From holiday rep to travel industry leader
Olly Nicholls explains how becoming a holiday rep and talking to lots of people helped with his stammer.
Hi, I'm Olly and I'm a husband, father, travel industry leader and CEO of one of the leading travel businesses in the UK. My journey to success was not easy. I struggled with my stammer throughout my childhood and adolescence, which affected my confidence and what I thought was my ability to communicate effectively.
I was frequently bullied at school due to my stammer, which made me feel isolated and alone. I also found it challenging to read in front of the class. This affected my academic performance and led to feelings of anxiety and frustration. I wasn't just bullied by my fellow classmates, but on occasions by teachers also. One French teacher told me to "Spit it out" as I tried to read a sentence in French from a textbook.
As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of how my stammer was impacting my life. I found it difficult to socialise with peers, speak in public and make presentations, which significantly impacted my confidence, self-esteem and career opportunities.
I stammered throughout the entire presentation, at one point being so anxious I thought I was about to pass out.
Despite these challenges, I remained determined to succeed. I started my career as a holiday rep, which required me to interact with hundreds of people every day. On the day of the interview I was so nervous as I had to present for 20 minutes on a holiday destination of my choosing. I felt I was terrible; I stammered throughout the entire presentation, at one point being so anxious I thought I was about to pass out. It was only down to a guy called Brian North that I got through the interview. Later in life I asked Brian why he had given me the job. He said it was down to my perseverance and for not giving up, and also, he said, he could tell I had something special.
I arrived in Menorca in the Summer of 2002 and worked at Thomson Holidays' flagship hotel. My team leader Rachel had chosen me to join her team over 100 other potential reps. I thought she was crazy! Why pick the guy who was terrified of presenting or interacting? During that summer, Rachel and the team supported me every step of the way. They would pick me up when I thought it was too much and help me revise my welcome meeting script so that it was one less thing to be anxious about. The support she and the team gave me that first summer changed my life forever. That year we achieved the highest Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire result globally for Thomson Holidays and the highest level of sales. All from a kid who had a stammer.
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This experience taught me to face my fears and push myself outside my comfort zone, gradually working on reducing the impact of my stammer. Over time, my career progressed and I became more confident in my abilities, working in various positions within the travel industry before becoming the CEO of Attraction World Group in 2019. However, whilst my career went in a positive direction my mental health remained scarred from years of undiagnosed anxiety.
That year we achieved the highest Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire result globally for Thomson Holidays and the highest level of sales. All from a kid who had a stammer.
What stammering's given me
My experience of becoming more confident with my stammer has given me a unique perspective on the importance of effective communication over fluency, and I have used this to my advantage in my career. I also strongly advocate raising awareness of stammering and reducing its stigma. My journey has also had a profound impact on my personal life, making me more empathetic and always willing to help others who are struggling with similar challenges.
To anyone who is struggling with a stammer or any other communication difficulty, I want to say that the biggest piece of advice I would give is to not let it hold you back. It's important to find ways to manage your stammer and your fears surrounding it, and build up your confidence. For me, moving overseas and speaking in front of large groups of people was the turning point, but it might be something different for someone else.
It's also important to remember that there is no shame in having a stammer. It's just a part of who you are and doesn't define you. And finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. There are lots of resources available, like speech and language therapy and support groups that can help you manage your stammer and your feelings about it. I even used to wear a ring that span in the middle so I would focus my energy on that rather than on my words.
But ultimately it's about embracing your stammer and turning it into your superpower. It has made me who I am today.