A ssss... stammerers journey to be an international speaker
For those who have interacted with me, they know I stammer. And for my parents, they are so proud of me because I did things in life that they thought I wouldn't do as a stammerer. By that I mean, I am an invited speaker worldwide and I have spoken at more than three dozen international conferences in the last 6 years.
That young kid who wanted to kill himself
In 1994, when I was 14 years old, I decided to end my life. I couldn't face how my classmates made fun of me. I was at class 8 then. It wasn't the first time someone made fun at me. However, a class of 62 laughed at my state every hour. I feared the attendance calls. The practice of schools were to call everyone's name every hour and we have to say "Present" or "Yes Mam". I just couldn't get my timing right. I start saying "Yes", at least 5 names before my name is expected to be called and got the "Yes" at least one name after my name was called, in most cases.
Some teachers understood my state quickly and didn't call my name hoping that they are saving me from embarrassment. My classmates used to still laugh for it because they knew why my name wasn't being called. Holy smokes! I died every hour for 8 hours a day. I waited for the day to get over and the night to come and for the next day to not come. That is not the life anybody wants to live, at least this 14 year old kid didn't want. So death was a good option. I was ready to die because I loved living but not the way I had been formed. As a child, I didn't pray to God or be cursed by a witch to stammer. Yet, I was packaged with it and delivered to my parents.
All or Nothing
My attempts to kill myself, as you are reading this piece I have written, were futile :). I did try killing myself twice but then was too afraid and I thought I will find another way to not stammer. I did find a way. If I shut my mouth forever and pretend to be dumb and then any new people I meet wouldn't know I stammer. I did that. Every new people I was introduced to, I never spoke a word. Some thought about me as an introvert. I was an extrovert dying to speak. What do you call someone like this as? sssstrovert :)
I knew only one thing in my life then, fear. I was feeling bad to discuss what I was going through with my family members. Of course, my parents knew I had the problem but I kept them away from all the trouble I faced at school.
The anger, the frustration, the pain
One fine day, I saw a news paper ad. The ad claimed, "Stammering Cure Center: Cure your stammering in 60 days". I cut that portion of the paper, took my bicycle and started cycling towards that address. I knew where it was. I go knock the door, a gentleman opens the door and I try to speak (try) and he says, "Oh yeah, I understand. I can cure you. It would cost you x rupees". I do not remember the amount he quoted but I know my parents couldn't afford it. I said to him, "I will earn someday and pay you but please fix my stammering" and you don't know how much time I took to say that. I think I took as much time as you'd have repeated it ten times. That gentleman said "No money, no cure"!
I cycled back, crying, and with anger. I cursed God that night. At one end no money to pay this guy who can cure me and on the other end I am left stammering. Several nights passed by. I had a poster of Sai Baba and God in my room and I punched the poster everyday. I have hurt my knuckles many times trying to punch God as the poster was fixed to a wall. What a tragedy!
Hope is a good thing
Maybe God really got punched by me, I woke up with a thought one day and that thought changed my life. A beautiful thought, as I recollect and write it. The thought was, "What in the world does someone do to cure stammering that I can't learn it myself". At the age of 15, I decided I am going to be my own doctor in curing my stammering.
I did some self analysis. Note this was 1995 and I had no internet back then.
I asked questions to myself like
- What occasions do I stammer the most?
- With what kind of people I stammer a lot?
- What words are my major problem?
- What emotions make me stammer?
- What contexts I almost freeze?
- When do I not stammer? Why?
- Is it a disease or a habit?
And then, I decided to run tests on myself. Took up the question of "What occasions do I stammer the most?" and I put myself in all contexts. Like what? Like talking on a telephone, speaking to a girl, answering in the class, saying a hi to a stranger, speaking to my parents and my brother.
Telephone was my first big enemy
I couldn't say Hello. When the phone rings and I have to pick up and say Hello, my jaw keeps moving up and down with no sound flowing out of the vocal chords. Sometimes I say Hello. That Hello would be like a stuck tape being suddenly released off the tape recorder. I decided to take my enemy head on.
I was staying with my uncle back then. I used his telephone and made 3000 calls over a period of an year to random people just to say Hello when someone on the other side picked the call. This wasn't the time of Caller ID so I could call anybody just to say Hello. My uncle wondered why the telephone bills were shooting up and he even did complain to the department. I never spoke a word to my uncle that it is my experiments that were leading this mysterious telephone bills.
And then came girls
Being a guy, a teenager and all that hormone thing just starting to brew within myself, I would freeze speaking to girls. One girl, laughed at my attempt to speak to her so much that I cursed myself that night and thought so much about her that she turned out to become my crush :) Crazy! Although she laughed at me, her laugh is the best I have seen during my teenage.
I then decided to just say Hi to every girl I meet. I thought that falling in love is the best way to talk more to a girl and get the fear off speaking to other girls. I mustered courage and proposed several girls. Out of whom, one did accept my love. Wow! I started dreaming. The love lasted short. My dreams continued though. Girls weren't an enemy, my reaction and consciousness to them were.
Practice, Pradeep, Practice!
While those crazy experiments continued, I practiced something. I practiced saying A, B, C, D... Z loudly. All those practices, everywhere. Every moment is my practice ground. Every single moment. My time at toilet was long, a teenager long there could mean many things but I was practicing. The nights after everybody at home slept, I slipped out to the terrace and spoke as though there were a thousand people in front of me listening to my oratory. A dream as powerful as; I was speaking flawlessly and the audience were spell bound by my communication skills.
