Before I heard Megan Washington give her talk at TEDxSydney, I have always used this technique with my students to help them overcome their stage anxieties, especially for the few with a stuttering problem: SING.
I have to admit I have not done much research before this, but from my drama coaching experience, I have found that singing really opens up an invisible connection from the articulators to the cerebral cortex and gestures.
In the ‘normal’ production of sound, humans make use of the lips, teeth, tongue, roof of the mouth (hard palate), alveolar ridge, velum (soft palate), pharynx, epiglottis, vocal folds, etc (see picture below) to allow a passage of air to pass through the oral cavity. The rounding of lips with an open mouth, for example, would yield sounds like “oo”, “or”, “oh”, but the pursing of lips would give a different set of “mm” sounds. This is the field of linguistics, and more specifically, phonetics. And for stutterers looking for help with speech impediments, a speech therapist could help.
But for me, especially in public speaking circuits, there are other voice exercises that drama practitioners and singing coaches often do to help speakers relax the vocal apparatus, which, to my relief, has been widely documented and acknowledged in the Hollywood movie, The King’s Speech. Here’s the video clip:
These are wonderful technical exercises, and sadly, not talked about or taught by professional speaking coaches in general. It is a real shame because a speaking coach is not one who can just deliver a good speech, teach you how to move or how to speak, but one who can also work professionally with someone with issues as fundamental as speech impediments.
I want to focus, again, on the impact singing has on the physiology to ease stage anxieties and reduce the level of stuttering and stammering. One favourite technique that I use and teach is the siren. The siren exercise is the gliding of a sound to the highest-pitched and then dropping to the lowest pitch. It As a warm-up exercise, this relaxes the articulators and the physical body tremendously.
The next exercise is to invite the stutterer to sing in a way that she or he is familiar with. I used to be a church cantor, so I teach my students to segment their sentences into phrases, singing it in an almost monotonous pitch, but rounding it with highs and lows at the end of the phrasing. It would sound like a religious chant, a little like this:
Just imagine how you might sound if you spoke your speech in a tune.
Alternatively, sing your own song like what Megan Washington had done so powerfully. Write your own speech and sing it, rhyme it, and make it into a hip-hop rap, if you need to. Add those funky moves too.
But if you are tone-deaf, here are other options. According to this source, it has been observed that when a stutterer is whispering, or speaking in a chorus, or when the stutterer cannot hear his or her own voice, stuttering is reduced significantly. Use a pair of sound-cancelling headphones to cover your ears and see if you can speak it.
So do not despair if you have a speech impediment. The truth is, your stage story is so much more powerful because of your vulnerability. After all, audiences connect to speakers not by what they say or how they sound (these are important nonetheless), but the heart-to-heart message that energetically moves one to tears or to action.
Your voice needs to be heard.
With or without a stutter.