From the archive: A trainee therapist with experience of acting, singing, sales insists that effective communication in one's job need not depend on fluency.
Throughout my life, I have had an array of jobs as diverse as singer and researcher. However, the common thread which has run through all of them is that I have not allowed the fact that I stammer to prevent me from attempting, nor succeeding at them.
I had my first taste of employment whilst still at secondary school, at the Italia Conti Stage School in London which had its own performing arts agency. The roles I landed here were mainly dance based, as at that time dance was my forte. However, I was also offered acting roles, one being Goldilocks' sister in a production by West End producer and choreographer Bonnie Lythgoe. For the casting of this role, I had to read a script. I managed to do so convincingly enough to get the job, and with very little stammering, something I have often heard from actors who stammer. It's as if by stepping into another character's personality, stammering can somehow be alleviated. I find it very interesting that by playing someone other than myself, my speech often improves, although I also think it's important to point out that this is not always the case! I can still stammer even when in character, it just seems to happen less often!
Speaking as a singer
After stage school came performing arts college, and upon leaving college, in addition to dancing professionally, I also worked as a professional singer. This involved a certain amount of speaking, such as when introducing songs on stage and generally building a rapport with the audience. I won't pretend this hasn't been nerve-wracking at times, it most certainly has, however my passion and aptitude for singing were too great to allow the fear of speaking on stage to prevent me from doing it. As Anthony Robbins said, "Concentrate on where you want to go, not on your fear."
As a singer with several bands, I have also landed recording contracts with two major record labels. As well as studio recording, these deals have also included a great deal of promotional work, including television and radio interviews. If I'm honest, I often found these terrifying speechwise, especially since at the time I had received very little speech therapy (the little therapy I have had was in later life). I experienced many blocks and often used avoidances such as word substitutions. However, in spite of my hesitations and stammering, I did make a contribution to band interviews, answering questions and cracking the occasional joke, which fortunately, usually went down well! Added to which, my anxieties about my record labels throwing me out of these groups on account of my stammer never came true!!!
Top sales assistant
Although I have achieved much as a performer, I have rarely been able to make a living from the performing arts alone, which has led to my seeking flexible employment to support my artistic pursuits. This has resulted in my taking on roles such as sales assistant, waitress and researcher (which included conducting one-to-one street surveys).
As a sales assistant for several fashion labels, although I have experienced high levels of anxiety, as well as frustration with my stammer and the painful feelings that can come with it, I have always been well respected and highly regarded by my managers, not least because of how they have perceived my communication skills. When, during an interview for a sales assistant role I mentioned the fact that I had a stammer, my potential employer replied "The fact that you stammer makes no difference to me, my first impression of you was very positive. You have the right skills and experience for the role, are assertive, and an excellent communicator." She offered me the job, and whilst working for her, she also once told me I was the best sales assistant she'd ever met! Praise indeed! This was partly due to the fact that I also regularly achieved the highest weekly sales in the team. I am very proud of this as a person who stammers, since selling involves high levels of social skills and communication. As a child I would never have dreamed this possible with a stammer!
I am currently working as an assistant store manager for a fashion brand in Spitalfields London, whilst training to become a psychotherapist. Managing a team is not without its challenges, especially for someone who stammers. Anxiety around my speech can rear its head when for example, training staff, speaking in staff meetings and delegating tasks, not to mention making and answering telephone calls. However, I am determined to do my job to the best of my ability, something I also believe is essential in today's competitive working climate, and will not allow my stammer to get in the way of my performance at work. Hence, I 'feel the fear and do it anyway' on a daily basis, as working in sales requires a great deal of speaking and can be very socially demanding.
Going forwards I do not wish to pursue a career in retail, although to a degree I have succeeded in it. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, I wish to become a psychotherapist. This is not least due to my own experience with overcoming personal struggles and difficulties, stammering included! As a step towards this, I have recently successfully completed an Advanced Diploma in the Therapeutic and Educational Application of the Arts. Amongst other things this has involved being assessed as a Creative Arts Therapy Facilitator in front of a group, as well as a great deal of speaking in groups in general. It has taken courage and tenacity to work on non-avoidance in what, for me, are anxiety evoking speaking situations. However, through completing and passing this Diploma, I have learned that I do not have to be fluent in order to have a good quality of contact with clients, be a good listener, empathic, non-judgemental, or to possess any of the other verbal and non-verbal skills and qualities required to be an effective therapist. Once fully qualified, I am looking forward to a successful career in this challenging but exceptionally rewarding role.
I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to write this article, and have not written it in order to boast about my achievements, but instead hope to encourage any person who stammers to go for jobs that they enjoy and excel at, even if they require a great deal of oral communication - and to not rule out any job on account of the fact that they stammer. In my experience, effective communication and competency in one's job do not depend on fluency.
This article was taken from the Autumn 2010 issue of our old 'Speaking Out' magazine, pages 12-13.