Experimenting with rhythm and gestures

The article's author, John Boon, sitting in a restaurant looking at the camera

22nd June 2021

Being reluctant to stammer in front of his friends, John Boon couldn't avoid it one night. But watching Laurel and Hardy made him think about ways he could express himself more confidently.

I used to have a severe stammer, especially when I was young, and it persisted for most of my life. My dad had a bit of a stammer and I might have inherited it from him. I could hardly get a word out in times of stress or tiredness. 

I wat told Marilyn Monroe stammered too when she was tired or stressed. And she wasn't the only public figure: Winston Churchill, James Stewart, Bruce Willis, etc, etc. A surprisingly large number of prominent actors stammered. I would have thought they would have avoided that career like the plague!

At school I hated having to speak in class. When I reached a word starting with a letter I knew I couldn't say, like a B, a hard C or G — almost any consonant — I  avoided the dreaded word by desperately thinking of an alternative, like 'ruler' for 'king'. But I would almost always come to grief, finally coming to a word I knew I couldn't avoid. So I'd try to force it. It would be awful! I tried and tried and could NOT get it out. I felt like a fool as the class giggled and the teacher was embarrassed. 

I was not unintelligent. I had ideas and contributions to make to conversations but I did not, dared not, say a word.

Some people, like my lovely Auntie Florence, tred to 'rescue' me and say the word for me. But that didn't help. Stammerers can feel like they MUST say the word themselves. Then they usually go quiet and red and hardly say a word. So generally I spoke as little as possible, which some people interpreted as standoffishness or unsociability. I was not unintelligent. I had ideas and contributions to make to conversations but I did not, dared not, say a word. If I started, someone would likely butt in which would throw me and I would start to stammer.

A woman sitting on a bench looking into the camera, with the words 'Share your story' displayed

An eventful evening 

Now I'm retired I rarely stammer, being free from the pressures of work. That was until recently, during my weekly evening meal with friends. I've never liked silences, as sometimes happens in company, and often during the meals silences do occur. So I try to liven things up by provoking my friends into a response by deliberately introducing a controversial angle to a particular topic. This tactic usually works and leads to a lively discussion. But one conversation got a bit too lively to — I got overexcited and in my discomfiture I began to stammer a lot, which became obvious and unavoidable to everyone.

After that, I started to fear those evenings I otherwise enjoyed. When I got home that night, there just happened to be a programme on television about stammering. I watched it to see if I could pick up any tips.

After that, I started to fear those evenings I otherwise enjoyed.

The programme was about a particular course for people who stammer that teaches a breathing technique that's different to the diaphragmatic breathing actors use (note: John's referring to 'costal breathing' — see A Guide to Therapy Options for more information about that). It made me think about ways of helping my own stammer. Around the same time there was a Laurel and Hardy film on TV. Now, I'm a little deaf and I find that with modern films it's become acceptable for actors to speak quickly or even mumble. As a result, I don't know what's going on! So I often I switch on the subtitles.

But with Laurel and Hardy films I don't need to do that because they both speak so clearly and without hurry. Especially Ollie, who often speaks As Though Each Word Has A Capital Letter. I thought perhaps I could try speaking that way myself at the dinner.

Then I started to think about it some more. Everyone knows nobody stammers when they sing. (Why is that?) Obviously you can't sing what you have to speak, that would be ridiculous. But what if you use rhythm when you speak? I tried getting into the habit of 'acting' my speech using the rhythm of my body, as actors do, particularly my hands and arms to emphasise what I'm saying. Facial expressions too. Italians and Spaniards 'talk with their hands', we all know that. We British rarely do this. 

So far it seems to have worked for me. I treat each word like it's the world's most precious jewel; sparkling, brighter and more valuable than any other. Words have such power. I don't rush them by. I unhurriedly bring them out, handling them with the reverence each one deserves so that everyone has ample time to admire their beauty. I've learnt I don't have to rush when I speak. I use silences sometimes. Silences (and gestures) are part of speech. I speak when I want to, within reason.

Breaking down the barrier

Speaking is like a river. For most people it flows along happily throughout their lives. But if something is blocking the river, water pressure builds up. That's what it's like for people who stammer. But once that barrier cracks, once we finally break it down — if we can — the water of your speech, built up so high, will flood through in a torrent. Far from being afraid to speak, you won't be able to stop. 

I can now speak confidently and happily to anyone, no matter the subject.

Now, if you expect to fail, you do. And the more you fail, the more you will fail. Turn it round. Succeed and the situation's reversed. They won't be able to stop you speaking.

My suggestions may or may not work for you. But it's happened that way for me. I can now speak confidently and happily to anyone, no matter the subject. I know so much about most things because I have lived so long! I've had so much experience of so many things. I can and now I will contribute something. Some new angle. Some new idea.

Speak out! Onward to victory!

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