May 082013

What is stuttering and what causes it?

I’ve been asked this question many times but much more frequently since the Academy award movie “The King’s Speech” brought the problem of stuttering to the public’s attention.  Most of us have seen people who can’t get their words out, who hesitate or seem to get stuck speaking, who “stammer.”  What separates this type of speech from the “um’s and ah’s, hesitations and repetitions that most people experience to some degree?

By definition, stuttering is a speech pattern of repeating or prolonging the first sounds or syllables of a word.  Eye blinking, facial grimacing and other noticeable changes sometimes accompany the stuttering block.  The person who stutters frequently appears to be struggling to speak and the listener oftens feels uncomfortable watching.

What’s happening when someone stutters?  Fundamentally, the stuttering block is a miscoordination between breathing and speaking that results in a tightening of muscles in the throat.  The speaker struggles to break out of this spasm and the result is the speech pattern we hear as a stutter.

Is this psychological?  If I were to ask people in the street, I would receive a resounding “yes.”  But in fact, stuttering is a neurological problem that causes the miscordination I’ve described, not a psychological one.  “The King’s Speech” reinforced the theory of childhood pressures and trauma as the cause of stuttering.  As drama, the idea worked very well, but it’s not factual.  For sure,  psychological conditioning occurs when someone experiences stuttering blocks,  setting up a pattern of behavior.  Even more, when the stutterer feels uncomfortable or anxious in a speaking situation, the problem can become worse.  But it doesn’t start in the stutterer’s mind.

Are “um’s, ah’s” that I’ve recently written about in this blog part of a stuttering pattern?  Rarely so, although some stutterers use fillers to bridge the gap when they block on a word.  In both cases, the speaker gives an impression of rough, disjointed speech, not smooth speaking.

Can stuttering be treated?  Both children and adults can be treated for stuttering or dysfluency but it usually takes effort on the stutterer’s part to use the techniques learned, except for young children who can more easily modify their speaking without becoming aware of the extent of their problem.

Stuttering affects 1% of the adult population and occurs in all countries, among speakers of every language.   Stuttering can shape someone’s behavior and affect his or her life in profound ways.  But it is treatable.


Check back next week for more thoughts on communications and speech.


Apr 302013

Last week when I wrote about “The Um, Ah Problem”, I mentioned “The Two P’s,” phrasing and pausing.   I’ve been asked to elaborate on this point following the workshop I presented at Watercooler in Tarrytown last Thursday on “How to Grab Your Audience.”

Effective communication should engage others, bring them into your message, inform them about what you know or your point of view.  How do you engage people?  Allow time for the listener to process what you’re saying.

When we translate our ideas into words, we think in phrases.  The normal flow of speech occurs at the phrase level, not in perfectly formed sentences.  Yet so many speakers rush what they’re saying, barely stopping to pause.  If the listener can’t process the information you’re presenting, you lose your audience’s attention.  Additionally, by speaking too quickly, how much do we set up the possibility of stumbling and not being able to find our words?  Here’s the “um, ah problem” again.  If we think in phrases, we should present in the same way.

What happens in those pauses?  You take a breath — a key to relaxing yourself.  You give yourself a split second to segue to a new thought.  By pausing you can emphasize a word or a phrase.  You can make use of intonation, rhythm and  melody.  Rushed speech loses many of these critical elements that contribute to natural sounding, effective speech. Good speakers use the brief moment of silence –the pause — to let an idea sink in, to emphasize a point,  to reduce the “um, ah problem.”  Most importantly, to keep the listener engaged, or put another way, to grab your audience.


Check back next week for more thoughts on topics in communications and speech.




Apr 232013

How many times do you say “um, “ah”, “you know,”  in the normal course of conversation?  We all use “fillers” to bridge the gap while we’re thinking of a word, switching topics, gathering our thoughts.  Unless they’re excessive and break the flow of speech, speakers and listeners in conversation generally don’t generally take note of fillers.  But if you’re presenting in front of a group, these fillers can become distracting and detract from your message.

How to  reduce the “um’s” and “ah’s”?  Probably the best secret lies in preparation.  In my last two Blog posts I’ve written about the importance of good preparation and how to achieve it.   When you’ve carefully thought about what you want to present and written some speaking points or prepared PowerPoint slides, you’ll have less difficulty formulating your speech.  Keep the logical flow of ideas going.  And practice out loud.  Good preparation and practice reduces hesitations.

The next critical tip is  what I call “The Two P’s”:  phrasing and pausing.  Language formulation generally occurs in phrases, not word by word.  Use the natural phrasing that’s part of our speech.  But remember to pause at the end of phrases — to take a breath, for emphasis, to switch topics, and very importantly, allow listeners to process the flow of information you’ve presented.  Filling  pauses with “um” and “ah” becomes a habit.  Give yourself and the listener a break.  Take a breath.  A second or two of silence can be more valuable than you think.


I will be covering “The Two P’s” and other tips on how to make a great presentation at my workshop this Thursday, April 25th, 7-9 PM at Watercooler, a coworking space on Main Street in Tarrytown.

Check back next week for more thoughts on topics in communications and speech…