A Nashville Public Speaking Group Helps People Who Stutter Find Their Voice
Fifi Appih was clearly pleased to speak to the group, knowing that everyone in the room will understand if his voice catches or stumbles. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

A Nashville Public Speaking Group Helps People Who Stutter Find Their Voice

Eugene Johnson addresses a Toastmasters meeting, telling the audience he once avoided saying his own name for fear it would make him stutter. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN
Eugene Johnson addresses a Toastmasters meeting, telling the audience he once avoided saying his own name for fear it would make him stutter. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN


To overcome your fears, face them head on. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. If you’re scared of public speaking, then get up and give a speech. But what if every time you talk, even just with a friend, there are moments when your voice gets stuck on a single sound?

One new group forming in Nashville says that fear has the same cure: Get up and give a speech.

They’re hoping to soon become just the third chapter of the public speaking club Toastmasters International that’s geared specifically for people with a stutter, after groups in Sydney, Australia, and London, England.

Communication Is “A Basic Human Need”

Jack Henderson served as an emcee of sorts at a recent introductory meeting. Henderson is a gregarious guy with a broad smile — and a stutter. It’s always been there, always will be, but he’s gotten very good at working around it. He’s a speech and language therapist with a background in theater who does improv comedy on the side.

Henderson, on the far right, says his mother encouraged him to get involved in theater as a child. He admits his stutter can be a frustration on stage, but says he wants to act more than he dislikes his speech impediment. Image courtesy LOL Nashville
Henderson, in the yellow shirt, says his mother encouraged him to get involved in theater as a child. He admits his stutter can be a frustration on stage, but says he wants to act more than he dislikes his speech impediment. Credit: LOL Nashville

There’s a joy in communicating and being understood. Henderson calls it a basic human need. But he says lots of people with the same speech issues are often too scared to speak. They’re worried they might not say the word they want to, he says, and they’re worried about other people “might laugh, or turn away, or finish what they’re saying for them.” Those people need a safe place, which is what Henderson hopes the Toastmasters chapter can become.

At the meeting, members take turns giving short speeches. Afterwards, they’re given feedback on grammar and how closely they held to certain time limits. At most Toastmasters meetings, there’s also a count of how many times each person resorts to filler sounds like “ah” or “um,” but in this group, those are only counted if a speaker specifically makes the request.

That’s because what sounds like “um” or “ah” may actually be the start of a stutter. Or, even if it is a filler sound, it could be buying time while the person mentally switches gears from a word they feel is about to get caught in a loop to one they know they can say fluently. In this group, whatever technique helps you use your voice is welcome because using your voice might just help you be yourself.

Coming Out Of Hiding

Take Eugene Johnson, for example. His experience was the impetus for forming this chapter. He’s an accomplished man, with multiple degrees, and, as he says, a natural urge to interact. But for years he retreated inward.

“I’d been a member of my church for thirteen years but never joined a ministry,” Johnson says, explaining that he lacked the confidence to risk tricky conversations. He describes himself as a natural extrovert who’d adopted the habits of an introvert because of his stutter. Eventually, that extroverted nature pushed Johnson to get in front of groups and just try to talk. He found he could do it — and he joined not one, but five ministries at his church.

Now, he wants to see other people like him come out of hiding. So, at the introductory Toastmasters meeting, Johnson stood in front of about 30 people and talked about simple, everyday things that used to intimidate him.

“I can go to a restaurant now as opposed to having to study, to settle for what I can pronounce. I can call up that lady at Amazon.com or wherever and demand a refund for the money that I’ve overspent or that I shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.”

Fifi Appih was clearly pleased to speak to the group, knowing that everyone in the room will understand if his voice catches or stumbles. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN
Fifi Appih was clearly pleased to speak to the group, knowing that everyone in the room will understand if his voice catches or stumbles. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

After the prepared speeches comes a chance for anyone to come up front and speak off the cuff for one to two minutes. At the call for volunteers, Fifi Appih raised his hand from the back of the room so tentatively that almost nobody saw.

Appih says he could feel his adrenaline surge even before he raised his hand. It wasn’t like the other times the man from Ghana had visited public speaking groups, only to sit silently. This time was different. This time,  he wasn’t the only one with a stutter.

“I just decided to just go for it and, yeah, it was pretty scary, I’ll tell you that,” he says. “I was shaking. And I didn’t think I could even talk for a minute.”

Once he reached the front of the room, Appih took a deep breath and shared a very personal story about the time a friend died in high school. He talked for a minute and 30 seconds. Appih says that’s the most outspoken he’s been in a very long time.

So how did it feel to make that leap? Appih grinned as he compared it to a base jump: very scary, but a thrill that he really enjoyed. Then he waved a piece of paper in his hand: a membership application. He’s going to join.

[box]A Few Facts About Stuttering

Stuttering is not always the quick repetition of a sound. It can also take the form of an elongation (“mmmmmmmmany”) or even silence as the speaker struggles to form the sound.

According to the Suttering Foundation, roughly 1 percent of the population stutters.

Men with stutters outnumber women four to one.

Most people who stutter can sing or whisper without a stammer, but the reason for that difference hasn’t been pinned down. [/box]

 

Nina Cardona

Nina Cardona is WPLN's host for All Things Considered. As a reporter, she covers a wide range of assignments with an emphasis on culture, the arts and local history. A graduate of Converse College, she's lived in Middle Tennessee most of her life.
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