13:03
TEDxSydney

Megan Washington: Why I live in mortal dread of public speaking

Filmed:

Megan Washington is one of Australia's premier singer/songwriters. And, since childhood, she has had a stutter. In this bold and personal talk, she reveals how she copes with this speech impediment—from avoiding the letter combination “st” to tricking her brain by changing her words at the last minute to, yes, singing the things she has to say rather than speaking them.

- Musician
Megan Washington has won two ARIA Awards, the Australian equivalent of the Grammys. A popular singer/songwriter, she has recently come clean with a secret—that she has a speech impediment. Full bio

I didn't know when I agreed to do this
00:12
whether I was expected to talk or to sing.
00:16
But when I was told that the topic was language,
00:22
I felt that I had to speak about something for a moment.
00:27
I have a problem.
00:32
It's not the worst thing in the world.
00:36
I'm fine.
00:38
I'm not on fire.
00:39
I know that other people in the world
00:41
have far worse things to deal with,
00:43
but for me, language and music are
00:47
inextricably linked through this one thing.
00:53
And the thing is that I have a stutter.
00:57
It might seem curious given that I spend
01:05
a lot of my life on the stage.
01:08
One would assume that I'm comfortable
01:11
in the public sphere and comfortable here,
01:14
speaking to you guys.
01:17
But the truth is that I've spent
my life up until this point
01:19
and including this point, living in mortal dread
01:24
of public speaking.
01:28
Public singing, whole different thing. (Laughter)
01:32
But we'll get to that in a moment.
01:36
I've never really talked about it before so explicitly.
01:40
I think that that's because I've always lived in hope
01:46
that when I was a grown-up,
01:48
I wouldn't have one.
01:51
I sort of lived with this idea that when I'm grown,
01:57
I'll have learned to speak French,
02:00
and when I'm grown, I'll learn
how to manage my money,
02:03
and when I'm grown, I won't have a stutter,
02:07
and then I'll be able to public speak
and maybe be the prime minister
02:09
and anything's possible and, you know.
02:11
(Laughter)
02:15
So I can talk about it now
02:18
because I've reached this point, where —
02:21
I mean, I'm 28.
02:25
I'm pretty sure that I'm grown now.
02:29
(Laughter)
02:31
And I'm an adult woman
02:33
who spends her life as a performer,
02:35
with a speech impediment.
02:39
So, I might as well come clean about it.
02:42
There are some interesting
angles to having a stutter.
02:46
For me, the worst thing that can happen
02:50
is meeting another stutterer.
02:54
(Laughter)
02:57
This happened to me in Hamburg, when
03:00
this guy, we met and he said,
03:03
"Hello, m-m-m-my name is Joe,"
03:05
and I said, "Oh, hello, m-m-m-my name is Meg."
03:09
Imagine my horror when I realized
03:13
he thought I was making fun of him.
03:16
(Laughter)
03:18
People think I'm drunk all the time.
03:24
(Laughter)
03:29
People think that I've forgotten their name
03:32
when I hesitate before saying it.
03:36
And it is a very weird thing, because
03:40
proper nouns are the worst.
03:43
If I'm going to use the word
"Wednesday" in a sentence,
03:47
and I'm coming up to the word,
03:51
and I can feel that I'm going to stutter or something,
03:54
I can change the word to "tomorrow,"
03:57
or "the day after Tuesday,"
04:00
or something else.
04:02
It's clunky, but you can get away with it,
04:04
because over time I've developed this
04:09
loophole method of using speech
04:12
where right at the last minute you
04:16
change the thing and you trick your brain.
04:19
But with people's names, you can't change them.
04:24
(Laughter)
04:27
When I was singing a lot of jazz,
04:30
I worked a lot with a pianist whose name was Steve.
04:33
As you can probably gather,
04:39
S's and T's, together or independently,
04:41
are my kryptonite.
04:45
But I would have to introduce the band
04:49
over this rolling vamp,
04:51
and when I got around to Steve,
04:54
I'd often find myself stuck on the "St."
04:57
And it was a bit awkward and uncomfortable
and it totally kills the vibe.
05:03
So after a few instances of this,
05:08
Steve happily became "Seve,"
05:11
and we got through it that way. (Laughter)
05:16
I've had a lot of therapy,
05:21
and a common form of treatment is to use
05:24
this technique that's called smooth speech,
05:26
which is where you almost
sing everything that you say.
05:31
