So, how has speech stuff been this week?”

I was working with a client who stutters, a college student. It was the beginning of the school year, a season of transition and change that can often be accompanied by speech challenges.

“Pretty good, actually! I met someone else who stutters in one of my classes, and he recommended this book. It’s called The Stuttering Cure.* He said it helped him a lot. So I started reading it this week and doing some of the things. It’s definitely helping.” He paused. “Have you heard about this book?”

My licensed, certified, certificate-of-clinical-competence in speech-language pathology wheels were already turning. Have I heard of this book? Oh yes. More specifically, I’ve heard of the author. He is one of many self-styled “stuttering coaches” that live on the Internet. A person who stutters figured out a solution for himself, and he established a mini-empire helping others find the light. 

While there always has been and always will be a steady supply of these folks, this particular author had been in sales mode for many months. A friend of mine who moderates several online stuttering communities recently bemoaned to me that this author and his devotees were constantly spamming these networks, trying to drum up coaching clients and book sales.

Licensed professionals — like myself — tend to have knee-jerk reactions to “unqualified” online experts and self-styled coaches. After all, we’ve spent years in school learning general scientific foundations and explicit methodology to assist people. We are accountable to professional standards of performance, ethics, and patient care. We have to pay fees and submit proof of our continued professional education and competence just to maintain the legal ability to perform our jobs. It is frustrating and alarming when we encounter individuals whose approach to a problem is based on a foundation of primarily personal experience, and are accountable to no one for any inaccuracies or harm they may perpetuate.

But I have observed something in my years of practice: oftentimes, these entrepreneurial coaches do, in fact, help people. My young client was very enthusiastic about what he had learned from this book, especially as his classmate had also positively endorsed it. Despite my disdain of this particular author’s aggressive online sales tactics, here was proof that something about his material was helping the person that I, too, was trying to help.

There is a treatment continuum from snake oil to self-help to professional help, but the lines are blurred along the way, and no type of help is a guarantee of success. Many people have paid for professional advice only for it to prove ineffective — or even have worsening effects — and so they may trust information from those who have lived with a similar experience to ours, even over the word of someone who went to school but has never experienced the struggle first-hand. And sometimes, even ill-intended snake oil may actually work, for wholly unexpected reasons.

Communication is a highly subjective phenomenon. There are aspects of it that are rooted in and dependent on science, but choices about how to apply that science depend on the context for an individual person, their social needs, and the communication culture(s) they participate in. How are we to navigate the continuum of answers available to us, both as individuals seeking answers, and as professionals seeking to help?

Beware the One-Trick Pony

When we are struggling and seeking relief, concrete programs that offer a step-by-step solution are extremely appealing. The steps are easy for us to understand, the program gives us something to do right away, and we have an expectation of what the end result will look like.

Unfortunately, such rigid and programmatic approaches to communication and speech rarely create true long-term change. Human communication and human speech are inherently complex and dynamic. Successful communicators are able to adapt and adjust to a myriad of scenarios, challenges, and listener responses. Mastery or completion of a specific step-by-step program may improve your ability to do the activities as presented within the scope of the program, but you may find that the carryover into real-world scenarios is lacking.

One-stop solutions are peddled by both self-styled coaches and licensed professionals, and both should be approached with equal caution!

The benefit of one-trick pony approaches: You will likely get very good at the specific skill(s) that the program teaches. These can be great to have in your toolbox of communication abilities. Just be ready to continue adding to your toolbox when the program is done!

Beware the Proprietary Method 

The proprietary method is an expanded version of the one-trick pony. While the one-trick pony is skill- or exercise-focused, the proprietary method is a particular combination of several skills and exercises. There is often an explanation of principles or a (pseudo)scientific narrative as to why this particular collection of activities works to achieve results in the way that it does.

For example, the concept of alphas and betas in the redpill and pick-up artist communities is a conceptual principle. This concept serves as the basis for using specific (not great) communication techniques when interacting with people. Similarly, one of the most famous stuttering programs in the United States is based on outdated science from the 20th century that prescribes motoric speech exercises to improve fluency.

While proprietary methods tend to be a little more comprehensive than one-trick ponies, they ultimately run into the same problem of complexity and the unpredictable nature of real-world communication. The narratives that accompany these methods present a structured, simplified version of the world, which is what makes them appealing and accessible, but reality is messier and more nuanced.

