23 Aug 23

Finding My Voice: Navigating the Workplace With a Stammer

Nicky Bhamra

In a world impatient for words, my stammer has taught me that the most resilient voices often speak in their own time.

In our industry, being able to communicate data effectively is arguably more important than having the technical skills to analyse it. At Rockborne, we have been taught the importance of communicating effectively to non-data professionals.

Good data storytelling involves being able to draw insights from data and explain why this knowledge is important for the business. For some, articulation and data storytelling come easy. For others, like me, it requires more of a conscious effort.

What is a stammer?

A stammer (or stutter) affects the fluency of one’s speech. It is characterised by the r-r-r-repetition of letters, prolongation of ssssounds, or blocking (where the person cannot get a sound out). There are around 50 million people of employable age around the world who stammer.

It is caused by a combination of genetic and developmental factors. Stammering can run in families but can also arise from neural pathway differences in areas of the brain responsible for speech production. Contrary to what some may believe, a stammer is not an indication of low intelligence or capability. To put this into perspective, there are several hugely successful figures who have opened up about their struggles with a stammer: Joe Biden, Emily Blunt, Kendrick Lamar, Rowan Atkinson, and Samuel L. Jackson to name a few.

Living with a stammer affects every aspect of daily life where communication with people is involved, whether that be with family, friends, or colleagues. Because of this, I have had to learn ways to navigate the challenges that come with communication in my professional life.

Public speaking is already pretty daunting…

Meetings and presentations are already anxiety-inducing for most, but they are a core part of our jobs. They are an opportunity to meet new people, showcase your knowledge and above all, make lasting impressions. I’m very lucky in that I’d classify my stammer as minor on a day-to-day basis but when I am nervous (for example in front of an audience), the stammering is exacerbated and sometimes it can seem like I’ve forgotten how to speak.

During university, I went out of my way to avoid modules that involved presentations. Where I couldn’t avoid it, the anxiety was crippling – I’d be sweating and shaking before I’d even arrived at the classroom. Then I got to Rockborne, and you can imagine my horror when I discovered we’d be undertaking mandatory communications workshops, which meant giving presentations on a weekly basis. Cue the pre-presentation sweating and shaking.

Today, my peers would probably describe me as a confident speaker. Just a few months ago, I would have given anything to never do any form of public speaking again – now, I am more willing to grab hold of any opportunity to speak to people. I’ve had hurdles to overcome in the process – I’ve learnt to accept the fact that my stammer is a part of me and not something to be hidden or ashamed of. Through the workshops I have come to understand that, like coding, communication is a skill to be practiced and nurtured.

We can all be a little more patient

In a conversation with someone who has a speech impairment, the best thing you can do is show that you are listening and there are a few ways to do that. First and foremost, be patient. Give the person time to express themselves and try to avoid filling in words or finishing their sentences for them. Refrain from telling them to ‘slow down’ or ‘take a breath’. Good listening is also shown through positive body language – maintain eye contact and show that you are engaged in the conversation.

Generally, I’m sure most would agree that these are techniques anyone should use in any conversation. But if in doubt, it’s okay to ask questions if it is done respectfully and using good judgement.

As a woman of colour, I greatly admire my colleagues who openly advocate for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Rockborne. They have set the precedent for an inclusive work environment, which has empowered me to bring visibility to a quiet but prevalent group under the DEI umbrella. Thank you to Iain Wilkie and Graham Barton from ‘50 Million Voices’ for giving me a voice.

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