Speaker couldn’t speak

As a speaker, we’re hired based on our ability to communicate. Our words pour out from the stage and educate, inspire, and affect those sitting in the audience. For a speaker, having a “voice” is everything. But what if that voice was taken away? I don’t mean figuratively, but literally. As a speaker, how would you handle it? What if a speaker couldn’t speak?

Cognizant Technology Solutions

Last month I had the honor of sharing the stage with one of the most amazing and inspiring speakers I’ve ever met, Cynthia DiBartolo. We were in Atlanta for the Cognizant Technology Solutions conference, which was held at the Jimmy Carter Museum. There were roughly 100 Fortune 500 executives and CEOs from Coca Cola, AT&T, etc. The topic was innovation and there were 4 keynote speakers who spoke about innovation from a different perspective.

Cynthia DiBartolo

Cynthia spoke about innovation on a personal level and how sometimes innovation can be forced on you through tragedy.

See, Cynthia didn’t start off as a speaker. She clawed her way up the ladder on Wall Street at a time when the only women on Wall Street were the ones who could type and take dictation. She was way over qualified for that position, but took it anyway just to get in the door. Her boss soon figured out that she was overqualified and moved her out of the typing pool.

She rose through the ranks and was managing a team of financial consultants, on her way to even bigger and better things when she discovered the devastating news that she had head and neck cancer. Doctors told her it might permanently impact her ability to eat, swallow and speak. She ended up having surgery to remove part of her tongue and face, a partial neck dissection to remove lymph nodes and even a tracheostomy.  A specialized surgical team cut open her face, neck and jaw and used tissue from her arm to reconstruct a tongue.  Recovery was slow and brutal. 

Slow road back to speaking

In fact, it would be 2 years before she was able to speak clearly and for limited periods of time. Her father, who stood by her side the entire time, came to visit her in the hospital. She scribbled on a whiteboard “Daddy, what will I do with myself”. Her father replied “They operated on your tongue, not your brain. Figure it out”.

Cynthia, who, if faced with a decision will always take the most challenging road, decided to start her own business and become a public speaker. And that’s where I met her. All 59 inches of her. As she stood on the stage and spoke from her heart about her decision to undergo the painful 2 year journey to learn how to eat and speak again, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.

Cynthia’s powerful message

Many people who have their tongues, or even partial tongue removed opt to use pen and paper to communicate for the rest of their lives. But not Cynthia. She is still undergoing speech pathology. She still can’t say new words without practicing them many times, and can only speak for short periods. But when you hear her speak, you know how much work went into it, just to get to that point. And her point is powerful.

On your worst day as a speaker, remember Cynthia’s story and how far she was willing to go to tell her story. And consider yourself blessed that you have a voice. That you’re not a speaker who couldn’t speak. Cynthia is using hers to inspire others to reach for goals that seem impossible.

How will you use your voice?


2 Responses to “What if a Speaker Couldn’t Speak?”

  1. Michael Solomon says:

    What a fascinating motivational story. And I sometimes worry about a hoarse throat before a talk. Never again!

  2. Julie Austin says:

    Yes! When you think about the fact that she had to not only write the speech and practice it, but she literally had to spend days just learning how to say the words, it’s hard to complain about anything. She’s one tough cookie.

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