I'm radiating with excitement on the first day of my improv courseI am radiating with excitement on the first day of my improv course!

One of the speaking scenarios stutterers dread is the teacher going around the room asking each student to say their name to the class. I never liked this. My stomach hurting more and more as each student had their turn signalling the arrival of mine. My heart would pound faster, my anxiety would shoot up. Then the embarrassment of my stuttered words followed by the flood of “when am I going to stop stuttering??” thoughts in my head.

If you stutter, chances are that you are all too familiar with this scene.

Imagine going through this scenario many more times on that first day of school. That’s exactly what happened on my first day of my 8-week improv course at the Second City last week. I expected the whole going around the room introducing ourselves, but I didn’t expect that we’d be doing variations of it over and over!

It was actually part of our first lesson. We stood in a circle and said our names one by one. The second time around we would say the name of the person on our right. If we got it wrong, the other person had to say their own name. We had a third go but for the person on our left. Then we changed our spots in the circle and did it again. and again.

It was really effective at having us remember our fellow students’ names but it was quite nerve-wracking stutterwise. I was looking forward to the usual going around the room and introducing ourselves so I could tell everyone that I stuttered and get that out of the way so my future improv mates could understand why I speak the way I do.

But I didn’t end up getting the chance to mention my stuttering. I wanted to also mention that as a person who stutters, I wanted to build the skill of thinking on my feet and improving my small talk skills.

Another activity we did was to sit face to face with a random partner and find out where they are from, why they are taking the course, and uncover common traits. Then we were to present our findings to the class. Yes, I hoped my partner would mention my stuttering. But in the end she didn’t. To be honest, it was hard to remember everything. Even I forgot most of the things I learned about my partner!

What an interesting situation. Here I am, Mr. Disclosing-your-stuttering-makes-everything-better, and I didn’t have the opportunity to do so! It felt like old times back in my covert days where I’d carry on and worry about stuttering. See why I am such an advocate for disclosing?

Eye contact

Back to the circle, we were not only learning how to remember everyone’s names (there were 20 students), we were also learning how to maintain eye contact. We were to keep eye contact with person whose name we were saying. We also engaged in a few more activities building up our new skill.

As the producer of this podcast and my book, I couldn’t help relish in this unexpected practice for my stuttering! I’ve fallen out of practice with keeping eye contact in my every day situations so this was a great way for me to get back on the bandwagon. I’ve read many times how improv classes builds skills that can be transferrable into every day life and the workplace and eye contact is definitely one of them.

The instructor talked about how eye contact shows confidence, honesty, interest, and a connection. The activities gave us plenty of practice in shedding any anxieties we may have with making eye contact with strangers which also became our homework.

Fluenters have performance anxiety, too

We learned a few common reasons why the students chose to take the course during the presenting of our findings from the face-to-face activity. Many centred around getting out of a comfort zone, building more confidence in giving presentations, building a skill in thinking on one’s feet, and finding a creative outlet when one has a non-creative job.

Aside from the last one, all the reasons parallel typical goals of my fellow stuttering peeps. After having grown up feeling inferior to others because I stuttered, this was a refreshing reminder that even those with perfect speech can experience the same anxieties that we do. Though without the huge challenges that comes with stuttering but I digress. Everyone’s got something BIG they are dealing with.

Final thoughts

After the class, me and my friend who also took the course, talked about how we found it. For me, it was a revelation in how long it had been since my last “major” out of comfort zone experience. I’ve ventured out with Toastmasters, teaching cartooning to kids, going to meet ups, talking on the radio, going on TV, and even “smaller” venturing such as making phone calls to vendors and colleagues, etc. But I stopped at that point. I was worried about trying Toastmasters, did it, was no longer afraid after that. I was afraid to talk on the radio and TV, did it, and was no longer afraid after that (well, some jitters before going on the air, but I digress). I was worried about attending meet ups alone, did it, and was less afraid after that. Heck, I had anxiety towards joining a gym! Clearly, I need to keep putting myself in new situations so I can continue to grow.

As much liberation from stuttering anxiety and enthusiasm and confidence one could have towards not letting their speech get the best of him/her, sometimes you fall off the truck. This was one of those times. It’s natural, it’s normal. I was completely in the mindset of making a good impression on the new people I was meeting and performing my best. Everyone wants to. Clearly the thick skin I thought I had about my stuttering thinned out a little! I also stutter a lot more when it’s really cold out, which it was. So that was all over my mind as well.

At the beginning of the class, the instructor talked about society’s tendency to look down on failure and demand perfection. Never making mistakes. In improv, it’s the opposite. We work with mistakes. Mistakes make better comedy. Plus, we’re all novices at this and practice will make us sharper at the new skill we are developing in improv. Just like keeping a thick skin about stuttering wether or not you were able to disclose to the whole class all at once!

After only one class, I can already recommend improv classes, along with Toastmasters, as being beneficial to people who stutter. I plan on blogging about my experience.