Einer Boberg’s contribution to the self-help movement in Canada and worldwide: Speaking notes, Joint World Congress on Stuttering and Cluttering, Montreal, May 29, 2022

From time to time, I give talks on topics that interest me. Below are speaking notes for an upcoming talk in Montreal.

Good afternoon. I’ll be speaking today about Einer Boberg’s contribution to the self-help movement for people who stutter.

I first met Einer Boberg in July 1987, when I attended a speech clinic that he and Deborah Kully had founded in December 1986 in Edmonton, Alberta.

Einer Boberg. Photo source: Jaan Pill

I’ll begin with a few words about my own story. When I was younger, I stuttered severely. Sometimes, I could not get out any words at all. There were times when I found the “H” sound impossible to say. If I had to say a word like “house,” “horse,” or “hello,” sometimes, I could not say it. One time, I phoned someone, and tried to say hello. After about 30 seconds, or however long it was, of trying to say hello, I realized I could not say the word, and I hung up the phone.

Deborah Kully. Photo source: Jaan Pill

At the same time, there were also times, when I surprised people with my level of fluency. When I was in high school in Montreal, I ran for election as president of the student council. I spent many hours at home, rehearsing my campaign speech. The school was called Malcolm Campbell High School.

When it came time for the speeches, in the school auditorium, I stood at the lectern, on a stage in front of a large audience, and I said, “In your hands instead of mine will rest the final success or failure of the student council.” And I carried on from there. I spoke fluently. I had good control over my breathing, and I knew my lines. I won the election. Aside from that one time, however, I did little public speaking.

When I made that speech, at the age of 16, Einer Boberg was about 27 years old. He spent his early years in Dalum, a small Danish settler colonialist farming community, located to the east of Calgary in Alberta. He had been studying music at St. Olaf College, a private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, and had continued with a study of the violin in Vienna, Austria.

Boberg met his future wife, Julia Sluce, in January 1960, when they were both in Vienna. Julia had been visiting Vienna from London, England, because she wanted to improve her conversational German. She had graduated in modern languages from Oxford University. Einer Boberg, who was studying violin with a member of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, spoke German quite well.

Around the time of their wedding, which took place in London, Boberg abruptly gave up his studies in music and resolved that he would, instead, pursue graduate studies in speech-language pathology. It was a massive relapse in his speech before the wedding that led to this dramatic change in direction. After getting speech therapy in the United States, Einer Boberg was fluent when he met Julia in Vienna. The relapse occurred when Julia was back in London before the wedding.

The newly married couple moved to the United States, where their first son, Charles, was born, and in 1971 the family moved to Edmonton, where Boberg, with a newly acquired PhD in speech-language pathology, took up a position at the University of Alberta. A second son, Peter, was born in Edmonton.

In July 1987, I attended a three-week speech clinic in Edmonton. At the clinic, in my role as a person who stutters, I relearned how to speak; I learned fluency as a second language. The clinic was the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research, or ISTAR for short.

Einer Boberg and Deborah Kully had founded the clinic in December 1986. I learned about the clinic, when I read a newspaper article on May 4, 1987, in the Toronto Star. I was not planning to read a newspaper that day, but I ended up reading one anyway because a good neighbour, across the hallway from where I was living, left the newspaper outside my doorway, and I came across an article about the ISTAR clinic. The speech program in Edmonton is called the Comprehensive Stuttering Program, or CSP for short.

I began to stutter when I was six years old. In 1987, when I was relearning how to speak, I approached the mechanics of speech production as a purely technical matter. I also viewed the challenge of changing my self-talk, as a person who stutters, as a purely technical matter as well. By self-talk, I refer to the things we tell ourselves, about things such as stuttering.

At the ISTAR clinic, the clinicians pointed out some very specific things that I was doing, such as with my breathing, that were preventing me from properly applying the speaking skills that I was supposed to be learning. From the clinicians, I learned exactly what to do, to get back on the right track.

The Edmonton clinic is not a one-size-fits-all kind of a thing. At the clinic, you don’t see anything like an assembly line. While there is a clear, overall structure to the program, the instructions from the clinicians at the clinic are individualized; they are tailored for each individual client. What is taught is also continuously improved, from one year to the next, based on feedback from the clients, clinical experience, and ongoing research around the world.

