We recently had the opportunity to speak with former Pepsi and Apple CEO, John Sculley about his experiences dealing with both a severe stutter and stammer throughout his life. John was gracious enough to take the time to detail not only how his speech impediment affected him as a child growing up, but also how he has dealt with it during his time as a successful businessman at Pepsi, Apple and even now.
John’s story is truly inspiring so we encourage you to take a look at our interview and share it with those who are working to overcome a speech impediment and may need to hear a few words of encouragement.
Presence TeleCare: We thought in this interview, we wanted to get into the story of your stutter and how you overcame it. What were the memories of your stutter were and how you overcame it?
John Sculley: Well, I started stuttering as young as I can remember. It was something that was there when I was under the age of six. In my case, it was a very severe stuttering and also stammering. Stuttering meaning when you keep repeating the words over and over and stammering when you can’t spit it out. I don’t know the cause of it. I am left-handed so some people thought well maybe it’s because he’s left-handed. In my generation, they used to tell people who were left-handed that they were stupid.
I went away to boarding school when I was eleven for six years and remember being sent to the board in math class and the teacher said to me “Mr. Sculley” (we were always called “Mr” back then) as I started to write on the board with my left hand the teacher said, “left-handed people are stupid so I don’t expect you to be able to do this problem because you’re stupid.”
Presence TeleCare: Didn’t they used to tie people’s hands behind their backs because they were left handed to train them to be right-handed?
John Sculley: I never had that but I was left-handed and I did stutter. It was extremely stressful because I couldn’t even go in to a store and ask for a pack of lifesavers. It was even worse over the telephone because I couldn’t speak over the phone.
That was very intimidating.
When I started out I wasn’t a very good student because people thought if you had a stutter you must be stupid. It was obviously very demoralizing. As I got older, it didn’t go away. My parents had me go to a speech therapist in New York where we were living at the time, in New York City. One thing that seemed to help a little bit was they were able to put earphones on me which allowed me to hear my own voice when I talked. That allowed me to synchronize my own voice. Hearing my own voice helped me synchronize the speech. The words would come out better for me when I heard my own voice but the technology was so that there was nothing portable. I tried that a few times and not much happened to my stutter.
I had to learn all kinds of tricks to be able to get along with stuttering. One of the tricks was not thinking what I was trying to say and just let words sort of blurt out without thinking. They would come out and I would then turn them into the sentence that I was trying to say. Which sounds sort of silly, but it actually worked. That was the stammering side of me, if I could get anything out of my mouth then I could have a better chance of continuing the following words after it.
The irony was that when I went to boarding school when I was eleven, I was elected class president. I was class president all the way through my sixth form year. It was kind of weird being the class president and I would have to speak on occasion. It was particularly difficult when I got older and I couldn’t speak. I remember one time when I had to stand up in front of my class and had to deliver a short essay and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even get the words out, I couldn’t read anything. It was incredibly embarrassing and made me think I was really stupid.
When I became head of school as a 12th grader at a very strict, religious, all-boys boarding school. Every morning the head principal and I would have to go into the study hall, with about 300 students, and I would have to read off the various penalties that students had. It was almost like a military type of environment in terms of there were very strict rules and penalties. It was always extremely stressful when I spoke to the students in the school.
In order to get prepared for that, my parents had to talk to the family doctor. He suggested that I go a medical hypnotist so I went to a medical hypnotist and he started hypnotizing me and taught me how to do auto-hypnosis. That actually helped a lot. That got me to the point where I actually had enough self-confidence that I could stand up in front of the students and deliver my message to the students.
When I went off to college, I was still stuttering but I was getting better control of it. It wasn’t until I was out of college and I started working that I really got control of it. Ironically, what started out as one of the greatest difficulties I had which was stuttering and stammering, became a strength for I then went on to business where I became successful and had to do lots of talking and public speaking. Over the last 25 years, I have been giving speeches all over the world to all kinds of groups, television and business schools things of that sort. It’s no longer a problem for me. I can’t say you ever really get over it. It must be like someone who’s addicted to something so that it never really goes away. You just learn how to live with it and how to have control over it.