You kind of join everything together in this
05:36
very singsong, kindergarten teacher way,
05:39
and it makes you sound very serene,
like you've had lots of Valium,
05:43
and everything is calm. (Laughter)
05:47
That's not actually me.
05:51
And I do use that. I do.
05:54
I use it when I have to be on panel shows,
05:57
or when I have to do radio interviews,
06:04
when the economy of airtime is paramount.
06:07
(Laughter)
06:12
I get through it that way for my job.
06:15
But as an artist who feels that their work
06:20
is based solely on a platform of honesty
06:22
and being real,
06:28
that feels often like cheating.
06:32
Which is why before I sing, I wanted to tell you
06:36
what singing means to me.
06:39
It's more than making nice sounds,
06:43
and it's more than making nice songs.
06:47
It's more than feeling known, or understood.
06:52
It's more than making you feel the things that I feel.
06:58
It's not about mythology,
07:04
or mythologizing myself to you.
07:07
Somehow, through some miraculous
07:12
synaptic function of the human brain,
07:17
it's impossible to stutter when you sing.
07:22
And when I was younger,
that was a method of treatment
07:27
that worked very well for me,
07:31
singing, so I did it a lot.
07:33
And that's why I'm here today.
07:39
(Applause)
07:43
Thank you.
07:48
Singing for me is sweet relief.
07:54
It is the only time when I feel fluent.
07:58
It is the only time when what comes out of my mouth
08:07
is comprehensively exactly what I intended.
08:10
(Laughter)
08:13
So I know that this is a TED Talk,
08:15
but now i'm going to TED sing.
08:18
This is a song that I wrote last year.
08:22
Thank you very much. Thank you.
08:23
(Applause)
08:26
(Piano)
08:39
♪ I would be a beauty ♪
08:54
♪ but my nose ♪
08:58
♪ is slightly too big ♪
09:02
♪ for my face ♪
09:05
♪ And I would be a dreamer ♪
09:09
♪ but my dream ♪
09:13
♪ is slightly too big ♪
09:16
♪ for this space ♪
09:20
♪ And I would be an angel ♪
09:23
♪ but my halo ♪
09:27
♪ it pales in the glow ♪
09:31
♪ of your grace ♪
09:34
♪ And I would be a joker ♪
09:38
♪ but that card looks silly when you play ♪
09:42
♪ your ace ♪
09:50
♪ I'd like to know ♪
10:07
♪ Are there stars in hell? ♪
10:11
♪ And I'd like to know ♪
10:15
♪ know if you can tell ♪
10:18
♪ that you make me lose everything I know ♪
10:22
♪ That I cannot choose to or not let go ♪
10:29
♪ And I'd stay forever ♪
10:50
♪ but my home ♪
10:54
♪ is slightly too far ♪
10:57
♪ from this place ♪
11:01
♪ And I swear I tried to ♪
11:03
♪ slow it down ♪
11:08
♪ when I am walking at your pace ♪
11:11
♪ But all I could think ♪
11:18
♪ idling through the cities ♪
11:21
♪ do I look pretty in the rain? ♪
11:26
♪ And I don't know how someone ♪
11:33
♪ quite so lovely ♪
11:37
♪ makes me feel ugly ♪
11:40
♪ So much shame ♪
11:46
♪ And I'd like to know ♪
11:55
♪ Are there stars in hell? ♪
11:59
♪ And I'd like to know ♪
12:02
♪ know if you can tell ♪
12:06
♪ that you make me lose everything I know ♪
12:10
♪ that I cannot choose to or not let go ♪
12:17
Thank you very much. (Applause)
12:52

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Megan Washington - Musician
Megan Washington has won two ARIA Awards, the Australian equivalent of the Grammys. A popular singer/songwriter, she has recently come clean with a secret—that she has a speech impediment.

Why you should listen

The lyrics of Megan Washington’s songs have a beautiful, confessional tone: she sings about heartbreak, insecurity, rage, you name it. But there is one thing that Washington avoided sharing publicly before stepping on the stage of TEDxSydney 2014: that she has a stutter.

One of Australia’s most promising singer/songwriters, Megan Washington won two ARIA Awards in 2010 for “Best Female Artist” and “Breakthrough Artist” following the release of her album, I Believe You Liar. The album went platinum, and she followed it up in 2012 with Insomnia. Her latest album, There There, was be released on September 12, 2014.

Prior to going solo, Washington played jazz piano with various acts and founded a band called Washington, borrowing her last name. After her breakthrough solo album, she served as a mentor on Australia’s version of The Voice and also spoke on music panels on the show Spicks and Specks, using a method called "smooth speech" to overcome her stuttering on-air. Washington's songs have also appeared in TV shows Girls and Boardwalk Empire.

More profile about the speaker
Megan Washington | Speaker | TED.com