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The rules for mastering a stammer

Jan Anderson, Dylan Jones | 01.03.2007

Gaining confidence through public speaking was the best therapy for Dylan Jones. The editor of GQ magazine tells Jan Anderson about the real value of just having to speak.

Dylan JonesDJ: The biggest problem for me throughout my entire life, but particularly through my adult career, was introducing myself on the telephone. It undermines you if you're trying, as we often have to in our business, to be quite aggressive and over-confident. If I get tired or nervous, if I'm in a situation where I'm out of my comfort zone, it comes back instantly. But having to talk, having to sell a magazine, having to be a figurehead in a room full of people who need you to impress them - I think that has helped to eradicate it. I think practice, if you've got a certain kind of stammer, can help enormously - but it was more of a psychological thing for me - thinking, 'I can change this - there's no reason why I have to put up with it'. A lot is to do with confidence. I'm fairly certain that one of the reasons I've mastered the stammer, more than previously, is because over the past seven or eight years I have found myself doing quite a lot of public speaking - something I used to avoid. I would have had no interest before, because I had no confidence in doing it. Although I still stammer in the process, I have the confidence now. I don't mind getting up in front of 50 people or 500 people.

You have to develop a kind of arrogance. I tell my staff or people who aren't used to public speaking, to imagine that you're about to give a Best Man Speech. When you give a Best Man Speech, everybody wants everything to be great - everyone is on your side. You just go up there and talk - and in due course you learn how long things should be, how in-depth, how trivial, whether you should attempt jokes etc...

This has probably been the best therapy I've had. I can see that it has helped me incredibly - because if you go up there, no-one's interested in your frame of mind, where you come from - but you're talking to them and they want to be entertained and informed and it's your job to do it. I think that has probably been the most important part of the whole process.

JA: What was the impact of stammering on your school years?

DJ: Well, it's not like having a debilitating disease - but it totally affected my relationships with people. We were in the forces and moved every year or 18 months, so you were constantly having to make new friends. You end up becoming monosyllabic and not talking to people and building walls around yourself. I mean, I think all kids do that, for many, many reasons (and many more damaging ones), but it totally defined me as a child. Totally.

JA: Were you stammering a lot?

DJ: I was stammering very badly. There were words I just wouldn't attempt because I knew I wouldn't be able to say them without faltering, which again changes the way you behave - not just with your peers, but with teachers - everyone really. You go for the safest option - you become very internalised (if that's the right word).

One of the reasons I've mastered the stammer...is because I have found myself doing quite a lot of public speaking. This has been the best therapy I've had

JA: How did people around you respond to your stammering? Was it picked up?

DJ: Well, you know what kids are like - it was a fairly big Achilles' heel. I can't remember the teachers commenting upon it one way or another. I think they just ignored it. I think my parents ignored it too. My father was quite strict - we didn't really talk about it.

JA: Do you have a first memory of stammering?

DJ: No. I mostly remember adolescence, when my stammering became really apparent. You know, when you're beginning to develop social skills or, at least, affect social skills in order to survive, like all teenagers do.

JA: And you didn't have any therapy then?

DJ: No, my first therapy was about ten years ago. It had never occurred to me before - stammering was just something I'd accepted. I suppose when I got older, it ceased to define me because it had just become part of who I was.

JA: Not the defining thing - just a part.

DJ: Yes. And the therapy was interesting. To be honest with you, it was like going to the gym when the gym instructor says you have to do this, this and this. Then you go home and, well, I'm terrible - I just forget everything! I understood the mechanics and did the exercises for a while and it was helpful...

JA: David Mitchell, author of Black Swan Green, says he feels stammering has been entwined throughout his life with his personality and it led to him becoming a writer.

DJ: I haven't analysed things in that way, but that is interesting. It might be one of the reasons why I've enjoyed writing so much.

JA: In your book, 'Mr Jones' Rules', stammering comes up under 'How to keep cool under pressure'. I was quite interested that you brought it in there.

DJ: I'd written the chapter as 'How to stop stammering' but the editors thought that was too specific and of less interest to the greater number of potential buyers, so we sort of disguised it, which I can see makes sense from a commercial point of view.

JA: But you wanted to have it in there?

DJ: Yes. Well, it's something I know about and I think the book only works if people believe that experience underpins the advice.

Dylan Jones is editor of GQ and author of Mr Jones' Rules, Hodder and Stoughton, 2006. £14.99

From the Spring 2007 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 6-7