Presence TeleCare: When did you first feel truly comfortable speaking in public John?
John Sculley: I would say not until I had been well out of college and then went to business school. By the time I got out of business school and started working that’s when I was really comfortable
Presence TeleCare: Do you think in some senses that you’re working to overcome your stuttering is part of what made you successful? It sounds like you really worked very consciously to put yourself out there in situations where you had to compensate and had to overcome.
John Sculley: I guess I was pretty driven to be successful and as I kept getting further and further along in my business life, my self-confidence got stronger and a lot of it was gaining self-confidence, and gaining experience, and getting reinforced from people so that I wasn’t just able to speak, but that I was actually a confident speaker. So I think a lot of it is just self-esteem. I am sure in the early days it must have been some psychological problems and things of that sort. As I got older and as I learned how to deal with it, I think that I was as surprised as anyone to see that I could actually overcome it because I had always thought I was going to be living with this for the rest of my life. A lot of it is self-confidence
Presence TeleCare: Do you still consciously use the techniques that you developed early on to overcome it or has it become unconscious now?
John Sculley: I have to aware of it. It never goes away. It’s always sort of there in the background. If I am in a stressful situation or anxious or something like that, I could start stuttering again. The people who have been successful and have overcome it to the degree that I have , like Jack Welch, and yet every once in a while you’ll notice that in his speech or my speech that we’ll sort of fall back into the habit of stuttering or stammering.
Presence TeleCare: I don’t if you’ve heard Bruce Willis’s story, but early on he made a big effort to go out and act and perform in theater partially as a way to compensate for and overcome his own stutter.
John Sculley: That makes total sense to me because when I started doing speeches it was almost like I wasn’t giving the speech it was like somebody else was giving the speech. It was almost like an actor performing in a play. I can relate to that even though I am not an actor and never have been.
Presence TeleCare: Were there any people along the way that particularly stood out in how they helped you? It sounds like the hypnotherapist was particularly helpful but was there anyone else or any stories that you could share about someone who inspired or helped you along the way?
John Sculley: No. I wish I could share one with you but I don’t have any. I can’t give you a story about how I had a really good mentor that helped me get through it because I didn’t have that.
Presence TeleCare: That’s an interesting thing in and of itself. What advice would you give to those who are trying to overcome their stutters or their stammers who are out there in the country right now?
John Sculley: Well when you are a stutterer or a stammerer, you just think it’s impossible that you’re ever going to be able to get over it. The reality is that you can. I wasn’t just a little bit of a stutterer or a stammerer, I mean it was a major thing. I literally couldn’t talk. So the key is that someone must understand that it’s a problem that you can solve and get over it. A lot of it is just hard work and self-confidence and focusing on trying to achieve something. It’s like going out for a sport and trying to get better and better. In my case, when I do something I go in with full-attention, whether it’s business, a project, a speech, or whatever it is. You just have to get in and be willing to spend an incredible amount of time just practicing, and practicing, and practicing, and learning. I think if something came out of the stuttering experience for me is that things that seem easy aren’t easy but you can achieve them if you work hard enough.
Presence TeleCare (Presence TeleCare Co-founder, Clay Whitehead, talking about his own phonological issues growing up): I had a lot of problems with learning disabilities growing up. I had some phonological issues and what you said just really resonated with me in that there was no silver bullet or anything it was just a lot of hard work, memorization and practice was really what got me through it.
John Sculley: Yeah. As I look back on my own experience, it was just a lot of hard work. You just have to be prepared to put the hard work in. The good news of that is that you really can overcome it.
All of us at Presence TeleCare feel very fortunate to have been able to hear John’s remarkable story in how he overcame his severe speech problems to become one of the most successful American businessmen in recent memory. We would like to send out our most sincere thanks to John Sculley for taking the time to speak with us and for sharing the details of his personal struggle with our readers.
We hope that his story may provide some hope for those out there who may often struggle with their own speech.