Some other speech programs, which also teach a form of fluency skills, have appeared to stay the same, from what I can gather, from one year to the next. If changes are made, they are made on a staggered basis. Major improvements might occur after several years, rather than from one year to the next. In such a case, the program may also be rebranded; it may be given a new name.

After my visit to Edmonton, I wrote an article, which was published in 1988 in the Journal of Fluency Disorders. In the article, entitled “A comparison between two treatment programs for stuttering: A personal account,” I speak of a distinction, between a speech pattern that sounds natural, which is the way of speaking that I learned at the clinic, as compared to a speech pattern that sounds robotic.

If we sound robotic, we speak with no variation in the pitch of our voice. This kind of a droning, monotone speech pattern is the direct outcome of a situation where clients are taught to prolong each syllable, in a word or phrase, for the same length of time.

At the ISTAR clinic, by way of contrast, the syllables which are accented, in a word or phrase, are extended slightly longer than the unaccented syllables. The result is a more natural sounding speech pattern, which is easier to apply once a person leaves a clinic.

The JFD article of 1988 includes a typo, where I speak of taking an “exploratory” breath. By mistake, I thought I heard the word “exploratory,” when a clinician at the ISTAR clinic had been talking about taking an “expiratory” breath, by which she meant the act of breathing out. The error is on p. 388 of the article.

After I got back to Toronto, I began to make fluent presentations to large audiences. However, I ran into a problem. Each time I made such a presentation, an inner voice would say to me, and I quote, “You’re not supposed to be able to do this. You’re supposed to be falling flat on your face.”

My nonstuttering friends couldn’t see what the problem was. There was no reason why they should. At first, I thought I should get some psychotherapy, to deal with this inner voice that was bothering me. But then I realized that what I really needed to do, was to compare notes with other people who stutter. That’s what led me to start a local self-help group, as I will explain.

Back in Toronto, I spent four years and four months, from July 1987 to December 1991, practising my fluency skills every day. Twice a day, I would practise the skills that I had learned in Edmonton, and I consciously applied them every time I spoke. I also recorded some of my conversations, phone calls, and presentations. I would then analyze two-minute segments of them, to make sure I was applying the skills correctly. I knew that otherwise the skills would fly out the window. What has worked for me may or may not work for others. Each of us must find our own way.

Einer Boberg

Einer Boberg was born in 1935 and passed away in 1995. As a child, he stuttered severely; it would take him a long time to say his name or answer a question. He did get some speech therapy in the United States, which enabled him to speak fluently for a while, after which he would have a major relapse. Years later, Boberg was keen to find out why such relapses occur, and how to prevent them. Boberg has remarked, as well, that the avoidance of speaking situations, rather than the overt stuttering, is the most salient feature of stuttering. In his own case, Boberg learned quite early, that he had to do a lot of talking, whether he stuttered or not. He was known to be very talkative, very sociable.

Stuttering Association of Toronto

I’m a retired elementary school teacher. I’ve been active as a volunteer for many years. In September 1988, I founded a local self-help group, the Stuttering Association of Toronto, or SAT for short. That was my first volunteer project. I spent two months planning for the launch of the group. One person I spoke with, during the planning, said that such groups come and go all the time. The founder of the group burns out or passes away, and the group folds. The alternative to this, it occurred to me, at once, is to establish a procedure for leadership succession. I realized that the quote-unquote ‘leader for life’ scenario may not be the best way to ensure the long-term viability of a self-help organization.

At the Toronto self-help group, we arranged for speaking time to be shared equally at meetings. As well, every member had the opportunity, if they wished, to lead two or three meetings in a row. In this way the leading of the meetings was shared among the members. We also provided an impartial forum for the sharing of information about stuttering. We made a point, as well, of not monitoring each other’s speaking skills, unless a person requested that they be monitored. We didn’t care whether a person had received speech therapy or not. Everybody felt a strong sense of ownership of the group. We also made sure that members felt safe and at ease at the meetings. If any sign of potential disruption occurred, in relation to the meetings, we dealt with that at once.

