Bringing Unconventional Voices Into Dialogue

Speech professor Josh Compton, a member of the steering committee of Dartmouth's Dialogue Project, advocates for vocal diversity. 

Josh Compton used to take a lot of pride in his ability to conceal his stutter. 

"My stutter is classified as a covert stutter, which means that I often pass as fluent by doing a lot of tricks and vocal maneuvers I've learned over the past 40-plus years," says the professor of speech and chair of Speech at Dartmouth

But in recent years, he realized how much effort he was spending on passing as fluent. 

"I spent more time worrying about how I was going to say something than the idea I wanted to share," says Compton, who is also a member of the steering committee of the newly launched Dialogue Project, which provides training to students, faculty, and staff in collaborative dialogue skills. 

"And perhaps most importantly," Compton says, "concealing my stutter was taking away from fully embracing my audience. That's not good dialogue—and for that matter, without an engaged, active audience, it's not even dialogue at all." 

Compton joined a growing community of stutterers who are championing vocal diversity and advocating for unconventional voices—ultimately, fostering dialogue that is accessible to more people.

This advocacy work builds on Compton's growing research on inoculation theory, a communication technique that suggests people can build psychological resistance against attempts at persuasion, similar to how immunizations guard against disease.

Inoculation-informed communication campaigns have been shown to be effective in a number of contexts, from "inoculating" kids against temptations to smoke or drink alcohol to guarding adults from anti-vaccine misinformation. 

"In a sense, inoculation theory is a theory of dialogue," Compton says. "It shows how an inoculation message leads to more dialogue, conversation, and deliberation."

Strategies for Better Dialogue

Inoculation theory first caught Compton's attention in graduate school, when he was captivated by its capacity for both simplicity and complexity.

"Simple in that we learn to resist persuasion in much the same way our bodies learn to resist viruses," he says. "And complicated when we think about how processes of resistance in biological and communication inoculation can be modeled in intricate ways, taking into account time, emotions, attitudes, cognitive processing, social networks, and more."

Compton discovered that inoculation theory offers an effective rhetorical strategy.

"So many times, we have a general idea of our position on an issue—politics, social, academic—but we're not sure how to structure the idea, how to figure out what information to share and when," he sayd.

"Inoculation offers an option: approximate dialogue. That is, put your ideas in conversation with opposing ideas. In addition to sharing our positions on issues, we can also give voice to alternative perspectives—we can bring up some good arguments against what we're advocating, and show how our ideas hold up. This can have so many benefits for everyone involved in the dialogue, because considering counter perspectives to our ideas can help to sharpen our thinking, and if our position is strong, can bolster it." 

In turn, Compton says, listeners also benefit. "They get a fuller sense of the issue—multiple sides of an argument—and are motivated to think more about their own position on the issue than if they'd just been exposed to one side of the argument," he says.

In his research, Compton also found that inoculation messaging motivates more dialogue. He and his colleagues confirmed that an inoculation messaging strategy—one that exposes audiences to counter-perspectives—gets people talking about the issue more than if they'd just read a one-sided message. 

"Those who read or hear inoculation messages talk more about the topic—they talk with more people who support their position and opponents of their position," Compton says.

Furthermore, