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W-w-word imperfect

I stammer. I don’t stammer all the time, but I stammer. I can go sometimes for days, or even weeks without a hitch and then all of a sudden I have a day where I cannot say my own name. Literally. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to it all. No discernable pattern. No associated mood swing. No required stress level. This inability to get the words out of my mouth descends out of the blue and turns my usually eloquent self into an incoherent mess.

Enter stage left

Many years ago, at the tender and impressionable age of 10, I was singled out in front of the whole school as an example of someone who was too lazy to open her mouth and enunciate her words. I was stammering most days back then. A particularly sadistic elocution teacher, employed to remedy my problem not add to it, entered me in the local féis (traditional Irish arts and cultural festival) and charged me with reciting Padraic Colum’s Old Woman of the Roads. Now, W is a particularly difficult letter for me to get my tongue around when I’m having an off day, followed in close second by the letters B, R, and P. So picture the scene: me, on stage, in a black, widow’s shawl, leaning on a hawthorn stick, launching into my recitation with an enthusiasm that only a 10-year-old making her stage debut can muster. Old w-w-w-w-woman of the r-r-r-r-roads, b-b-b-b-by P-P-P-P-Padraic Colum. Excruciating. And yet I won first prize; the coveted gold medal. And all because the judges thought that, having dressed the part of an old crone, I was stammering deliberately to age myself further.

Exit stage right

Fast forward to my first job with a retail bank in Dublin. Most of my telephone customers reached me by way of the receptionist, so I could bypass the introductions and get to work, fixing their problem. When they’d ask my name at the end of our conversation, I’d use the easily pronounceable ‘Ann Clarke’. Most of the time, this subterfuge had little consequence. On the odd occasion when one of them actually came into the branch asking for me in person (my colleagues were clued in to my alter ego), I had to go through the whole explanation and face the incredulity – in all our dealings they had never once heard me stammer. That same incredulity has dogged me to this day. I am absolutely fine until I have to introduce myself and say my name. M + M = disaster. People who hear me speak fluently and coherently, do a double-take and wonder if I’m having a drama-queen moment.

I hate when I’m at a meeting and some bright spark decides that everyone present needs to introduce themselves – nothing onerous – just your name, your title, your reason for living. Simple stuff. As it gets closer and closer to my turn, my stomach ties itself in knots. Bordering on hyperventilation, I work myself up into a knee-trembling tizzy, and rapidly do a head count of how many in the room would know I was lying if I said my name was Ann Clark. The ensuing unintelligible mass of m’s that spews forth earns me sympathetic looks from those who’ve witnessed this particular debacle before, and incredulous looks from those to whom I’d been waxing lyrically in the lobby before the meeting started. There’s simply no getting away from myself.

Finding my mark

I gave my first public speech in 2000 – the graduation speech at a college in Alaska. When I was first asked to do it, I said No! Loudly. Emphatically. No! But I ended up doing it anyway. Modesty aside, I was good. Damn good. And therein begin my love affair with public speaking, stammer or no stammer.

That I have no qualms about getting up in front of a roomful of people and speaking about anything that comes into my head, pales into insignificance when I see my fellow members of Budapest Toastmasters, mostly Hungarians, work their way through the ten speeches in the Competent Communicator’s manual  in English. From their initial 4 to 6 minute icebreaker where they first introduce themselves to the club, to their final 8 to 10 minute inspirational speech, theirs is a path fraught with challenges of a different sort. Speaking with any fluency in a language other than your mother tongue is a challenge. Oh, yes, you can write out a speech and have it copy-edited, and then learn it by heart and deliver it by rote, but at Budapest Toastmasters, some of the best and most innovative use of English comes out in impromptu speeches. This microcosm of Budapest’s society provides a supportive and engaging environment where making mistakes and mixing metaphors have no lasting consequences; an environment, where everyone, regardless of race, class, or creed, is motivated by self-improvement; an environment where everyone finds something good to say about everyone else. And it’s open for membership… www.budapesttoastmasters.com

First published in the Budapest Times 8 July 2011