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I have a speech impediment. Here’s how I learned to succeed at work

I decided to own my stuttering and embraced the benefits of my speech impediment.

I have a speech impediment. Here’s how I learned to succeed at work
[Photo: kychan/Unsplash]

“Did you forget your name?” someone asked me at a networking event for marketing professionals a few years ago after it took me almost a minute to say it.

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“No, I stutter,” I politely replied.

“Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry,” he said. “I had no idea.”

I wasn’t upset. He’s right: he didn’t know. There’s so much mystery surrounding stuttering—a communication disorder that involves the involuntary repetition of words along with pauses and other disfluencies. But it’s actually quite common. According to The Stuttering Foundation of America, 1% of people worldwide stutter. That’s 70 million people in total and three million in the United States alone.

I’ve had a speech impediment since I was 3 years old. In my case, stuttering usually manifests itself in terms of repetitions or prolongations: “My name is S-S-S-S-Samuel” or “Hhhhhello, hhhhow are you?”

Instead of being unhappy about the encounter at the networking event, I felt proud that I’d brought up my stuttering. I wasn’t always so forthcoming about my speech impediment: When I was growing up and into my adolescence, I hardly spoke. Whether it was at school or at work, I avoided most social situations out of embarrassment and fear of being ridiculed.

But in my early 20s, I was seeing a speech therapist who pushed me to be more open. In 2011, I attended the National Stuttering Association conference, the largest gathering of stutterers worldwide, and it marked a turning point.

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It was the first time I’d met so many other professionals who stutter—lawyers, doctors, actors, and more—all in one place. It felt surreal, like some alternate reality where stuttering was the norm. To my surprise, everyone spoke without fear or embarrassment. They didn’t care. In fact, they were proud. Stuttering was celebrated. That’s when I first realized that stuttering isn’t something to be ashamed of—it’s just something I happen to do, and that’s okay.

The transition didn’t happen overnight, but over the past eight years, I’ve started to bring up my stuttering more. I’ve talked to friends, family, and colleagues. I’ve mentioned it in every job interview and been open about it at every organization I’ve worked for. Here’s what I’ve learned firsthand about succeeding with a speech impediment.

I learned the power of owning my stutter

It’s so easy to give in to the fear and avoid speaking up, especially when people react negatively. Because it does happen.

One of my first jobs was a summer internship at a nonprofit organization. One week, I had to cover the front desk and answer the phone, which terrified me to my very core. When I picked up a call from a woman asking about donations, I started to stutter, and I could tell she was getting impatient.

“Can you just transfer me to someone else?” she asked.

“Okay,” I replied. “Who would you like me to transfer you to?”

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“Anyone but you,” she said.

I immediately went to the bathroom and broke down into tears. I didn’t regret being put on the phones, but I wished I had said something to her about my stuttering. At the time, I hadn’t yet opened up about it, and this faceless woman on the phone confirmed my worst fears about how people would perceive me. But it turned out that she was an anomaly.

Three years later, I was interviewing for a PR role at another nonprofit organization, and I told the executive director that I stutter. This was the first time that I disclosed my stuttering in an interview, and he surprised me by saying, “Oh, that’s cool.” He proceeded to ask me questions: When did I start stuttering? Do I stutter more on certain words? Does it get worse in specific situations? We talked for nearly 40 minutes. Later that afternoon, he emailed me. I got the job.

I’m not sure whether he hired me because he respected my honesty, because he enjoyed our conversation, or—could it be?!—because he was impressed with my qualifications. But I learned an important truth: Most people don’t care about my stuttering, certainly not in the negative way I’d thought they would. They look beyond it and actually listen.

I realized how much I’d been limiting myself due to the fear of what others may think. In the past, I’d avoided contributing in meetings, even when I had something to say, and I didn’t get to know my colleagues as much as I wanted to.

But after that interview, I started stuttering openly and mentioning my stuttering more at work. I was no longer afraid of picking up the phone. I was speaking up in meetings and socializing with colleagues. I was owning my stuttering and no longer giving in to the fear. It felt like I’d removed a weight off my shoulders, which allowed me to focus on my work and let my talents speak for themselves. My confidence was growing and, finally, I felt like myself.

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I learned there are lots of ways to talk about my stuttering

Since I started to open up about my stuttering in interviews and on the job, I’ve explored several different ways of bringing it up.

I’ve tried the straightforward reveal of saying, “I stutter, so it may take me slightly longer to say what I have to say.” Other times, I’ve alluded to it by mentioning my involvement in the stuttering community. There’s also the humorous approach that I’ve taken in stand-up comedy and sometimes also use to break the ice with colleagues: “I stutter, so if you have plans tomorrow, you should probably cancel them.” Over time, I’ve evolved to the wear-my-stutter-on-my-sleeve approach . . . well, more like a keep-my-stutter-on-my-desk approach. I now have a coffee mug with the words “Keep calm and stutter on” scrawled across the side.

No matter how I bring up my stuttering, it helps my colleagues and bosses understand me and work with me better, and it increases people’s understanding of stuttering and other communication disorders in general, because there are so many misconceptions.

About three years ago, I disclosed my stuttering in a job interview, to which the employer replied, “Oh, I just thought you were talking that way because you were nervous.” I was nervous, but it’s the other way around: I don’t stutter because I’m nervous; I’m nervous because I stutter.

According to the National Stuttering Association, this idea that people stutter because they’re nervous is one of a long list of myths that also includes false notions attributing stuttering to shyness, lower intelligence, bad parenting, emotional trauma, and more. Just like with any disability, employers may overlook people who stutter due to these stereotypes.

By being open about my stuttering, I’m dispelling these myths, letting employers know that I’m not ashamed about how I talk, and, most importantly, reinforcing that my stuttering doesn’t impede on my job performance. And if they learn as much about me, they might also be more inclusive of others who stutter in the future.

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I learned to embrace the benefits of my speech impediment

I would argue that having a stutter enhances my job performance. Yes, you read that right. Stuttering actually has benefits in the workplace. It’s taught me compassion, as I’ve become sympathetic to other people’s needs. It’s taught me perseverance, as I’ve learned to cope and manage my stuttering. It’s even allowed me to get to know my colleagues better.

Eight years after the dreadful call with the woman during my internship, I was working for another nonprofit organization. I was in the kitchen when a colleague entered and glanced at the “Keep calm and stutter on” mug I was filling up.

“You know,” she said, “one of my former professors stutters, too. He was my favorite professor. He was engaging and hilarious.”

Back at my desk, I couldn’t help but smile. My stuttering was out in the open, and my colleagues didn’t care. They accepted it. The interaction reinforced something I learned back in 2011 at the conference: Despite and sometimes because of the fact that I speak differently, I can still make an impact and succeed at work.

While my stuttering doesn’t define me, it’s still a part of my life. And when I share it with others, it encourages them to open up, too. My stuttering has allowed me to connect with my coworkers and develop not only stronger personal ties with them but also more productive working relationships.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s still frustrating when it takes me a minute to say my name, or when I know exactly what I want to say, but I just can’t seem to get the words out. But today I own up to my stuttering, and I don’t let it hold me back. Instead, I let it propel me forward and help me thrive at work and outside of it.

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