Tom Wells

A former Theale Green student has given an inspirational TEDx talk to a crowd of around 500 people about his experience as a lifelong stammerer, where he drew on the confidence he found in drama class.

Tom Wells is currently in his second year as a BA History student at the University of Oxford. He has been on a long journey to embrace his speech impediment as a central pillar of his identity.

He says his time at TGS – performing in school shows, extracurricular activities, and GCSE and A-level Drama helped with his nerves and acceptance of his stammer.

Tom was given the opportunity to present a TEDx talk, which took place on January 20 at Oxford Town Hall. TED (technology, education and design) are recorded presentations that present a great idea in 18 minutes or less. TEDx talks are slightly different in that they are locally organised by volunteers who create events tailored to their community

Tom’s chance came about when he bumped into the TEDx Oxford president, Julius Chua, at the Oxford Freshers’ Fair, who urged him to put in an application to join the conference.

“The theme was ‘we are all storytellers’, which I thought associated quite well with the current thoughts that were running through my head.

“In the stammering community there are people who want to hold on to traditional stereotypes. They see stammering as a disability – something that restrains them, so they grab speech therapy, they see it as something to get rid of.

“Then there are other people, like me, who argue that, yes, we have a stammer, but we shouldn’t try to hide it or change it. Like our ethnicity and background, it’s just part of who we are, and we should celebrate it as another factor that makes people unique.”

“So, I put in my application with a five-minute video outlining what I wanted to speak about, and I was chosen to do the talk.

“I had a couple of months to get the speech together – the final cut was 17 minutes and 58 seconds!”

Tom presented to around 500 people, knowing also that the video would be available to seen to potentially millions on YouTube. But he says the thought of public speaking didn’t really worry him.

“I’m one of the odd people in the stammering community, because I feel far more comfortable speaking to loads of people than a small group. I think it’s because in the small group, there’s more pressure to contribute and there’s always the chance that the conversation is more disjointed. People jump in, change the conversation, and if you have a stammer that can be a bit annoying if you want to present an idea as you need some time to think and get the words out. So, for me I like public speaking because everyone has to be quiet and listen.”

Tom says his confidence performing in public blossomed during his time studying drama at both GCSE and A Level at TGS.  But that’s not to say it’s been easy.

“One of the strengths of Theale Green is their extracurricular activities and I loved doing school shows. Not as main parts, I guess because of my stammer which was a bit sad.

“I remember there was quite a lot of discussions about my stammer in the run-up to exams because then you had to be fluent in order to get the marks. It did feel like the course and the grading system was kind of stacked against me.”

Nevertheless, Tom did very well in both sets of exams and is now rounding off his second year studying history at Oxford University.

He has published multiple articles with the British Stammering Association (STAMMA) and has discussed stammering as a student helper during the Oxford admission process. As a speaker, he joined the Oxford Speakers Club and has won club awards for his work.

You can hear Tom speak below at the TEDx event from January.