As with the one-trick pony, proprietary methods are popular with both personal coaches and licensed professionals. Some proprietary methods even offer certification to licensed professionals, which means the professional probably paid a few thousand dollars to be able to offer this option to clients!

The benefit of proprietary methods: Sometimes, the narratives or foundational principles, be they scientific or merely philosophical, may describe something in a helpful way, even if the basis isn’t totally accurate. Even if the principle is completely the opposite of reality (e.g. alphas and betas), the terminology may serve as a useful starting point to explore specific aspects of the complex communication experience.

Just like with the one-trick pony, many proprietary methods can be useful learning experiences, offering both a selection of skills and some ideas about when, where, and why to use those skills — but no single method is sufficient to solve life’s communication or speech challenges.

It is also worth noting that certain proprietary methods work really well for certain people, but not everyone. This creates a genuine following of enthusiastic, authentic proponents. Real, honest testimonials can be a wonderful “green flag”. Just don’t forget to always evaluate how well it’s working for you.

Beware the Blame Game

A major red flag for any method, program, or approach is the extent to which it demands perfect student behavior in order to achieve results.

Of course, all kinds of change require consistent and committed action. If you want to play a musical instrument, run a distance race, or learn a new language, you need to consistently put in the time, effort, and practice. Communication is no different. The practice principle applies whether you are enrolled with fifty others in a proprietary program or completing a customized journey of self-discovery on your own.

Some programs (and individual coaches and/or professionals) guarantee results as long as you are putting in the effort and doing exactly what is prescribed. However, not all programs, methods, or exercises are equally effective for all people. It is not uncommon for someone to wholeheartedly enroll in a program, dutifully learn and perform the assigned exercises and activities on a daily basis, and still feel that it isn't quite working. Maybe the results aren’t coming as quickly as promised. Maybe the results are coming as expected, but it still doesn’t feel right somehow.

If the program or instructor’s response to questions or disappointment is: “You need more practice,” or “You aren’t doing it right,” and meanwhile you are working very hard to the best of your abilities, that is a sign that the program or professional is more focused on achieving their definition of success, versus your personal definition of success.

True, lifelong success is a deeply personal concept. It will look different for different people. A comprehensive program or quality coach embraces this idea, and will encourage you to create your own version of success.

The benefit of the blame game: Personal accountability does matter! If things aren’t working or don’t feel right, it’s always wise to do an honest self-assessment about how much effort you are really putting in, or where you might be holding back. Sometimes we aren’t quite ready to change, or the time is not right for the amount of work needed to achieve a certain level of change.

Beware the Promised Land

When we’re in pain, we need hope. We are desperate to know that change is possible.

We often envision that change as something specific, often the opposite of whatever our current struggle is. I will have a girlfriend. I will be fluent. I will have a high-pitched voice.

Just as human communication is complex, we are complex as individuals. After nearly a decade of walking with people through their personal change process, I have learned just how dynamic the idea of change is. Often, the change we think we want is vastly different from the change we actually need, the change that will dramatically improve our lives by allowing us to communicate freely, confidently, and authentically.

Programs, professionals, or coaches that guarantee specific results are operating on a limiting concept of success. Of course, this limiting concept is usually in line with the exact pain point you are currently experiencing, which is what makes the approach so very appealing.

Even if the program does deliver on the promised land precisely as advertised, it’s normal to have a nagging sense that the promised land isn’t what you thought it would be. (Cue the Blame Game, then, if you are dissatisfied with the results.) Now what?

The benefit of the promised land: Goals and hopes are potent motivators, and you will probably learn a lot one way or another along the way. If you do arrive in the Promised Land and it isn’t what you hoped it would be, you can always keep going!

My client and I have known each other a long time, and I know he trusts my opinion, so I considered my response to the book very carefully. We discussed the best ways to wisely and responsibly consume content from unlicensed books or coaches and how to take in methods that seem helpful and parse out the ones that don’t. We talked about what he had found helpful, and why, and what ideas he found questionable or simply not a good fit for him - and agreed it was alright to take what is useful, and leave what is not.

Communication is highly personal. Ultimately, the only person who can make the final decision on what works for you, is you. You may encounter good advice, bad advice, and wildly "out there" advice that seems to work! Opennness, flexibility, and honest self-reflection will help you meet your goals.

Want to figure out how to figure out the right approach for your communication goals? Contact us for a free consultation and we’ll have a conversation.

*The name of this book has been changed