RELEARNING HOW TO SPEAK UP
BY NORA TRENCH BOWLES | SEPTEMBER 2020

Nora is a person who stammers, and has been for as long as she can remember. In a voluntary capacity, she is Vice-Chairperson of the Irish Stammering Association, a national charity providing information and support to people who stammer in Ireland. She currently works as a Policy Officer in the university sector in her native Dublin. Previously, Nora studied and worked in European affairs in Brussels, Strasbourg and Sweden. Here she reflects on the relationship she has with her speech in the context of working from home since March, and more specifically Zoom meetings.
It's rare that a work day goes by where I don't have two or three video calls. It has really felt like re-learning how to speak up. I think, I think some of the pressures are really amplified on Zoom or video conference calls. One example is having to interrupt myself into the conversation to speak up. I can't catch someone's eye. There's formal ways of doing it——like 'raising my hand' in Zoom——but, usually it's about really interrupting myself into the chat. And that can be a deer-in-headlights moment. I have to audibly interrupt myself in, and then the host is like, 'who is that?', 'who is that trying to speak?' and then I need to say, 'Nora here'. And [as a person who stammers], it can be difficult saying my name sometimes! I really miss the ebb and the flow of an in-person conversation. And all the kind of bumps and the interruptions… whereas on Zoom it's like fight your way in and now it's your time to speak!

It's hard to build rapport on Zoom. I can't have that little——that little comment in the middle or at the end. When I'm saying something, I'm saying it to the entire group. And I think I realised in lockdown how much I rely on having a good rapport with someone in order to feel comfortable. I kind of think that if we have this engaged chat at the beginning, perhaps I would hope that the other person would be more forgiving of my stammer. The fear is that people will think I'm lacking in confidence or I'm nervous and, and I'm unintelligent. And perhaps by having those casual side chats with people I can kind of, I can establish with them that I'm not those things. So perhaps then it's a different reaction from them when I stammer in that, in that formal contribution. When I have an ordinary conversation with someone after I've done a big presentation, the fact they're just interacting with me in a normal way is enough of a relief that I haven't done anything wrong or embarrassing.

Last night I posed the question to the Irish Stammering Association's (ISA) online support group on Zoom, inspired by an episode of the Stuttertalk podcast. I got loads from it, and it was discussing a book called Stammering Pride and Prejudice. In his chapter of the book, Chris Constantino posed the question: what positive experience have you had as a person who stammers? So, I posed that question to the ISA online support group. And for me, the answer——well, one of the answers——is being tuned into a mood in the room or picking up on cues and on people's reactions. That's something that has stood me in great stead over the years. It was probably born from a hypersensitivity to how people reacted to me and my speech. And you miss a lot of that on video calls. There is no reading the room.

There's also the silence. The gaps that are left in between people speaking are so amplified. It's not like those natural pauses in real-life conversations where you can gather yourself. I think people's like, like, tolerance for silence on video calls is even less than it is in in real life. It's more of a fight to have the floor on video calls. And, I find that, em, quite nerve-wracking too because suddenly I'm speaking and everyone is looking. I mean, people might actually be on their phones or distracted by children coming into the room, but it looks on the screen like everyone is staring at me to say my piece. And even worse, my own face is staring back at me!

Video calls have kind of made me go back to striving for my speech to be perfect. Maybe it's something to do with the end of video call meetings——they're always really awkward. It's just like, 'ok bye'. There's no ease-down. For me, at times, at times, I get a cup of tea and I've forgotten about it or think that a presentation I did went well enough. But at other times, because I'm left by myself in silence, those negative thoughts come and they fill that sspace. I've found myself actually going over what I said and how I said it more on video calls with friends than than on professional ones——in a way I hadn't done since I was a teenager. I think there's some regression going on with re-re-re-learning. It's not so much that 'bad' equals more stammering. It's that 'bad' equals 'what are the things I'm doing or not doing for fear of of of s of stammering?'
VIDEO CALLS HAVE KIND OF MADE ME GO BACK TO STRIVING FOR MY SPEECH TO BE PERFECT
I hosted a webinar a few weeks ago. I don't remember ever feeling so nervous about speaking. There were eighty participants. There were twenty panellists. I was doing the introductions and there were a series of presentations. And like, it took a village, as they say.

If I'm not stammering, that means I'm avoiding——and that's not what I want to do. And so with the webinar and my opening remarks, I prepped! I thought about it for days. I wrote it all out. I did a practice run-through with my partner, Brian. I really prepped, and it was only like five minutes of opening re-remarks. My partner printed out my speaking notes in a huge font and put them on a board so I could read them. I got so much support and I needed every bit of it. It felt almost like a new frontier.

We have an Irish Stammering Association Women's Phone Group and we call every four or six weeks. There happened to be a call scheduled the evening before the webinar. I needed all their support! Veronica, one of the women in the group, said something like, 'imagine all of our faces looking out at you tomorrow and wishing——and wishing you well and spurring you on.' And I swear, it helped so much.

I've prepped for meetings that I wouldn't have necessarily prepped for if they were in person. However sometimes a video call meeting is totally fine. It's the same as when bumping into someone in the hall-hallway, it can be fine and sometimes bumping into someone in the hallway can be so shame——full of shame and embarrassment. And you're thinking about it for days. It's the same! I'm sure someone else wouldn't have put any thought into it.

I needed to prep for the webinar in order to feel comfortable. I stammered away and it felt great. I actually felt like I was getting my personality across. Because there's no pre-meeting rapport, and not being able to read the room, I wanted to get my personality across. No one wants to be a robot. I am glad that I was hosting the webinar, stammering. Mainly because it was clear I was stammering——because I was stammering com-comfortably. Stammering is part of who I am. To be, to be… to be putting forward… to be showing my personality is to be stammering.
I STRUGGLE WITH SITTING BACK AND, AND, AND, AND NOT CONTRIBUTING AS A PERSON WHO STAMMERS
In a way, I'm thinking about my speech more because of this whole re-learning bit on video calls. So, in a way it's bothering me more. Another thing is I met up with some friends recently and I hadn't been in a group like that chatting away for awhile. I realised how much I was avoiding stammering. Because of lockdown, I'm a bit out-of-practice.

Some-sometimes in in a way I feel more ashamed for having not stammered than I do for stammering. I really strive to be as open as possible. However when I think about it, I probably do stop myself from speaking more these days. I wouldn't describe it as giving up, I would describe it as like——I find it harder to get my foot in the door on video calls. I have to fight for my, my… fight to speak first and then I better goddamn be ready to say something interesting!

The other thing is, is is, em, like, I think being a relatively young woman at work, I do feel a, a responsibility for want of a better word——but a responsibility to be heard. I am allergic to being the young woman in the corner who just stays quiet and takes notes. So I really feel that eh, that need to be heard. I am often in meetings with people who are far more senior than me. I struggle with sitting back and, and, and, and not contributing as a person who stammers.

New-new things can be hard. We went from one day to the next into lockdown. However unforgiving the real world might be in that moment that many people who stammer will know when someone asks, 'did you forget your name?', Zoom and Skype can be even more unforgiving. We have, we have a lifetime of worrying about these moments. No matter how far we've come and will go. Perhaps in a way that's the default. We almost have to fight off that default. We have a lifetime to unlearn and re-learn——like having to be brave each time all over again.