Have you ever been in a situation, be it a presentation, an interview, a recording of some kind, where for whatever reason you just tanked? Me too, fairly often, and the last one was a mere 2 weeks ago.
In an effort to both add an additional dimension or two to my blog, I want to be more open in writing about my stutter (or, stammer). Hopefully it has the dual purpose of firstly, continuing to desensitise me to it, and also to perhaps give someone else who struggles with it a some reassurance that they aren’t alone.
If you stumbled (pun intended) upon this post from some kind of search rather than following me on Twitter, I work as a Consultant at Microsoft. Fairly regularly I need to present something to someone as part of my job, semi regularly I need to present something to a group of peers or seniors. Those scenarios are a little more scary and in my most recent one, I had a situation where I absolutely bombed!
I knew I would write about it at some point but it was down on my list, until Ashley Macnamara tweeted about how she bombed in a podcast and I could completely sympathise with how she felt! So, here we are. For context, Ashley McNamara is a Cloud Developer Advocate at Microsoft (a role that is in my top 2 dream Microsoft positions that I’m not sure I will ever be able to do).
The scenario for me was this; I was asked by one of our lead Cyber Security Architects at Microsoft to put together a 45 minute talk for aspiring Architects in the Infrastructure domain about DevOps. DevOps is one of my specialisations (the other being Identity) and I have done some fairly cool things from an Ops perspective over the last couple of years so the ask was that I share that and try to leave people with something to think about. It was wide open for me what I could talk about so I set to work preparing a session …
So, I have a stammer. Generally, I have good management techniques for it which mean I can present things on calls, to groups, at user groups and the occasional conference. Some days it’s fine and perfectly manageable, some days it has hiccups. Rare days, it’s really not good.
… a couple of weeks pass and it’s game-time. I have my session ready and I need to present it twice – once at 5pm for the Asia, Australia and Europe crowd, another at 5am(!) the next morning for the US audience. Same session, 2 audiences, 12 hours apart. Honestly, I was feeling a bit nervous because I didn’t feel I had quite nailed my message, but I knew my slides and I was speaking from experience, usually in these scenarios I am ok. I have enough management techniques to cope, but, on the first session, my speech took a turn.
My speech impediment can generally be described as 2 behaviours:
- Silent blocking: This is where my breath and the words it should carry doesn’t flow. I block, which causes tension in my chest, diaphragm throat and sometimes facial muscles as well. I start having to fight with my body to get it under control
- Elongated sounds or syllables: This is similar to the blocking, I can keep my breath and sound going but can’t move on to the next bit, so you might hear “ssssssssssssssssometimes I like …” or “in some situaaaaaaations”
Both a pain in the butt, both started happening 😐
My presentation absolutely bombed! I couldn’t get a rhythm, I didn’t sound credible, my word avoidance habit kicked in so I was cutting corners on what I wanted to say, it was horrible! The 4 live attendees (lucky it was a Low audience but most watch the recording)were polite enough to stay on the call but honestly I felt so bad for wasting their time, and worst of all, it was recorded!
I wanted to ground to just open and swallow me and I couldn’t wait for the call to be over.
Word avoidance, in case you’re not aware, is when a stutterer knows they are going to fall over on a particular word so while on the journey through the sentence they’ll find a way too change it to a similar word that may not be as effective. For example, if I know I am going to say “This really plays into those recovery scenarios”, my brain might shout “HEY! ‘Scenarios’ is not looking good, thats an ‘sssssssssssssssssssssssss’ block just waiting to happen!” I’ll search for an alternative instead. ‘Situations’ might seem like a good substitute for ‘scenarios’ but then rather than just changing the word one for one, I might think I need to say it completely differently like “this helps in situations where you need to recover”. Why did I change it entirely? Knee jerk reaction, panic, while mind-flight in the previous sentence or the sentence itself! The point is, it can change and dilute a point.
