Finding My Voice

25th September 2009

Fran Perillo speaks out about a very personal experience

A tall thin guy strode to the front of the room and turned to face us.

“Steve Sheasby.”

His voice was calm and confident. He looked at Gareth Gates. “Can we run my first day video?”

The screen flickered, and a trembling, terrified man appeared. He was perched on a chair, clutching his knees with his hands. His pale face twitched, trying to force something out. It was as horrifying as it was fascinating. He struggled but still the words wouldn’t come.

The tape stopped. Steve gestured towards the screen and began speaking to us again. Clearly, coolly and with long, deliberate pauses.

“Look at that poor desperate creature. That was me. On my first day on this course. Trust in your coaches. Put the effort in. This programme works.”

On the screen behind him, the old Steve was frozen mid-spasm, face contorted.
The room was spellbound. After a suitably dramatic pause he signed off:

“Steve Sheasby. Eloquent speaker.”

Applause erupted all around. It was my first of five days on the McGuire Programme and I wanted what Steve had.

There are approximately 600,000 stammerers in the UK and around 80% of those are men. Some, like myself, are classed as ‘covert’, skilled at hiding their impediment so that few of their friends and colleagues ever notice. Others are ‘overt’ and have the classic blocks and tics that can cripple careers and relationships.

Started fifteen years ago by American Dave McGuire, the McGuire Programme aims to give stammerers full control over their speech. The goal is not to produce fluency so much as eloquence, resulting in confident speakers who can communicate clearly and articulately in any speaking situation.

Along with sixteen other nervous newcomers, I had arrived in a large hotel in Coventry. Assembled behind us were eighty or so previous graduates returning to refresh their skills.

After a short welcome speech by Matt Wilton (McGuire’s UK South Director), Gareth Gates stood up. The pop star and performer is one of the UK’s most famous stammerers. He is also the youngest qualified McGuire speech coach anywhere on the planet. He would be our coach for the next five days.

The videos began. Each new student took turns in front of a camcorder to be interviewed. It was basic ‘who are you and where are you from’ stuff, but it was proof that for stammerers there are often no easy questions. The full spectrum of stammering was on display. Twitches. Hands hiding mouths. One teenager took four minutes to say her own name. Another woman, in her twenties, jerked on the chair, her long hair flicking.

We’d been told to bring belts. After the interviews we were shown how to fasten these high around our chests. Apart from sleeping and eating we’d be wearing them for the next five days.

Gareth explained how breathing was one of the keys to the success of the McGuire programme. More specifically, breathing deeply using the costal diaphragm like opera singers, as opposed to the shallow breaths most people take. By going deep into the chest, costal breathing would give our voices a fuller and more powerful sound, away from the vocal cords and mouth where so many problems of stammering occur. Additionally, we were told to use only three words per costal breath.

The result was a rather chesty, mechanical form of speech. But it was curiously addictive. Lined up in two rows of chairs a metre apart, new and old students faced each other and began breathing deeply, only speaking at the top of the breath. After a few hours it became rhythmic and felt almost natural.

Days were long. Training typically started at 7am and finished around 10pm, with only short breaks were short. Exaggerated costal breathing dries out the vocal cords, so every chair had beneath it a plastic cup of iced water which was constantly refilled by patrolling water carriers, volunteers all.

For new students, phone calls home, chatting using ‘normal’ speech and socialising in the bar are strongly discouraged, in order to give the techniques the best chance to ‘take’. I didn’t mind. At the end of a long day, all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep.

Rules aside, it certainly isn’t an austere experience. The friendliness and support from both coaches and graduates is overwhelming. I’ve no doubt this was a major reason why not a single one of the new intake dropped out of the course.

Support is where the McGuire Programme really comes into its own. It’s not about doing your five days and leaving. Membership is for life – and once you’re in, you can return for follow-up courses as many times as you like for a nominal fee.

Keith, another McGuire coach, took me out into Coventry for what the programme calls ‘contacts’ – entering into a variety of speaking situations with members of the public. For ‘coverts’ like me the challenge was to introduce ‘deliberate dysfluency’ into conversations, a kind of controlled stammering to reduce the embarrassment and fear of blocking that can cause so many of the problems in the first place.

This part of the programme, disclosing to strangers that I had a stammer, was what I found hardest, although the psychology behind it – of addressing your fears head on – seemed sound. As we walked around the city, Keith explained that like so many stammerers he’d been in a job – lorry driving – that didn’t demand much in the way of verbal skills. Now, with his stammer totally under control, he was about to join the police force.

It was a story that I was to hear time and again over the five days: a personal fitness instructor due to start teacher training; a young guy rejected by the RAF because of an out of control stammer who, following the McGuire programme, had gone back and been signed up; a chap who’d been terrified of making a speech at his wedding but ended up speaking for ten minutes without notes.

Dave McGuire himself, who’s based in California, dropped in for part of the course. He had an aura that was part sports coach, part speech therapist and part motivational guru. Like everyone involved with the programme Dave knows what it’s like to suffer a stammer. Now he makes it his life’s work to free people of its debilitating effects. Not for nothing is his organisation called Freedom’s Road.

Saturday found me standing on a box in Coventry city centre, speaking to a large crowd of wet shoppers and being filmed by Gareth Gates, who was in turn being photographed by groups of giggling teenagers. Despite the occasional fan-based distraction, Gareth worked harder than anyone on the course and coached with a maturity that was truly impressive in a 24 year old. He had just completed a gruelling six month run in the West End, yet his energy and commitment to our success couldn’t be faulted.

All of the new students took turns on the soapbox. Over the five days I’d seen confidence grow and personalities emerge from under the shadow of stammering.

The final day was our graduation speeches. The girl who had taken four minutes to say her name spoke powerfully to a ballroom full of people. There were tears and thank yous from many of the new graduates, some of whom had family in the audience. A guy from Birmingham recounted how his wife had always been the one who would ring for the takeaway curry… tonight it was going to be him that made the call.

As for me? I went on the programme so that I could address my fear of challenging public speaking situations. Now I stood up and made a proper, full-blooded speech for the first time in my life. It went well. Better than I could ever have imagined. One or two people even laughed at my jokes.

I was hooked – so much so that the first thing I did when I returned home was contact a local Speakers’ Club to hone my new skills. If I’d even suggested that before I’d been on the McGuire Programme everyone would’ve laughed.

For more information visit www.mcguireprogramme.com or call Matt Wilton on 01458 210 890

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