By Norbert Lieckfeldt
It's a scenario well-known to any person who stammers. You open your mouth and as soon as you hit the first block, the first stumble, the first repetition, the first prolongation of sound, the listeners' eyes glaze over and you can SEE them focus on the glitch and not on the (perhaps profound) content of what you are actually saying.
So it proved with Ed Balls on Wednesday. Here we have a government that, halfway through a programme designed to turn around the decline in public finances and return the country to growth, had to admit that not only has there been no growth, but the national debt keeps rising inexorably. And the shadow chancellor is asked on the Today programme not so much about his arguments, but about his verbal performance at the despatch box.
To anyone listening to Sarah Montague's interview, I think it was clear that Ed Balls (who is a patron of the British Stammering Association) was taken aback by the question and decided to answer it in the best way he could, and in the spirit of being open about stammering. Let's not forget - a surprising number of the circa 700,000 people in the UK who stammer will not be open about it, will do everything in their power to hide it and will avoid every single word, every single situation, every single phrase that might trip them up. For them, hiding and avoiding has become a way of life.
Why go to this effort? Stammering doesn't really carry a connotation of 'noble suffering'. It is still very often the one disability which it appears to be alright to mock on public. People who stammer are often (incorrectly) regarded as weak, nervous or anxious. With just a little effort, Ed Balls could pass as a fluent speaker - but he decided it is better to be open about this. And his statement on the radio was simply matter of fact, stated in a way that I believe every person who stammer would recognise — to paraphrase; "I stammer. This will sometimes trip me up. It's happened then, and it will happen again. Deal with it."
Stammering is a neurological issue. Latest research has shown that, while the speech centre in the brain of people who stammer is less efficient and more prone to disruption (sometimes due to stress) they also have a 'secondary' speech centre in the right hemisphere which fluent speakers do not possess. In times of communicative strain, the 'fluent' speech centre can sometimes get overwhelmed. The 'stammering' speech centre tries to help out, kicks in, and communication chaos ensues.
This is the dry, scientific explanation. What this actually feels like is this: when there's a stumble on a difficult word (and 'rising' would, for me, be a difficult word to say) the brain goes into overdrive. It is hard to describe the sensation to someone who does not stammer - but I'd compare it to a computer processor using 95% of processing power for a single task, shunting all other tasks down the priority list and, annoyingly, slowing my spreadsheet right down! The brain is simply focusing all its processing capacity on getting out that next sound, the tricky sound, the difficult sound. At that point, that's all that matters. At that point, I personally can't even hear what's going on around me as my brain can't spare capacity for auditory processing.
It is perhaps surprising to find that someone with a stammer is opting for a career that involves public speaking, and not only public speaking but arguing in the bearpit that is the Commons. We have blind MPs and MPs in wheelchairs but one would be hard put to find incidences when their disability become a subject of mirth for political opponents.
Again, stammering seems to be different - it was interesting to see the headlines in the papers split (according to political allegiance) between "Balls blames stammer for poor performance" and "Balls plays stammering sympathy card" on the one hand to "Balls won't apologise for a stammer" on the other. But Ed Balls is far from the first or only public figure with a stammer. Brooks Newmark, Conservative MP for Braintree, has just 'come out' on Twitter in support of Ed Balls. Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for St Ives, is also a member of that select club, as is another BSA patron, Baroness Whitaker in the Lords. Nye Bevin, of course is well-known for his oratory. It may be stretching it a bit to say that George VI 'opted' for a career in the public gaze but once thrust into the position, he coped admirably.
Stammering presents a challenge to the child suffering from it. Far from being a minor stumble, stammering is a severe communication impairment and, as with all challenges, how we respond to it depends on character, temperament - and what support we get. It can make us angry, bitter, resentful and withdrawn. Or it can make us grow more determined, more humble, and more understanding of the challenges other people face - perhaps more so than someone whose life has been blessed with a smooth path and a multi-million Trust fund on reaching adulthood. It can also, perhaps, give us a greater insight into what constitutes good communication and, yes, perhaps also in what precisely it would take to unsettle someone else talking — something that may come in useful when sitting opposite the person at the dispatch box.
The experience of a lifetime of stammering gives an edge to a personality, something to rub against, and I'd prefer that over smooth glibness any day. This is also the advice we at the British Stammering Association would give to anyone who stammers who is considering a career in politics and or the public eye. It's not the challenges of speaking fluently in public (speaking fluent nonsense is overrated in any case). It's a question of what insights a lifetime of tackling the challenge of stammering has given you. And if you feel this is the right path for you, should you not use these as well as all your other qualities and skills, for the public good?
Norbert Lieckfeldt is the chief executive of the British Stammering Association www.stammering.org