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Unaccustomed as I was

Richard Oerton | 14.07.2015

Retired solicitor Richard Oerton reflects on his experience in giving a conference speech, and on the benefits of preparation and a belief in what he was saying.

Richard OertonIn 2012 a book of mine appeared called The Nonsense of Free Will. My confident prediction was that it would go nowhere, but it gathered a few nice reviews and it lead to a surprising invitation: to attend a conference organised by the Faculty of Law at the University of Aberdeen and speak for fifty minutes - yes, fifty minutes - on the subject of “Justice without Retribution”.

All the other speakers were disbelievers in free will like me, but the resemblance ended there because they all had doctorates or professorships, or both, and I had neither (I had left school at sixteen and then had quite a chequered career as a lawyer) and they were all practised speakers whereas I had never made a speech in my life. And I had a stammer. So I was intimidated and my first impulse was to refuse;  but then I convicted myself of cowardice, accepted the invitation, and spent the ensuing months wondering whether my performance would prove to be a humiliating shambles. 

In actual fact it turned out reasonably well. My speech was due towards the end of the second day of the conference and I slept very badly on the previous night and rather badly on the night before that. I was tired and consumed with anxiety right up to the moment when I started to speak but then, after giving an early warning that I might seize up, I gave the speech with complete fluency;  and it seemed to go down reasonably well. This experience prompts one or two reflections.

My stammer, for most of my life, has been a particularly crippling one, but in recent times it has abated to some extent. At least for some of us this can happen in old age – I turned 79 in the month of the conference – but so far as I know there is no generally accepted explanation for it. I myself have a rather tentative idea of what it might be:  to put it very simply, I think that stammering often stops people exposing themselves to what they unconsciously perceive as the perils of success, and when life draws towards its close there ceases to be a need for it. I don’t expect anyone to agree with this idea and I don’t plan to elaborate on it here.

Willing audience

At all events, I’m sure I couldn’t have faced up to giving this speech, still less given it fluently, when I was younger. Mind you, I doubt whether the giving of a prepared speech to an audience is quite the most terrifying ordeal that someone who stammers can face. You do at least know exactly what you’re going to say and (heckling apart: fortunately there was none in my case) you know that you will be encouraged to say it. These conditions seldom prevail in ordinary life.  I’m reminded here of a man called H.V. Hemery who lectured at Goldsmiths College and claimed many years ago to cure stammering through public speaking.  Quite how he managed to procure audiences for his clients to speak to I don’t know, and I don’t know whether his cure worked, or whether it lasted - perhaps some readers of this article know more about this than I do - but I shouldn’t find it all that surprising if the stammerers managed to deliver their actual speeches quite fluently.

Preparation

I spoke earlier of a prepared speech. I do suggest that preparation is important, particularly for a person who stammers. (I certainly couldn’t have made an impromptu speech.) For myself, I laboured long over my wording – Beatrix Potter’s advice to “cut, cut, cut” and then “polish, polish, polish” should be taken seriously by anyone trying to write anything, though I haven’t always followed it – and I read it aloud to myself several times and then read it to one of my daughters, so that I became familiar, not only with the speech itself, but also with the experience of delivering it. 

It also helps a great deal if you believe in what you are saying and in the desirability of saying it. It was these beliefs alone which spurred me into overcoming my own trepidation and reluctance: without them I should certainly have turned down the invitation. I realise, of course, that some who stammer may have jobs which require them to give talks, addresses, speeches or presentations, or find themselves doing so for other reasons, without having any strong desire to share their beliefs about anything. I can only offer them my sympathy.

Actually, my trepidation about the conference turned out to be largely justified, but in a way I had not expected. As my stammer has improved, so my deafness has worsened and in the event my hearing caused far more of a problem than my speaking. Much of the time, I was almost incommunicado for this quite different reason. Google tells me that it was Alexander Graham Bell who said, “When one door closes, another opens”. Sadly, the converse is often true.

Richard Oerton, a retired solicitor, has worked in private practice, in legal publishing and at the Law Commission.  Details of his book “The Nonsense of Free Will” are on his website: www.richardoerton.co.uk