I began the group because I wanted to compare notes with other people who stutter. I wanted to find out what this inner voice, which bothered me every time I made a presentation, was telling me. About a year after the founding of the Toronto group, a speech therapist who stutters, Tony Churchill of Mississauga, came to speak at one of our meetings. After his talk, I asked him about the inner voice. He replied at once, without missing a beat, that what the voice was telling me was that I needed to adjust to some changes that had occurred in my life. After that, the inner voice never bothered me again.

Canadian Stuttering Association

In 1989, our local group began work, along with a similar group in Alberta, on the organizing of the first-ever national conference of people who stutter in Canada. The conference, which took place in Banff, Alberta, in August 1991 in the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary, led to the founding of the Canadian Stuttering Association, or CSA for short.

Attendees at Banff 1991 conference which led to founding of the Canadian Association for People Who Stutter (CAPS), subsequently renamed the Canadian Stuttering Association (CSA)

Our Toronto group had been talking about organizing a national conference, but no steps had yet been taken in that direction. In 1989, a year after the founding of the SAT group, Einer Boberg came to Toronto for a visit, during a sabbatical from the University of Alberta.

On his visit to Toronto, Boberg met with members of the Toronto self-help group, and suggested we get together with a similar group in Alberta, the Alberta Stutterers Association, to organize a national conference. Boberg played a key role in the initial planning of the event, but he also took care not to become a key player in the self-help movement himself.

We had three seminars at the Banff conference. At each one of them, people broke into groups of eight, and then discussed a given question related to the activities of self-help groups across Canada. After that, a spokesperson from each group would report back to a plenary session, where everybody met together again as a single group.

Each of the three seminars was led by a graduate of the ISTAR clinic. To get the organizing of the seminars underway, Boberg recommended I contact three people. I phoned Michael Niven of Calgary, Allan Chapman of Winnipeg (who’s now living in Saanich, B.C.) and Peter Wyant of Regina, and together we organized the seminars.

Larry Stone (now living in Osoyoos, B.C.), Mattie Matheson (now living in Penticton, B.C.), and Jim Rowlett of Edmonton were also among the key organizers of the conference. As well, Arun Khanna of Barrie, Ontario (now living in Thornhill) was also involved, among others. About 80 people attended the event.

The third seminar, on August 25, 1991, was led by Peter Wyant of Regina. At this seminar, we were asked whether we should launch a national organization. Again, we broke into groups of eight. One of the groups was made up of speech professionals. This group chose Einer Boberg as the spokesperson who would report back at the plenary session. In part, Boberg said, and I quote:

Yes, we definitely think we should have, or that you should have an organization, as long as it’s organized by you, and it focused the attention on the self-help people rather than being propelled and pushed by the professionals. [End of quote]

We spent several years developing the constitution and bylaws of the Canadian Stuttering Association, with input from as many people across Canada as possible. We established that the CSA would provide an impartial forum for the sharing of information about stuttering. At the same time, we made it clear that we would not provide a platform for scams or scamming related to stuttering. As well, the constitution provides clear steps regarding leadership succession.

I served as the first national coordinator of the CSA, and after that I stepped back; each person who has followed in that role has made a strong and significant contribution to ongoing work of the CSA. The current national coordinator is Eeva Stierwalt of London, Ontario. As a volunteer, it’s been enjoyable for me to learn, many times over, how to let go of the power and authority that is attached to any leadership position.

Estonian Association of People Who Stutter

In the summer of 1990, I delivered a series of lectures at a children’s clinic in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, regarding how stuttering is approached in countries such as Canada. My lectures led to the founding, in 1993, of the Estonian Association of People Who Stutter. In September 2018, I was back again in Estonia, this time to give a talk at an annual Scandinavian seminar for people who stutter, which was taking place in Estonia for the first time.

One Estonian, that I met in 2018, told me that he attended my lectures in 1990. As a result, he decided to go to university. Until he heard my lectures, he said, he didn’t think that he, as a person who stutters, should go to university.

In 1990, one of the people who attended my lectures said it was very moving to know that an Estonian from Canada would travel all the way to Estonia out of a concern for people who stutter in Estonia. That comment has stayed with me.

