who I later really missed after they'd gone home). I'd only intended to visit the city for a holiday and see them but ended up staying for ten years.
English teaching is big business in Turkey, and the language course managers were more interested in my fair hair and skin than my grasp of grammar rules (which did come over time). At first I slowed down for the stammer; soon that became second nature in the classroom, and like many people who stammer, my own stammer had long since led to a deep and abiding love of the English (or whatever the native tongue) language.
The topic was left up to me, and realising this was a big opportunity to get my creative voice out there, I wanted to make it something about which I really knew: so Stammering and Creativity it was.
While I occasionally used my newly learnt techniques, I always acknowledged my stammer; I was open about it and the more I spoke about my stammer, the less I stammered. This growing confidence in speaking went hand in hand with a developing aptitude in writing. I became a music columnist for the city's Multicultural Guide, and some other Western music websites.
This work led to an enthusiastic Moroccan expatriate organiser asking if I'd like to take part in a TEDx conference she was putting together. For the uninitiated, TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and has been hosting public talks since 1984. The internet revolution led these to take off in popularity, with Bills Clinton and Gates, Pope Francis and Bono all having given them at one point or another.
The topic was left up to me, and realising this was a big opportunity to get my creative voice out there, I wanted to make it something about which I really knew: so Stammering and Creativity it was. The night before the conference was due to take place, my band had played a show in the city centre, following which the singer of the support band rugby tackled me to the floor, full of whisky, after a he'd taken umbrage at something I'd said — and badly damaged my leg in the process.
So the next morning a couple of (other) friends and I made our way through our hangovers to the prestigious Kadir-Has University where the conference was taking place. After listening to a few expat intellectuals and activists talk about generally environmental issues, I limped up on to the stage, trying to control my breathing — and tried to not think about my father, thirty years before on the vast curtained stage of Exeter University drama department.
Over the next seventeen minutes there were some blocks and stammers, enough to give context to the theme at least, as I got over my message of stammering in society: where it might come from, and how to try to live well with it. For the next few years it spent time being the most watched online talk on stammering, accruing nearly 40,000 views. Many of those were from the Canadian Stuttering Association — it's still used as a source material by speech therapists there. (Watch Sean's TEDx Talk.)
Public speaking is of course near the top of the challenging speaking situations scale for many, but the desire to communicate profound subjects in the succinct time-frame that TED requires made this easier than it might have been. Speaking about stammering itself definitely helps, as the meaning of the medium becomes the message.
City Lit is one of a number of therapy courses available for stammering. See the full list of options on our Therapy & Courses section.
If you want to contact Sean directly, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org