My stammer and me
17th February 2023
Martin Radvan tells us his journey from his early days at school to becoming CEO of a major global brand. For him, learning ways to manage his stammer has been the focus, and he shares his techniques and strategies here.
My name is Martin and I stammer. Successfully!
I was told that I'd "grow out of it," but that’s not quite the case. Rather, I live with my stammer. It has undoubtedly shaped me and has influenced many life choices. I have developed techniques to mitigate or overcome hurdles; fundamentally, I manage it. I have a good life and have enjoyed a very successful career, culminating in becoming CEO of a major company.
I wanted to write about my experiences, hoping that stammerers, parents, or those connected with stammerers, can garner encouragement.
All change can be 'traced' to a moment, where we are inspired to see things differently. For me, there was immense power in a neighbour's words, casually uttered to me during a chat over the fence. I was perhaps thirteen, and still exploring how best to manage this most personal challenge.
"I stammer, Martin," he said, "but I manage it!" What an impact his words had.
Perhaps I can offer similar hope to others by sharing my story. It is one of taking control and managing my stammer, for me.
Stammering can be a difficulty to voice a word.
I experience this as if the word is buried under my sternum. I rarely repeat sounds — there's simply a silence with my mouth moving and occasionally an odd noise coming out. The word is 'stuck' and my chest becomes tight. Finally, I mumble the word, or something/anything, before I move on.
During those silences my mind is in overdrive, screaming speak! and imagining all kinds of consequent embarrassment. Time slows; every second drags and drags.
Each stammerer has their own unique profile — and getting to know it is the beginning of getting to manage it.
For example, I never stammer alone or when talking to the dog. No. My stammering is only in public, or when I'm on the phone. I'm constantly aware of it when speaking, although I've learned to manage, avoid, or trick my way out. Trusting in a few people along the way has also been a great learning.
Those words echoed in my head. Here, a living and breathing person, older than me, whom I respected, who stammered, getting on with life and doing just fine.
I was fortunate to have a caring childhood. My parents initially thought it cute when I said "MmmmMummy!". No one else in my family stammers and there is no family history of which I'm aware. Primary school was manageable. I wasn't asked to read aloud; I was only cast as a bystander in pantos, and I can't recall any major classroom issues.
Outside of school I was finding ways to manage or avoid my stammer — and these 'tricks' or coping mechanisms are really important for self-progress. In the 1970s, telephones required speaking to an operator and requesting a number. Our exchange was 'Bourne End'. As this proved impossible, I couldn't phone home for a lift as a kid, so I walked! Supermarkets were just starting out and I loved them — you could buy without needing to speak! When forced to speak, let's say in the butchers, I learned to point and say "Some of those, please," which had a greater success than trying to say "sausages"!
Managing my stammer became more challenging at secondary school. Roll calls were stressful, and, to my horror, we frequently had to read out loud. My teachers were patient and quite kind. They offered advice such as "Relax, take a deep breath," which, as every stammerer will tell you, is both evident… yet impossible. I was fortunate that, perhaps I was teased, but was never bullied. If the teacher requested me to read, my classmates would sit silently and wait. I would secretly hope for someone to break the silence and laugh.
I attended weekly speech therapy classes. They never worked, for me. In time came that fortuitous conversation with my neighbour.
"Martin, you stammer?" he said. "Well, I do too!"
I was astonished! I'd known him for years and had never seen an adult stammer.
"I know. It's hard," he replied. "But don't worry. Just like me, you'll learn to manage it.’"
Those words echoed in my head. Here, a living and breathing person, older than me, whom I respected, who stammered, getting on with life and doing just fine. I found myself in solution mode…
Strategies and adolescence
First, substitution or avoidance. My bus stop 'The Green Man' was challenging to say. But I knew the price and the preceding stop — both of which were way easier. So, as the conductor approached, I now had three alternatives and with a simple cough or umm, could choose the easiest in the moment.
I discovered roll calls could be answered with "Here/yes" alternatives to my surname, and although I might get a barbed remark from the teacher, this generally worked.
Asking a girl out was tough because phoning, when her parents might answer, would result in my hanging up before we even talked. How I would have loved texting!
I muddled through school until sixth form where I followed Science — because reading aloud wasn't required in Maths, Physics or Chemistry!
Puberty and meeting girls were, at times, an agony. Asking a girl out was tough because phoning, when her parents might answer, would result in my hanging up before we even talked. How I would have loved texting!
Talking in groups, or through loud music each provided alternatives to one-on-one conversations. As soon as I knew a girl better, then I was more relaxed. Of course, I'd also become adept at word substitution.
Adding to the technique toolbox
University continued the learning and the managing. Sadly I called in sick rather than presenting my final year project. I really enjoyed student politics but couldn't run for election, since hustings were simply impossible for me then. When I did make my first public speech, I discovered that humour, making an audience laugh, was another technique that helped.
Working life accelerated this personal toolbox of techniques.
I had to present in meetings and discovered slides allowed you to print difficult words, which allowed me to turn from the audience and gesture/speak them, without facing anyone. This brought an unintended consequence - I was complimented for being a very "natural and conversational" presenter.
When I did make my first public speech, I discovered that humour, making an audience laugh, was another technique that helped.
As I rose in the ranks at work, I had to make speeches to larger audiences, on stages, podiums and ultimately on TV and radio.
Walking on stage, I already knew exactly what and how I'd say my opening words, with many pre-prepared alternatives ready. (When jogging, much to the amusement of passers-by, I'd recite various openings out loud.) Looking at the spotlights as I walked on stage was another great tip. Being temporarily blinded meant I couldn't see the audience until well underway.
Finally, as CEO of a very large and global organisation, only my Head of Communications ever knew that I stammered. I needed to tell him, since to this day it's impossible for me to use an autocue or read aloud, because in both these instances there's no option of word-changing.
To his credit, he never spoke of it again but simply handled it, and I was never compromised. With practise, I got better and more confident at public speaking. Although never over-confident, knowing it's vaguely 'present' every time one stands up.
As I have journeyed through adulthood, my stammer has regressed to the background.
My children are probably unaware of it. They don't stammer. Of my friends and colleagues, only those stretching back to early schooldays have distant memories of my challenges. Most would be amazed to know that I am a life-long stammerer.
Naturally, my wife is aware and sometimes smiles at me, or even speaks for me, if I'm stuck. Ordering in a restaurant, especially in a group, can present challenges. She knows, for example, that there's no way I could ever say "profiteroles" so she’ll bail me out, in service of one of life's best desserts.
To this day, introductions are dangerous ground. Saying my name is particularly difficult and requires me to search for alternative opening lines, gestures and movements. Opening remarks on the phone also remain uncomfortable.
But we get to know ourselves well, with time. While speaking, I can now sense a tricky word coming. I see the awkward words ahead before they arrive, and either change them, or cough, or laugh, or use a myriad of other tricks to let the communication flow.
Managing my stammer works for me, and I don't even know I'm doing it. With practise, it could be the same for you!