International Fluency Association

In the early 1990s, I was also chair of the support groups and consumer affairs committee of the International Fluency Association, the IFA. Founded in 1989, the IFA brings together speech professionals, researchers, and people who stutter at the international level.

Einer Boberg, who was the first president of the IFA, got me involved with volunteer work at the international level. Ken St. Louis of Morgantown, West Virginia, has commented in an interview that Boberg was chosen as the first president because he was diplomatic, knew how to bring people together, and had a track record for getting things done. As well, he wasn’t involved in such work just to add something impressive to his resume.

During those years of volunteer work, Boberg shared with me a comment that has influenced my thinking ever since. He told me that some of the people, that we were working with, were data-oriented, and some were not. That distinction – between being data-oriented and not being data-oriented – has stayed with me.

After Boberg’s comment, I began to read about the concept of evidence-based practice. Marilyn Langevin and Deborah Kully, active in treatment and research at ISTAR in those years, have published several key articles about this topic. In the years that followed, I’ve also come to realize that how data is framed – how facts and evidence are positioned inside of a conceptual framework – is also a critical variable, when we consider how we go about using data.

As a volunteer, I helped to organize a panel on self-help and speech professionals at the IFA’s First World Congress on Fluency Disorders, in Munich, Germany, in August 1994. That turned out to be the last time I met Boberg in person. Einer Boberg passed away in October 1995.

International Stuttering Association

In July 1995, I was a co-founder of the International Stuttering Association, the ISA, at an international meeting in Linköping, Sweden. I was involved in the founding of the ISA because I thought it was important for people who stutter to speak on their own behalf at the international level.

During the founding of the CSA and the ISA, we made extensive use of professional-quality surveys designed by a person who stutters, who is a market research analyst. Originally, we had tried out some surveys that I had designed myself, until Arun Khanna of Thornhill, Ontario, pointed out to me that I was an amateur at surveys. I agreed at once that we needed to use some better surveys, and we found someone in Toronto to help us.

We spent several years developing the constitution and bylaws of the ISA, with input from self-help associations around the world. The ISA seeks to provide an impartial forum for the sharing of information about stuttering. As well, a procedure for leadership succession is in place. I was involved, during those years, along with Stefan Hoffmann of Germany, and others, in establishing contact with people who stutter in countries that were not yet members of the ISA.

What can we say about the relationship between people who stutter and speech professionals? Based on my anecdotal experience, I would say that, sometimes, the aims of clinicians and stutterers are closely aligned, but at other times, what makes sense for speech professionals may not make sense for people who stutter. Conversely, there are times when what makes sense for people who stutter may not make sense for speech professionals. Sometimes, we may have shared interests, and sometimes our interests may diverge.

Several of the people I’ve interviewed have commented that there is much of value that the two sides can learn from each other. Einer Boberg’s contribution to the self-help movement can be seen as a case study or a model – one model, perhaps, among many others – of how the two sides can work together. Stefan Hoffmann of Germany has commented, as well, that much depends on the personalities of the speech professionals.

A case study that Stefan Hoffmann has mentioned, in a recent interview, is that of Beatriz Biain de Touzet, a speech professional in Argentina who worked closely, years ago, with Stefan Hoffmann on the board of directors of the International Stuttering Association. In this case, a speech professional from Argentina played a key role in the founding of the Argentina Stuttering Association, and in the leadership of it. She has contributed, as well, to the worldwide self-movement of people who stutter.

I’ve mentioned that, in the relationship between speech professionals and stutterers, much depends on the personalities of the speech professionals. We can add that much depends, as well, on the personalities of the people who stutter.

We can also add that the launch, years ago, of the Stuttering Association of Toronto, the Canadian Stuttering Association, the Estonian Association of People Who Stutter, and the International Stuttering Association, in each case involves one thing in common. In each case, we are talking about a process of community self-organizing. We are talking about how communities – or, at least, segments of communities – can go about organizing themselves.

University of Alberta

In speaking with Einer Boberg, Deborah Kully, MariIyn Langevin, Holly Lomheim, and many other people, I’ve learned much of value about the philosophy of science. Many people I’ve interviewed have spoken of how the day-to-day work at the ISTAR clinic in Edmonton is characterized by a sense of discovery, lively debate, and enjoyment, connected directly with the theory and practice of science.

