The Business Person’s Speech

The following article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Valley Business FRONT magazine, which is published in Salem, Virginia. The publication’s website is

Executive Summary:  Professionals with speech problems face a difficult task, but help is available. Just ask Roanoke Colleges’ Gerald McDermott.

By David Perry

More than 68 million people worldwide stutter, according to the Stuttering Foundation. That’s about one percent of the world’s population. The numbers are similar in the United States, where about three million Americans have the communication disorder.

In a business world where image is frequently everything, it’s not a stretch to imagine that stuttering can hamper one’s professional life.

The Hollins Communications Research Institute (HCRI) in Roanoke County has helped more than 5,700 people with their stuttering problems. Roanoke College Professor of Religion Gerald McDermott has dealt with stuttering all his professional life as a school principal, professor and minister.

“It was always difficult, always frustrating,” says McDermott of trying to teach with a stutter. “There was lots of anxiety. I had to tell my classes sometimes to bear with me.  I’d just have to slow down and I’d still block and stop on sounds that I couldn’t get out of my mouth.”

His description of stuttering sounds much like how people who suffer from depression describe their outlook and the disorder is dealt with powerfully in the current hit movie “The King’s Speech.”

“You feel like you’re at the bottom of a pit,” McDermott says. “The walls are perfectly smoothed and greased and there are no hand holds. There is nothing you can do to get out of that pit.”

McDermott says even simple social interactions were challenging. “You feel humiliated because you’re in public situations. The conversation turns to you, and you block, and everyone wonders, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’”

He adds, “Speaking on the phone is difficult for a stutterer because you can’t control the conversation. As a school principal, I never liked parent assemblies because I had to make all these announcements.”

McDermott went through the program at HCRI about 20 years ago and today considers himself “fluent,” or able to control his stuttering. Today, in addition to teaching at Roanoke College, he also preaches at St. John’s Lutheran in southwest Roanoke County.

David Winship of Abingdon, a Washington County schools employee, was met with prejudice, ignorance and even a waiver from military service due to his stuttering.

“I simply could not talk,” says Winship. “It affected my social life. One of the administrators at the school told one of my closest friends, ‘Don’t associate with him because stuttering is a sign of homosexuality.’

“I was deferred from military service because of my stuttering.  I received a 4-F. They didn’t want me trying to warn others about what was happening and not be able to say it.”

Winship was one of the first people to take the HCRI program in the early 1970s and is fluent today.  “I consider it the miracle in my life,” he says. “It’s allowed me to be in the schools. I do public speaking, I do storytelling. I’m a member of the Rotary Club and I give the invocation and blessing every week.”

Shannon Taylor, a Dinwiddie County resident who works at DuPont in Richmond, knew her career couldn’t advance until she gained control of her stuttering.

“I was administrative assistant, and my stuttering had gotten so bad that I couldn’t even answer my own phone,” she says. “I had to let all my calls go to voice mail. I tried to do as much as I could via e-mail.

“That was not good for my career. As an administrative assistant I was meeting and greeting and escorting our customers all the time, and I always had difficulty with introductions.”

Taylor’s stuttering became so bad that she couldn’t order her own food at restaurants. While she took the HCRI course in 2003, she didn’t stick with the follow-up and soon regressed. She returned in 2009 determined to succeed and further her career.

“I have an excellent work ethic, and I have the support of my management and my coworkers, so they knew what I was capable of,” she says. “I knew there was a barrier there until I got my speech under control.”

After completing the program for the second time, she started a national support group for stutterers that hosts conference calls several times a week. She also joined Toastmasters and sought new leadership opportunities at DuPont.

Says Taylor, “I wanted the folks that I work with, especially my management, to know that I was taking this seriously.”

McDermott says, “Life for a stutterer is sometimes hell,” especially when it hampers one’s professional ambitions. But effective help is readily available.

Says Winship, “Fluency is wonderful.”

About HCRI

Hollins Communications Research Institute was founded by Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D. in 1972 to investigate stuttering through scientific discovery and treatment innovation. Under Dr. Webster’s direction, Roanoke, Virginia-based HCRI, a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization, has become an international leader in stuttering research and the development of innovative, scientifically based therapy approaches.

The Institute offers 17 stuttering therapy programs annually, each of which lasts 12 days. HCRI clinicians have treated nearly 6,000 people, aged 9 to 73, from across the U.S. and 47 other countries. Clients include broadcaster John Stossel of Fox News; Annie Glenn, wife of Senator and Astronaut John Glenn; as well as athletes, teachers, engineers, students, doctors, military personnel, business professionals, police officers, actors, and others from all walks of life. For more information, visit or contact HCRI at 540-265-5650 or