I saw some improvement. Actually to tell you the truth, I didn't. Others did. Do you know how many times you breathed since the time you started reading this? No! That is because breathing is oblivious to your life unless you become conscious of it. The same with my stammering. I was stammering the way you breathe and it was oblivious of how less or how more I stammered. When somebody said to me, "Pradeep, sometimes you stammer", I was smiling as though they gave me an award. Inside me, I was like, "Sometimes?, ha ha ha ha, that is quite an achievement"
Breathing and Science
The sound we produce is the air we push out. I discovered this basic science during my 12th. At the age of 17, I tried to vary my breath. Have a deep breath and then try to speak again when stammering. I tried this. I know several other people who stammer try this. I discovered this just makes me not speak the way I want to although it helps me make progress to the next word (or I am led to believe that way)
I have to speak natural, like others. Not like, "Hi <breathe in> how </breathe out> are <breathe in> you </breathe out>. I have to be natural and it ain't coming if I am natural. So be it. Try something else, Pradeep.
Substitution with OK
Little did I realize that I had started substituting OK for every time I thought I would stammer. If I were to speak Mary Had A Little Lamb, I would stammer but instead if I say Mary OK Had A Little Lamb OK, I wouldn't stammer.
Until, OK, I, OK, met, OK, Julian, OK, Harty, OK. Julian taught me an exercise that has made me do less of my OK substitution and still speak without stammering.
Does an accent with an OK work?
Yes it does. In many places in the past, people have tried to derive their happiness by accusing me of faking my accent when I speak. None of them know that I am so original and genuine that they'd just cry out loud if they come to know what I was doing to myself. Doesn't matter if they don't cry.
Public speaking demon and the laughing angels
Aha! Public speaking - the biggest enemy of the world. And imagine the life of a stammerer. Even sweeter. In 1992, at school, sometimes the teachers make me read a passage from a book in front of the whole class. I used to sit in a place and try to hide myself and not be seen by my teachers for this reason that standing in front of the class and reading was my enemy too. My childhood enemy. So bad that I hated going to school.
When I decided to take my enemy head on, I decided to go on stage and do my act as many times as possible. At the age of 20, I stopped looking at who was laughing at me because I had lived with that laughter for 20 years. Even if it was a demon, I see it hasn't killed my spirit but just laughs at me.
Taking my public speaking fear head on, I went on stage on several occasions, and every time I got back from stage, I either said "Good job, Pradeep" or "Bad day". So many times. So much of practice behind and after every attempt. I am writing all of this with no emotion at all. There is no tear or fear while I write this for public reading :)
This has been going on for 16 years. Now, before I share my lessons I want you to listen to one of my most recent talk at Mobile Sparks Conference (Yourstory).
I wore the mask inspired by V in V for Vendatta and for the rebel I have been in my profession. I have tried many different presentation styles. The most recent one from Copenhagen Context with Jon Bach was setting the stage like a coffee shop and having the Hole in the Wall style keynote. I also did a presentation playing Chinese music in the background. I have many ideas like these and looking forward to my future of experiments.
Public Speaking Lessons from a ssssSSSS...Stammerrer
- Your problem is you want to speak awesome. Aspire to do it but don't hurt yourselves when it isn't happening.
- You become nervous because you aren't able to handle yourselves not because there are hundreds of people in front of you.
- Take this enemy head-on. Practice on stage in front of people. Practice in your mind.
- When you are fumbling on the stage interrupt yourselves and tell your audience, "Give me a minute to laugh at how bad I am presenting today"
- You are a good ape. I ape a lot. In the video I posted above, do you see the traces of Leonardo Di Caprio? Now you will, if you have watched Django Unchained. Aping isn't wrong. Nobody is original, everybody are a copy. That is how they have found their own style. My style is surprise, variation, mixture and my wicked humor plus traces of everything that has inspired me.
- If you fear that people will laugh at you then remind yourselves that this demon won't kill you. See I am alive!
- Your practice is on the stage with an audience in the real moment not at the terrace like how I did (although it is fun to be on terrace and speak to a thousand imaginary people)
- Note that if you speak faster than your brain can think or slower, you will stammer, doesn't matter who you are. Make it synch. Start slower than what you think works for you. Speed gets adjusted.
- The more harder you are on yourselves, the lesser progress you'd see.
- You can speak great. If I can, oh you so well can. (Nah! Don't buy that story from others. Do it yourselves)
Life lessons from a stammerer, okay!
- Sometimes, you may want to kill yourselves not because you don't like life but you don't like it the way it appears to be presenting itself. You are the presentation of your life!
- It sometimes might take a lifetime to get what you want. That will keep you alive for as long as you want that.
- You sell stories to your mind that it converts to action. If you notice a bad outcome of your life, check the story you sold to it long ago.
- As long as you want to change yourselves, money or people aren't the reasons why you can't change.
- Life is simple. People like me and hey you, complicate it.
- Your first step to inner peace is only when you acknowledge your shortcoming.
- Do me a favor, smile now, once. (If you did that, you did a favor to yourselves too)
Here is how I'd like to end this. After a decade, I called up a school classmate after I got his number from a mutual friend. I called him and said, "Hey buddy, remember me, Pradeep - Katu (my then nickname)" and he said, "Oh, you are kidding, I bet I know this isn't Pradeep because he wouldn't speak like this."
Guess, how I reacted to it. I don't have a record of it but watch me in Will Smith.
SSsssigning off :))
To my wife who accepted me the way I am, I have been saying "I love you" without having to stammer even once. I can also say that with stammering if she likes :P
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