Sure, I could stick to the original planned sentence, but that would mean openly stuttering, which I am naturally trying to hide even though it will happen anyway and we turn it into “the elephant in the room” but, my brain doesn’t always do the right thing 🙂
We digressed a bit there, but the point being I wound up at a place where I was feeling absolutely terrible and my self worth had tanked. The negativity cycle starts and I begin thinking like “oh crap, I need to do the same session in 12 hours, double pain!”, or “I wonder if I’m going to get some really negative feedback and be asked not to present again”, or “is there any way I can get out of doing it again and just disappear into a corner of the company and not really speak to anyone again?”.
It was low, times like this are low.
Over the years of dealing with this I have learned that what’s important is not what’s happening right now, its what you do next. In my moment of depression where I felt like I had just been hit by something really big and had the wind completely taken out of me, I decided I would do 3 things:
- Went and had dinner with my family. I was mostly silent and just mentioned to my Wife that I had a Super terrible session. She nodded and could see I was hurting, she didn’t make a big deal of it, she just talked, joked and smiled with my Daughter at the dinner table. That was a reminder that no matter what happens outside in the world of work (even when you’re working from home), if you’re lucky enough to have a family and a home, that is your safe space and people there accept you and love you no matter what happens elsewhere. Home is the most important thing and thats to be appreciated and protected.
- I called my architect and had a good, open chat with him. He wasn’t on the call but I told him what happened, how I felt about it and we just talked about stuttering in general, what we do, how speaking publicly is hard for most people and that we can’t let the odd negative experience define us
- I tweeted about it. In my moment of negativity this was my way of stamping it as something that happened. Rather than trying to brush it under the carpet I wanted to own it. I wanted to own it publicly. The messages of encouragement and support I received back were really helpful, especially from Chrissy LeMaire, who is just an awesome person. This post helps me own it further.
Once I put the little one to bed (and realised it literally made no difference to her what happened, I was still Daddy), I decided that I was going to make the best job I could of the second session, so I sat for 90 mins and went through my whole presentation and wrote out, line for line what I was going to say. I then spent 3 runs just reading it out loud, this was my way of finding exactly where I would block and already having a go-to word in case I couldn’t overcome the block. It went well.
I woke up an hour earlier than planned the following morning and ran through the session twice more before the start. When recording happened the next time round I was able to focus, block out the world and just run my lines. Slowly, unhurried, calmly. I literally took it slide by slide, aiming only to do the current slide as well as the last, knowing it would be done in 45 mins or less and it would all be over …
It went sooo much better! I had some good discussion after the session and while I was not free of blocks and stutters, the session went much better than the first. That feeling of redemption is priceless and I could have denied myself that by backing out of the second session and honestly I was ready to to that at one point. I don’t know what feedback I got, I don’t care, the redemption came from how I felt about my performance, not anyone else. Exactly like the feeling of failure and where that came from.
What was the net negative result of all of this? The thing I felt I failed so bad at that I literally wanted the ground to just swallow me up? Nothing. My career isn’t in tatters, I still have speaking engagements lined up and I am still working on improving my presentation skills. The earth didn’t fall of its axis as far as I am aware, the negative feeling passed and, I am ok.
So why did I share this? Simply, there was definitely a time in my life I can think back to that wasn’t too far back, where I wouldn’t have handled it in this way. There is a time where I would not have even been thinking about presenting sessions at all. I know there are people out there who struggle with the thought of public speaking, be they someone with a speech impediment or not. Too many of us share our successes online but not enough of us share our failures.
If you’re reading this and thinking “but this is a success, you overcame it” – well, thats how I chose to frame it. Those actions are the ones I decided to take. Whether you’re someone like me, or someone like Ashley McNamara and her bad podcast, we all have bad days, off days and failures.
It’s what we choose to do next that defines us.
For those who do well at public speaking, perhaps this gives you an insight into the mind of a stutterer. If you made it to the end of the post, I hope you got something from it. If not, I don’t care, writing about it was therapeutic enough for me!