How can I stop…… stammering?

London 1940 was a grey place. In June, smog and grey skies made way for sunshine. Not that there was any summer cheer. Homes were in a perpetual gloom because of blacked-out windows. Food was scarce and kitchen broth was the family staple meal. And then the Germans were approaching.

Against this backdrop, the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a series of inspiring speeches that strengthened the resolve of this despairing nation. His most famous, ‘we shall fight on the beaches’, remains etched in the British psyche even today. The bald, rotund cigar-smoker suffered from a stutter and yet is remembered as one of the greatest orators of all time.

A concerned blog reader contacted me to ask whether it was possible for her to stop stammering. King George and Winston Churchill overcame their speech impediments, as did actor Bruce Willis. Had they not, the world would look very different today (and there would be no Die Hard movies). But how did they do it? How can a stutterer gain eloquent prose, sufficient to rally the troops and entertain the masses? Let’s find out, and dispel some false assumptions along the way…

Stammering and public speaking

058When I was at school I was head boy. I did a reasonably good job, until it came to public speaking. At 17, I was terrified of standing up in front of my peers. On our leaving ceremony I was to give a final address to the school. Worry invaded my waking hours and stopped me sleeping at night. When the day came and I stood on the stage, it took all of fifteen seconds before I became paralysed with fear. My words clogged in my mouth like a hairball and, stuttering, I struggled to string my carefully-prepared words together. I willed the stage to open up to let me disappear into an abyss of shame.

Since then my public speaking anxieties are largely gone. At the time, I was experiencing stage fright (a form of social anxiety). Although resembling stuttering, it is something quite different. We all stumble over our words when anxious, but ‘true’ stuttering is a breakdown of normal smoothness of speech not confined to the podium. Words are repeated, sentences abruptly paused and phrases slurred (yyyyyyyyyes!). The more it is resisted, the worse it gets. Normally starting in childhood – for most- it has gone by adulthood. So is the parents’ who are to blame?

Stammering – is it the parents’ fault?

‘Poor thing, they must have had a difficult childhood.’

Contrary to what we might assume, stammering (or more correctly ‘stuttering’) is not caused by a traumatic upbringing. Neither is it a sign of low intelligence or learning difficulties (you only have to look at the list of famous stutterers to realise that). The Ancient Greeks used to think it was caused by a ‘dry mouth’ but in modern times the most popular explanation has been more psychological.

During childhood, it is thought that stuttering is ‘learned’. A child will begin to stutter in response to a certain situation or social cue. Eventually the habit becomes ingrained. Carrying on this stutter into adulthood, it becomes as natural as squinting on a sunny day. Except we now know this isn’t the whole story.

Stammering: a brain on the blink?

When we speak normally, the left side of the brain barks into life – telling the rest of our brain (and our mouth) what words to say. The ‘thinking brain’ (the foremost surface of the brain, called the frontal lobes), produces these mouth-moving messages.

With stutterers – thanks to MRI imaging – it has been discovered that a small connection from the left frontal lobe is faulty. Nervous impulses travelling from the left ‘thinking brain’ to the regions that control lip movement (the parietal lobes – situated on the side surfaces) are delayed. The normally (relatively) passive right side of the brain appears to compensate – and – like a brass band having two conductors, left and right compete and words become jumbled.

These recent discoveries may explain why there is no cure for adult stutterers. There are however things that can be done to make things better – treatments that have evidence to show they work; even the worst of today’s techniques are better that the 1899 tongue depressor pictured right.

How famous actors and public speakers overcame their stammer

For most people, stuttering gets worse with anxiety. But for some people, a stammer can be overcome by facing the stress head on: Bruce Willis joined a drama club when he was eight and his stuttering vanished.

Actor Bruce Willis: past stutterer. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

If you watched the truly excellent movie The King’s Speech then you might recall the variety of ways Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) tried to help King George VI overcome his stutter. Watch closely and you’ll see that what you see in the film bears similarities to techniques that have been shown to work today:

Stuttering Management: The oldest technique that has been shown to work; a therapist tries to deal with the both sufferer’s emotions and the stammer itself. Rather than attempt to rid the stutter completely, a client is taught to make hesitations smoother and less obvious. Emotions are explored and fears surrounding stuttering challenged.

Fluency Shaping: This more radical approach tries to entirely change a stutterer’s way of speaking. Fluency, not the stutter becomes the focus. Stutterers practice a new way of speaking although emotions and psychological issues are not directly challenged.

The best ways to treat a stutter seem to be a combination of these techniques (called ‘integrative’).

Not everyone conquers their stutter, but many do. As with all conditions without a definitive cure, quackery and profiteers abound. There is no doubting that living with a stammer can be a dark place. For the reader who posed the question, and for all stutterers reading this, I hope they find inspiration and a winning strategy.

