Surveys have shown that the greatest fear Americans have—even more than going to the dentist or flying—is speaking in front of a group.
Believe it or not, preachers are not free of this fear. Many—more than most of their congregations know—are terrified in the pulpit.
These pastors might be comforted to know that some famous people struggled with stuttering all their lives, and yet did not let it stop them from public speaking.
I found out about these famous stutterers because I am a stutterer. I am also a preacher. Researching their lives gave me new hope. Some of them struggled with a stutter worse than mine, yet achieved great things.
Even if you don’t stutter, you might have a handicap that produces similar anxiety. Here are five lessons I learned from famous stutterers.
1. Be creative.
Marilyn Monroe worked with a coach to develop her own creative way to overcome the terror of speaking in front of a camera. Marilyn had a stutter since childhood, but learned in Hollywood to speak in a breathy voice to help her get through difficult words. As it turns out, this was good advice then and now. Taking full breaths and slowing down will make anyone a better speaker.
Because TV journalist John Stossel knew he couldn’t do what major news reporters do—shout out questions with split-second timing—he threw himself into deep research on stories about slow-moving things. Better suited to his speech struggle, they were also more interesting to more people. This led to a successful career as a prominent investigative journalist and author.
You might not have the same gifts as John Piper or Tim Keller. You might even struggle with impediments they don’t. But you have other gifts they don’t, and even your impediment can help you develop ways of speaking that can enhance your preaching. Be creative.
Winston Churchill practiced his speeches in the bathtub and spent hours rehearsing every speech. Repeated practice was his response to the terror he experienced early in his career when he lost his train of thought in a Parliament speech. He had a complicated set of speech defects, one of which was stuttering. But disciplined practice helped him become one of the world’s greatest orators.
The ancient Athenian orator-statesman Demosthenes had a weak voice, and couldn’t pronounce words that started with “r.” Yet Demosthenes became a great speaker through persistent determination. He practiced his speeches in a cave, repeated words with the “r” sound thousands of times, and ran up hills to strengthen his weak frame. Greater body strength helped Demosthenes project his voice, which was essential in a world without microphones.
Because of my own speech defect, I have learned to work extra hard on sermon prep. After writing a sermon, I rehearse my words at least four times over three days, and run with my notes slowly while making changes with a pencil, before I can preach with confidence.
3. Don’t let fear control you.
Moses was a stutterer, but he didn’t let his impediment keep him from doing what he was called to do. He was forced out of self-pity when God told him to lead Israel despite his stuttering (Exod. 4:10–17). He still struggled with speaking, but courageously led his people through perilous times.
Astronaut and senator John Glenn, who was hailed for his courage, always said his wife, Annie, had greater courage. Until she received a breakthrough, she was a severe stutterer. Even today, though she still halts in her speech, she delivers talks. She refuses to keep quiet because of fear.
Many preachers are fearful Timothys within (2 Tim 1:7), but find that when they step into the pulpit, God sends strength and anointing. I can attest to this.
4. Use your handicap to your advantage.
King George VI (The King’s Speech) used his handicap to his advantage. The people of England came to love and respect him because he toured England during the war simply listening to people, which was easier for him because of his stutter.
He still stuttered occasionally, but that disability forced him to pay greater attention to people. They listened more sympathetically as a result, which helped him relax a bit more as he spoke.
The great Augustine biographer and early church scholar Peter Brown is a stutterer. His own years of struggling as a student trying to speak have caused him to keep an eye out for shy students who seem to wrestle with an inner demon. His affliction has given him a listening ear and caring heart.
You might not stutter, but most of us have some handicap we can use to our advantage. Paul thought God wanted him to be rid of his “thorn in the flesh,” but discovered that this weakness was God’s intended way for Paul to experience his power (2 Cor. 12:7–10). Ask the Lord to show you how your own defect has helped you, and give thanks.
5. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain (the central character in the movie Gettysburg) tried not to take himself too seriously. Humor helped. When a bullet tore through his pelvis, he quipped, “What will my mother say—her boy shot in the back?” Chamberlain went on to become governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College, and lecture-circuit speaker despite a serious stutter.
Danger of Self-Obsession
We all are in danger of self-obsession. I recall complaining in college to an older friend about how stuttering frustrated me. He spoke gently, but I felt the rebuke: “Gerry, are you going to let this obsess you? There is more to life than this.” He was telling me that if I chose to focus on this to the exclusion of everything else, I was missing out on the joys of life. And that I was letting myself become self-absorbed.
You and I won’t likely become famous. But I pray we can use these tips to become better and perhaps humbler preachers. Be creative, practice, don’t let it keep you from what God is calling you to do, take advantage of your handicap, and realize it’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Gerald McDermott’s book Famous Stutterers: Twelve Inspiring People Who Achieved Great Things while Struggling with an Impediment (Cascade, 2016).