Recently we received a tweet from a follower of @Duarte requesting advice to help a stuttering presenter. “The presenter is competent with the material,” the message said, “but gets nervous and begins to stutter on stage.”
As a speech-language pathologist, I immediately began thinking of stuttering from a clinical perspective. I had flashbacks of a project my professor assigned in graduate school. We were to go to a public place and speak with a stutter. Complete with hesitations, blocks, stops, and repetitions. We were asked to take note of the listeners’ reactions.
The range of reactions I received was fascinating. Yes, most people were visibly uncomfortable. But they gave encouraging smiles, tried to finish my sentences to help me, and overall displayed a tremendous amount of patience and empathy. I got the sense that people really felt for me.
As you can imagine, it’s incredibly frustrating to be unable to express yourself.
It was a valuable experience for me, as a communication professional, because I realize that while public speaking is in no way comparable to a clinical diagnosis of stuttering, the struggle to communicate is a common thread between them. As our tweeter shared, there are moments in public speaking when your nerves take over and your speech quality suffers.
Luckily, just as there are clinical therapy techniques to help a stutterer ease her speech, public speakers have options, too.
7 Tips for How to Stop Stuttering When You Give Presentations
Recognize that stuttered speech is really performance anxiety rearing its ugly head. Use the following tips to help you relax and speak clearly.
1. Visualize Something Positive
There are two types of visualizations you can try to reduce your performance anxiety during a presentation. The first is to visualize yourself successfully giving a smooth performance before you go on stage. Multiple studies have shown that people who visualize themselves delivering a smooth talk, perform better than those who don’t. You can also try visualizing something that makes you feel happy and relaxed. Or imagine someone or something you love—that’ll calm you down and comfort you. For example, I’ve seen great speakers use this technique with images of their children on the podium.
2. Get Familiar With the Presentation Space
Make sure you’re familiar with the space in which you’ll be delivering your talk. That way, there’s nothing surprising about it when it’s time to present. If possible, visit the venue a few days before your talk, practice as much as possible, and ask questions about the set-up so you feel well prepared. Stuttering often occurs when we’re distracted. Becoming familiar with the space and your surroundings will minimize those distractions and will reduce the fast heart rate and irregular breathing that can lead to stuttered speech.
3. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse.
One of the ways to prevent stuttering in a presentation is to rehearse. Rehearsing is key to ensuring you’re familiar with your material before you go onstage. If you have the opportunity to rehearse in the venue where you’ll be delivering your talk, that’s ideal. If you can’t, try practicing in front of a comfortable audience, video record yourself, or even audio record yourself. Receiving some kind of feedback will help guide the way you rehearse. It’s difficult to memorize your entire presentation, but make sure you focus on your opening and closing. If you start off with smooth speech, you’re likely to continue in that pattern. And of course, you want to end with a bang. Even if you end up stuttering in the middle of your speech, your audience will remember your impressive intro and conclusion.
4. Take a Deep Breath or a Lot of Deep Breaths
Before you go on stage, focus on the pace of your breathing. Inhaling and exhaling long, slow breaths will calm you and reduce your heart rate. Once you get a good feel for this controlled rate of breathing, try to be conscious of it when you’re on stage. If the adrenaline kicks in, your heart races and your speech becomes stuttered, it will be difficult for your audience to understand you. Use deep breathing techniques to quell anxiety and get rid of its physical symptoms. In a study on performance anxiety, Australian researchers found that musicians who practiced deep breathing before performances were able to lower their blood pressure and increase blood-oxygen concentration. They recommend:
“Before reaching for the beta blockers anyone facing an anxiety-provoking situation might want to try an extremely low-cost alternative, guaranteed to not produce any negative side effects. Perhaps the simplest way to let go of fear is to slowly, mindfully exhale.”
5. Channel Nervous Energy Through Body Movement
Think of the adrenaline your body gives you before a physical activity or competition. That adrenaline gives you the energy you need to perform. In sports, we’re trained to think of this as a good thing. Why are we trained to think this is bad in a business setting? Use it for good! If you need a more physical way to channel your energy, move around a bit onstage.
A slow, steady walk across the stage can set a rhythm that will slow down your thinking, set the speed of your speech, and reduce the confusion that often leads to stuttering. Make sure you’re not pacing constantly or quickly, however, as that will distract your audience. You can also channel that energy by using purposeful gestures that are varied and congruent with your content. Try not to use the same repetitive movements because that can distract your audience. Listeners will appreciate that you shared that great energy through natural, smooth movements and probably won’t even notice your nerves.
6. Slow Down
When stuttered speech occurs, it’s usually because your mind and mouth are not in sync. The obvious solution is for you to slow down. Easier said than done when you’re on stage and nervous. There are two easy solutions to reduce your speech pace. The first is to over-articulate. Use your lips, tongue, and jaw to exaggerate your word pronunciation. You’re going to feel as if you’re speaking to a group of non-native English speakers or to your grandmother who’s hard of hearing. That’s good! Over-articulating stretches out your words and slows you down. The second option is to pause. Speakers are so afraid of silence. A few seconds feels like forever to someone who’s nervous. But when you stop talking, you allow your brain to catch up. You’re able to think about your next thought and get back on track.
7. Get Some Sleep
Many speakers think if they cram lines and practice until the very last minute, the presentation will go more smoothly. While we absolutely suggest rehearsing, over preparation can harm you. In other words, please don’t stay up all night rehearsing and memorizing! That will not calm you and may, in fact, make you more nervous and cause stuttered speech. Instead, make sure you are well-rested for your talk. Studies show that people who skip sleep to study end up performing worse on tests and tasks than those who studied less but took the time to rest. Fatigue is just as likely to inhibit your performance as lack of preparation, because when we’re tired, it’s difficult to concentrate. Preparing isn’t only about practicing. It’s also about letting your mind take a well-deserved break.
We’ve worked with a wide variety of speakers. From first-timers all the way to experienced C-suite executives. At one point or another, they’ve all been nervous, and it’s affected the way they present. If you’ve suffered from stuttered speech, the above tips can help you when delivering a crucial presentation to your team or a high-stakes speech to a client. It’s normal to be nervous, but taking concrete steps to overcome your presentation fears will help you remain calm. By improving your physical anxiety symptoms, you may be able to eliminate stuttered speech once and for all.