An Empowerment Story

I am someone who has always stammered. Stammering is a neurological condition that you are born with, and I always say to people, ‘forget everything you think you know about it’, because there are so many myths.

Now my stammer isn’t very noticeable but it wasn’t always like that.  Looking back, I think that my stammer encouraged me to do well at school and university, essentially to prove people wrong about my abilities.  However, I remember being terrified of reading aloud and avoided public speaking as I had learned to feel ashamed about moments of disfluency. My fear made my speech worse.  Nerves don’t cause stammering but they can make it worse.

As I became more experienced in my subject (I am an economist), I began to lecture. I found myself comfortable as an ‘explainer’, as I could focus on what to say, rather than how I said something.  Being the conduit of information put me in the spotlight in a very passive way.  But as I became more senior, I had to emcee events, and had to actively think about how to engage the audience.

I’d tried various ways to ‘desensitise’ myself: books and online courses.  I’d heard about Toastmasters but only joined in 2017. I remember that first walk to the club – my heart was in my mouth.  Luckily, I bumped into someone else – and that person would continue to be a friend.  Indeed, my 7 years of Toastmasters has been a journey of meeting amazing, inspiring people.

My initial goal had been ‘to dislike public speaking less’.  And of course, somehow the unthinkable happened: I began to really enjoy public speaking.  Toastmasters gave me the space to practice skills that were nothing to do with fluency as such.  So I learnt about speech writing, vocal variety, use of body language etc.  I got to district final in both the international speech and evaluation competitions.  I became a DTM.

More than that I learnt that stammering wouldn’t make me a bad speaker – I can still be eloquent, authentic and connect to the audience.  Toastmasters was so transformational that I wanted to share it.  I sponsored Speechcraft and specifically called for those with speech conditions to come forward.

Over the past decade, in my spare time, I had working on supporting people who stammer in universities through guides, talks and videos.  I began to support STAMMA (the British Stammering Association) who provide amazing services.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the shock of being awarded an MBE in the 2024 New Years Honours List.  Toastmasters has been so important to my journey – its helped give me the personal confidence to engage effectively.  And its been one of the ways that I’ve tried to support other people who stammer.

Thank you Toastmasters – and thank to you to all the amazing Toasties out there running Speechcraft and taking up club officer roles. You are empowering others through every meeting.

Prof Deborah Johnston (PFHEA) (MBE)
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Framework)
London South Bank University