Thanks for reading – all opinions are my own. Feel free to leave your comments below…



Büchel, C., & Sommer, M. (2004). What Causes Stuttering? PLoS Biology, 2 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020046

Carl Herder, Courtney Howard, Chad Nye, & Martine Vanryckeghem (2006). Effectiveness of Behavioral Stuttering Treatment: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN COMMUNICATION SCIENCE AND DISORDERS, 33 (`), 61-73

Prins, D., & Ingham, R. (2008). Evidence-Based Treatment and Stuttering–Historical Perspective Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 52 (1), 254-263 DOI: 10.1044/1092-4388(2008/07-0111)


22 responses to “How can I stop…… stammering?”

  1. About 4 per cent of people apparently experience stuttering at some time during their childhood. The majority become fluent by the time they reach adulthood. If not stuttering may continue to be a chronic, persistent problem for other stutterers. Stuttering is thought to be a physical disorder not caused by psychological factors such as nervousness or stress, or parenting practices or the way parents communicate with their children when they the children are small.

  2. There’s also a theory (not sure how accepted it is) that stuttering can result from a disconnect in timing of auditory cortex activity. When a person speaks, the brain has an expectation of when it should be heard. However, if you hear what you say tens of milliseconds after you expect it, your brain gets confused and stuttering happens as a result. It’s been demonstrated in lab studies by putting on a set of headphones and speaking into a microphone that delays when you hear your own speech by a certain amount of time.

    Follow up, if you increase the delay enough, the brain is able to recognize that the disconnect between when you speak and when you hear yourself speak are virtually two different things that you will stutter less. So in theory, making the disconnect “worse” (widening the time gap) actually alleviates the stuttering.

    I knew that specializing in auditory neuroscience would come in handy one day.

    • Hi Jon,
      I also love it when something you’ve done in the past helps answer a question in an unexpected way 🙂
      The theory of the involuntary neural block has been quite popular and makes a lot of sense. It started about 50 years ago, and altered auditory feedback devices have been used a lot in the past- some studies report up to a 60% improvement in stuttering. However, the best meta-analysis reviews of all the available data show that there is insufficient evidence that it really works. (the most recent one – from 2011 – can be read here: )
      Thanks for commenting and hope that helps!

  3. My two sons, ages 5 and 3, shared a room together. The 3 year old started stuttering and of course we didn’t know why, but guessed it might be due to his elder brother’s teasing. We moved the 3 year old into his own bedroom, and voila the stuttering shortly stopped.

    • Hi Lee,
      Thanks for commenting.
      That is very interesting. About 1 in 40 children under the age of 5 stutter at some point. When anyone with a tendency to stammer is put under pressure to stop stammering, then it generally gets worse. So perhaps the older brother was teasing the younger about his speech and so making it worse? Sounds like you made a shrewd move.
      Stu 🙂

  4. Hi my son is 9 he has a old sister who is 15 and brother who is 13. My 9 year old had been stamering for thr past 6 years. He is doing very well in School. He is ahead in school the Teacher says he is doing very well. He was with a speech therapist she said not to say anything to him. We donIt and l notice if he get excited or afraid it get worse.Could you please tell us if we are doing the right thing. Thank you.

    • Hi Margaret,
      It’s great to hear he’s doing well in his studies. Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to offer you any specific advice – nor would it be fair for me to do so. You could try contacting a stuttering charity, who will undoubtedly be able to signpost you toward some good support. Your family doctor may also be able to find you the correct, specific advice for your son.

    • Xup am 18 and am a great stammerer, and it some times makes me not to be saying exactly what i want to say whenever am speaking and stammering. Please my dear what do i do to overcome this. It made me an a false loner when am in public i must shut up to avoid insults because if speak nobody would listen to me.

      • I am so sad. I have the same problem, that why I don’t have friends and always stay alone and so rarely speak.

  5. Doc, i’m 19 years old and i’m a stammerer because of it i can’t greet, i can’t ask question in class but i speak well whenever i’m with my peers only boys i’ve tried everything but i don’t know where to find a therapist in my country(NIGERIA) pls is there any way you can help me.

  6. Am seriously working on myself because since i got my job, the MD of the company said that i should work on myself to overcome the stammering issues. when i was at the age of 8 i was playing with my friend that stammers, it affect me. And than i have a stepmother she could not help me, my daddy was busy biting me up. i could not stop it. i was not born with it and i will stop it.

  7. Im 20yrs of age and a stammer. I find it difficult to socialise with girls and talk in class. Please how can i solve this problem.

  8. Thanks for touching on this topic. I started stuttering since I was around 7 years; but mine is a mild case if I may say. I find the stuttering is more pronounced in a one to one encounter with someone; but I rarely stutter when addressing more than one person. I’ve particularly done a lot of public speaking which I do with great speaking prowess such that many people are unaware of my stuttering condition. Problem still remains one to one. Oh yeah; some days are worse than others. Again, thanks.

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