Martha Piper, former president of the University of British Columbia, has shared valuable insights with me, regarding Einer Boberg’s approach to scholarship and research. When she was dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, Piper was strongly supportive of the founding of the ISTAR clinic in 1986.

She has commented that the clinic is well known for its high standards of scholarship and research. Martha Piper has also noted that close collaboration among many different levels of faculty and administration within a university, is required in order to maintain such high standards of scholarship. Martha Piper is the co-author, along with another former university president, Indira Samarasekera of the University of Alberta, of a book entitled Nerve: Lessons of Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, published in 2021.

The book I am working on about Einer Boberg does not end in 1995, the year when he passed away. Instead, it also highlights the contributions and insights of people who stutter, clinicians, and researchers, in the years from 1995 right up until the present moment.

Several of my recent interviews have been with people who stutter and clinicians who are using podcasting and video to raise awareness about stuttering, and to establish connections among people who stutter, in Latin America, Africa, and China.

To each person that I interview, I owe many thanks. Every time I do an interview, I learn new things of tremendous value. To Wendy Davis of Edmonton, I owe special thanks, because some years ago, she said, and I paraphrase, “Somebody should write a book about Einer Boberg.” Wendy Davis is the author of Dal and Rice, published in 2008, about her childhood as the daughter of a high court judge growing up in colonial India. I owe special thanks, as well, to Julia Boberg of Edmonton whose memoirs serve as a strong foundation, along with the interviews, for the book project that has been highlighted at today’s presentation.

My website is at Preserved Stories. I’ve left time for a Q & A.

2 replies
  1. Steve
    Steve says:

    Excellent essay. I know nothing about stuttering, but a lot about “stage fright”. I wonder if the two are related. In any case, Jaan, you are fully articulate in text, and wrote an interesting autobiography too!

    • Jaan Pill
      Jaan Pill says:

      Good to read your message Steve. I remember that when I shared drafts with you of a talk I gave in Tallinn, Estonia, in September 2018, your comments were very helpful in ensuring that I explain the connections between various events and concepts.

      In the current speaking notes, I’ve built upon what I learned from your earlier feedback. Always, I seek to improve upon writing processes as I proceed. In this case, I’ve outlined the origin story related to the concept of leadership succession. I note in the May 2022 talk that I began to focus on this concept very early in my volunteer work, during the two months of planning before the launch, in September 1988, of the Stuttering Association of Toronto.

      I’m no expert on stage fright or on stuttering, by which I mean that my knowledge is based most of all on my anecdotal experience. Based on what little I know, however, I think there may be a relationship but it’s not a direct relationship.

      What is in common, based on my anecdotal experience, is this. When a fluent speaker has stage fright, they are in a sense ‘on stage’ with many people aware of their role and presence as a performer. That can be daunting, and the stage fright must be addressed, in one way or another, in order for the show to go on.

      A person who stutters is likely to find the going difficult when there is an audience of one kind or another that is listening for what the person who stutters has to say. A person may be fluent talking to one’s self, but when there are listeners the going gets more difficult.

      The difference here is on several levels. For the fluent speaker, once the stage fright is addressed, the words will flow freely enough. From that, the fluent speaker may, at times, jump to the conclusion that the person who stutters may be in a continuous state of stage fright. Such a jump to a conclusion misses what is going on, however, I would say, from my perspective as a person who has experienced plenty of fluency (over the past 35 years) and plenty of stuttering (in the years before).

      That is to say, the person who stutters is experiencing a challenge to speech production that is different from the experience of a fluent person in the face of stage fright.

      A parallel phenomenon concerns the sensation of being nervous or apprehensive in some situation. If a fluent person is nervous or flustered in some situation, they may temporarily be at a loss for words or may in fact stable over a few words – may, for a few brief moments, be dysfluent. From that the fluent person may surmise that, “Hey, I’m dysfluent, on occasion, when I’m nervous, so it must follow that stuttering is a manifestation of nervousness.”

      Again, being nervous is not in fact the cause or correlation of being a person who stutters. The situation, according to many years of research in the neurosciences, is that the problem (or, in the terminology of some people, the neurodivergence) that is at play is related to how the brain works, during speech production.

