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The power of words well said

To raise awareness of stammering.

by Helen Bryant

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To raise awareness of stammering.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


  1. I wonder if you know what the link may be between Winston Churchill, Michael Palin, Gareth Gates and King George VI? They all have a stammer or a stutter. This is defined as someone who has difficulty with their words or are ‘dysfluent’ when talking, something that the vast majority of us take for granted. Many people have a stammer, and it often runs in families, so, for example, a stammerer’s father may stammer too, and his grandfather, and so on.
  2. Think about how you communicate with people, from the everyday ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ to picking up the phone and talking to someone, to ordering what you want in restaurant, to telling someone how you feel or getting your point across in class, or even answering your name when it is called in the register. Yet a difficulty in talking is at least as life-changing as a difficulty in walking, and arguably even more so, because we are increasingly judged and defined by how we talk.
  3. Some 720,000 adults and children in the UK have a stammer, and they often feel that they are virtually invisible and inaudible. Unfortunately, most people with a stammer are not well equipped to stand up and change the situation, and often find it very hard to do so. There are virtually no high-profile stammerers who can help, although people like Gareth Gates and Michael Palin have worked very hard to highlight the plight of stammerers. So it is down to individuals themselves or members of their families, or charities like the BSA (or British Stammering Association) to promote and highlight the issues.
  4. The reason that I mentioned King George VI at the beginning of the assembly is because you may well be aware of the Oscar-winning film starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter entitled The King’s Speech. King George VI, the Queen’s father, had a stammer, and this film shows, among many other things, his frustration at being someone with a stutter, his speech therapy and the reactions of the people around him, both known and unknown to him, as he became King – a job that you can imagine he never really wanted and yet was forced to take when his elder brother abdicated the throne.
  5. Few people realize that stammering is a symptom of a condition in which the brain’s neural circuits for speech have not wired normally. There is no evidence that a weak or nervous character or a lack of intelligence causes stammering, or that it is caused by bad parenting, or, indeed, is anyone’s fault. There is research that suggests that it is genetic, but also that it can often be a reaction to a situation or event in someone’s life.
  6. There is no universal cure, although some do find ways to better control their speech, by going to therapy and working hard at exercises; but a lot of stammerers will avoid certain situations entirely. Early intervention allows the vast majority of those very young children at risk of a lifetime of stammering to regain fluent speech and so achieve their true potential and make a full contribution to society and the economy. However, children who stammer are still being teased, bullied and isolated; and even many adults do not know how to deal with someone who has a stammer.
  7. Many people in the media still treat stammering as a joke, and drama productions tend to typecast stammerers as weak or indecisive – and sometimes as dangerous psychopaths. Think of Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This is why the film The King’s Speech is such an important film for you to see. It shows that someone with a stammer is not stupid or unable to think of the words that he or she has to say. In fact it shows that they deal daily with something that can give them low-self esteem, and which makes everyday situations seem impossible. Every day, in our twenty-first century in which communication is everything, everyone who stammers has to find the courage shown by George VI – whether it is in the context of that all-important job interview, phoning an important client or giving a work presentation to a room full of colleagues.
  8. So what can you do if you meet someone who has a stammer? Be patient. Most people who stammer strongly prefer to speak for themselves. You may be tempted to finish a person’s sentences or ‘fill in’ words, but this does not help.

    Remember that it is OK to stammer. Don’t give advice such as: ‘slow down’, ‘take a breath’ or ‘relax’. Maintain natural eye contact, listen, and wait patiently until the person has finished speaking.

    Be a good listener. Let the speaker know, by what you say and do, that you are listening, and so do your best not to look away, even though the situation may feel uncomfortable. Try to actively convey a relaxed and accepting outlook, as any obvious embarrassment and uneasiness that you show will only enhance the discomfort of the person who stammers. Focus on what the person is saying, not on how they are saying it.

    Remember that stammering varies. Some people who stammer can have the most difficulty when starting to speak and less difficulty once under way. Don’t be surprised if a person stammers more in some situations than others. The telephone, speaking in front of a queue or in earshot of others can cause increased difficulties. Remember that stammering is not caused by nervousness. While a speaker may appear nervous, keep in mind that the nervousness is a result of embarrassment about their stammering rather than a cause of it.

    If you are not sure how to respond, ask the speaker – but always do this sensitively and in a way that leaves the speaker in control. This might involve asking an open question such as, ‘Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?’ Or, if someone is stammering severely, closed questions such as ‘Would you prefer to go somewhere quieter?’ or ‘Would you prefer to write this down?’

    Be aware that the tone of these questions is very important. Bear in mind, too, that some speakers may be uncomfortable talking about their speech, but many would welcome your respectful interest. In conclusion . . . Try to empower the person by offering a choice rather than imposing your solution. Always err on the side of being patient and giving the person the opportunity to speak for himself or herself.

Time for reflection

Awareness of stammering is very low – so understanding of the condition is low. Public donations to BSA are around £100,000 a year – most of which is needed to ensure that they simply exist. Compare this with The Donkey Sanctuary, whose public donations are around £20 million a year. And the next time that you struggle to find the right words, remember that for some people, this is what they have to live with, and yet are brave and strong enough to do so.

Publication date: May 2011   (Vol.13 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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