I was first diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome as a child, somewhere around the age of 11 (20+ years ago). I don’t view Tourette’s as a disability per se, but I have spent the majority of my life coping with my symptoms to avoid terribly awkward (and frequently embarrassing) social situations.
I recently made the life decision to stop taking medication to control my symptoms — a difficult and frightening decision for anyone in a position such as mine. In doing so I have now become even more acutely aware of my speech patterns and motor tics, and it occurred to me that the techniques I have used over the years to disguise/mitigate/hide my symptoms are exactly some of the same techniques I have been using to become a better public speaker.
I hope that by sharing my story, more people will build up the courage to begin public speaking — whether that be in their offices and meetings, or at larger events like technology meetups and conferences.
I don’t claim to be an expert in public speaking, nor do I claim to be a particularly fantastic speaker; I’m certainly not on the TED circuit. But I have spoken at nearly a dozen tech conferences and countless local meetups over the past 10 years and I’ve seen very tangible career benefits as a result of my speaking experience.
Public speaking is a skill that I passionately believe everyone should practice, but far too many people are afraid to simply get started.
Boost Your Vocabulary
Growing up with Tourette Syndrome was hard, if for no other reason than it gave an already awkward adolescent boy one very obvious target for his peers.
My symptoms were relatively mild in comparison to the cases you often see on TV or in the media. I didn’t shout expletives at inappropriate moments, but I did stutter constantly and demonstrated a variety of motor tics. I even stuttered when I tried to say my own name — so imagine the social anxiety I felt simply introducing myself. Although I had a group of really amazing friends, I was harassed ad nauseam and regularly felt humiliated in social situations.
Because my stutter was so obvious, I forced myself to quickly think of synonyms for words I had difficulty pronouncing. That skill was perhaps the greatest one of all — it helped to avoid the awkwardness of stuttering in conversation while also improving my vocabulary!
As a public speaker
This skill also helped me become a better public speaker. Yes, having a robust vocabulary makes you (as the speaker) sound more intelligent/qualified — but it also allows you to think more quickly when you forget what you were about to say. Being on stage, in front of people, possibly with spotlights on you can be terrifying… and it gets exponentially worse if you lose your train-of-thought.
Practice your presentations thoroughly, but don’t memorize your lines. You know the content, so let your vocabulary shine.
Over the years, I also received some great advice: speak more deliberately (i.e. slowly).
Speaking more deliberately is really hard when you stutter (and when you’re speaking in public) because it draws out the amount of time people are looking at you. This social anxiety is hard to overcome, but ultimately speaking more slowly allows your body to become less tense — thereby reducing the likelihood you’ll stutter. It just takes practice.
A few years ago I attended a public speaking seminar in which they recommended reading more books to your children, and that you should emphasize the pause between each sentence. The general idea here is:
- Speaking slowly helps children better understand the story; the same is true for an audience
- People often speak too quickly, especially when they’re nervous (e.g. when you’re on stage)
- The emphasis on silence (in between sentences) is excellent practice for giving presentations
Also, this technique has the added bonus of forcing you to spend more time with your kids!
As a public speaker
The skill of speaking slowly and deliberately is incredibly valuable as a public speaker. The most important aspect in my opinion is forcing you to become comfortable with silence — something that far too many people fear when they’re speaking in front of a large group. Silence is totally okay; often you need more of it.
Speaking slowly and deliberately will also help to reduce the amount of filler words (nervous) people often use — words like “um”. It is distracting to the audience when the speaker says “um” every other word, plus it makes the speaker appear less qualified.
Finally, speaking slowly and deliberately will help you fill the allotted time (usually 30-45 minutes) for your presentation. Few things are as frustrating to an audience as a speaker who races through their material.
You Aren’t Your Anxiety
Having dealt with Tourette Syndrome for more than 20 years, I learned to accept what my best friends already knew: that I was not defined by my tics.
The final technique I developed over the years was to embrace my stutter — and even call attention to it. In social situations I might quip “Ugh, I can’t talk today!” or I might even pause mid-sentence, make a silly noise, roll my eyes and say “Well what I was trying to say was…”. The point is that I let my personality be the thing people remember — because that’s the part of me that matters, not my stutter.
As a public speaker
Think about the times you have sat through presentations: what where the things you remember?
Very often we attend conferences or meetups when there is a sufficiently appealing topic because we want to learn more about it. We will take away some informational nuggets on the content, but more often you’ll remember the speaker (for better or for worse). The best speakers always appear natural on stage, and if you talk to them afterwards their personality is identical to the one you saw on stage.
The point here is to let your personality shine. People will like you! There’s no need to dress up (or down) your background and qualifications, and no one expects you to be perfect. After all, you’ve taken more risk than anyone in the audience by simply standing up in front of everyone.
While there will always be some jerk who notices your flaws, you must remember the meme “haters gonna hate”. Opinions are like assholes, and ultimately these people don’t matter.
This is just my story
I have lived with Tourette Syndrome for more than 20 years. Truth be told, most of the people I know today don’t even know I have it as it’s been years since my tics were at their worst — I have largely outgrown the motor tics (as most people do by adulthood) and my stutter is well under control.
Having said that, I always get nervous when speaking in front of groups. My social anxiety surrounding these situations is very real; but while I have some psychological scars from living with Tourette’s, almost everyone who speaks in public has exactly the same fears and anxiety.
I’m curious to hear other people’s stories. I often hear speakers talk about the reasons why they got started — please share yours!