      It’s interesting to read your comment, Steve, regarding the autobiographical element in my speaking notes. It’s a fact: the story of Einer Boberg’s contribution to the self-help movement is intertwined with my own story as a volunteer.

      A final note: These are indeed speaking notes. I read these notes out loud when I work on the cadence and content of the talk. However, when I make the presentation, I have the speaking notes printed out on heavy paper – on cardstock, as it’s called. The speaking notes are in a relatively narrow column on the left-hand side of the page. On the margin, on the right, I have just a few jot notes, which are printed out in blue.

      In my presentation, I refer to the blue jot notes, and recreate the contents of the speaking notes, without (in most cases) actually referring to the speaking notes. In that way, I come across as making up my talk as I go. In effect I am making it up as I go. An audience is much more attentive, finds it much easier to follow along, than if I were simply to read the prepared text.

      Some experienced speakers can read directly from a prepared text and sound like they are making it up as they go, but I am not in that category of speaker.

      What’s of interest for me is a comment from one of the people I’ve interviewed for the book, namely a comment from Per Alm of Lund University in Sweden, who studies the neuropsychology of stuttering. He has noted that there are two parallel neurological systems at play, at the brain level, when we look at how people are represented, for example, in photographic portraits.

      In photography, when we look at a photo, we can often tell whether a smile is simply a posed smile (which involves a particular neurological system) or whether the smile that we see, in a photo, is a smile that emerged naturally, during a conversation between the photographer and the person whose portrait is being taken. The latter smile is a product of a different level of neurological functioning than the ‘posed’ smile.

      These days, I can look at a photo of a smiling person, and can generally figure out easily enough whether the smile is a posed smile, or is the the outcome of a more extended interaction with the person who took the picture.

      A somewhat analogous system appears to be at play with presentations. Generally speaking, if a person simply reads a prepared text, the audience does pick up some information, but it’s not easy to follow along – unless the person reading the text has a great deal of experience in bringing such a text to life.

      In contrast, when a person is just speaking to an audience, off the top of their head or from a set of brief notes, there’s generally a much better connection with the audience. The challenge in the latter case is to deliver an organized, detailed message. If a presentation is entirely extemporaneous, it’s easy to follow but the content may not be as well structured as a prepared speech.

      A similar phenomenon is concerned with the speaking pattern. If a presenter speaks in a monotone, it’s hard to follow what the person is saying. If the person has a natural variation in the pitch of the voice, that makes it easier to follow along.

      Ad lib comments

      For my May 2022 talk, I plan to keep my ad lib comments to a minimum. I plan to speak as if I am making an ad lib presentation. At the same time, I have the timing in place to cover a set amount of words in 40 minutes. I’ve left 20 minutes for a Q & A where I can ad lib all I want. Also, I figure that 40 minutes is quite long enough for me to speak, on this occasion; for the book project, there is tremendous value in getting responses from audience members, to the content of my talk. I like to leave plenty of time for a Q & A, whenever I have an hour in place for a presentation.

      Sarnoff Squeeze

      In the late 1980s, when I began making fluent presentations to large audiences, I used a technique called the ‘Sarnoff Squeeze,’ based on a book about public speaking by Dorothy Sarnoff, that I had been reading at the time. The Sarnoff Squeeze is based on a technique that the actor Yul Brynner used years ago to handle the adrenaline rush that can occur when a person is about to perform on stage. Brynner found that if he tightened up the muscles in the area of the solar plexus, the adrenaline rush could, so to speak, be short-circuited.

      From the Sarnoff book, I also learned a way to prepare a written text for a presentation. I used the method, that she recommended, in the early years starting in the late 1980s when I was making presentations. Later I adapted that way of working with a prepared text, and arrived at the format that I have now been using for some time.

      When I first began making presentations to large audiences, I used the Sarnoff Squeeze as my way to address the adrenaline rush. It always worked. As the years went by, when I was making presentations, I no longer would have an adrenaline rush so I no longer needed to use that particular technique. Now, when I make a presentation, I have the sense of being in a room, a very comfortable room, a place where I am at ease and where I belong.


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