Practice makes perfect. At least, that’s the saying, right?
As someone who has childhood-onset fluency disorder – AKA stuttering – public speaking was unthinkable for me while growing up. Whether it was reading out loud in grade school, or giving a speech in class in middle school, standing up to talk in front of people always resulted in me experiencing severe, debilitating, verbal blocks.
Perhaps the best way to describe the physical experience of stuttering is to say that it’s like an invisible hand is slowly choking you. And often, the more you try and get out of the choke-hold, the stronger the hand clamps down on your vocal chords. In such situations, being asked to slow down or take your time almost never helps, since it’s kind of like asking a person who is being strangled to stay calm. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and to the stutterer, it’s both annoying, and embarrassing.
Then again, if there’s one thing stutterers are experts at, it’s being embarrassed. Without question, my worst experience with public speaking was when as a fresh-faced university graduate, I had to co-present a paper at a linguistics conference. My co-presenter, who was also my boss at the time, finished their segment, and introduced me, handing the rest of the presentation off to me. I stood up in front of about 30 of my colleagues and superiors, and for at least a minute and a half, couldn’t get a single syllable out. The kind of shame you feel after an experience like that is difficult to put into words. I remember going back home and just sitting on the floor for hours, unable to even imagine how I could face any of my coworkers, ever again.
If adulthood was difficult as a stutterer, getting through high school was near impossible. While not everyone would make fun of me, though many did, what was most difficult to take was the pity that emanated from audiences whenever I experienced blocks. It was very frustrating to have people commonly mistake my stutter for a lack of preparation, or for them to assume I didn’t know what was I was saying. By the time I was in my early teens, I had already decided that public speaking was not for me.
My high school drama teacher changed that. When he had auditions for the school play, he encouraged me to try out, and gave me some very good advice about my stutter.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, I had practised before, for those in-class speeches, but I had always ended up stuttering anyway. But the practice in the context of a school-wide stage production meant practice on a different level.
Here, practice didn’t mean reading through the text a few times, the night, or even the week before. It meant reading my lines over and over again, hundreds and hundreds of times, until I could repeat them forwards, backwards and sideways. It meant knowing each line, word-for-word.
So I practised. And practised. And practised.
The play went on the boards, and I went on stage in front of 700 people. I was 99% fluent, with my stuttering being almost unnoticeable.
However, I didn’t realise how important that experience was in my life, until I began to prepare for my first WordCamp talk ever. I had joined Automattic, and my newly appointed mentor, Yoav Farhi, encouraged me to apply to speak at a WordCamp in my region. My first reaction was to laugh at the idea, but soon, that laughter was replaced by pure, unadulterated fear. I knew I had to do it.
WordPress was a part of me, and I wanted to share that with others, even if it meant risking embarrassment in front of 300 strangers. So, I went back to the only thing that had ever worked for me: practice.
I went through my full 20-minute talk at least a 100 times before the event, and as the words tumbled out of me on stage at the Manik Sabhagriha Auditorium, in Mumbai, I remember thinking to myself – is this really me? It can’t be!
I was that fluent.
For WordCamp Pune 2015, I did a hundred trial runs, and I was once again almost completely fluent, this time in front of 250+ people.
However, my four-minute flash talk at the Automattic Grand Meetup 2015, didn’t go as planned. I switched topics at the last minute, and didn’t get my 100 practice runs in. It showed. I experienced significant blocks, and hit less than 50% fluency. But for WordCamp Mumbai 2016, I once again managed to get in a 100 practice runs before my talk, and I was once again almost completely fluent.
There was clearly a pattern here.
Looking back on this last year and a half of public speaking at WordPress related events, my biggest takeaway is this:
Really control the variables you can control,
so you have more bandwidth for the variables you cannot control.
Here are what those variables look like for me:
Though I have been to speech therapy for years, and have several techniques that I use to get through blocks and be more fluent in my speech, at a very fundamental level, my stutter is something I have no control over.
The purpose of practising my talks is not to make my stutter better. My stutter will likely never get better in the sense that it hasn’t really increased or decreased over the last decade.
The reason I practice my talks so many times before hand, is so that I will not have to spend any mental energy on the day, wondering about which bullet point or slide is coming next, or where I am in my talk, or how much time I have left.
And, if I don’t have to worry about any of those things, I can focus squarely on my speaking, and make sure I am using all available mental resources to channel my way through any blocks or difficulties I experience in my speaking, the biggest variable that I have very little control over.
So, whatever external issues you have with speaking in public – whether it’s a speech issue, or an anxiety-related problem, or something else entirely – I encourage you to look at practice as a possible solution.
There is a ton of content out there on how to practise for public speaking, and it’s great to get ideas from all of that. But for me, practice is just about standing up in front of my computer, and going through my slides from start to finish, and timing myself. And most importantly, it’s about doing this not once, not twice, or ten times, but a hundred times.
One hundred is the number that seems to work for me. If I can get through my topic a hundred times alone, or in front of a few friends and family members, I now know I can get through it in front of hundreds of people, and do so with a high level of fluency.
For me, practice will never mean perfect.
However, practice does mean possible. And I’ll take it!
Photo by Jen Hooks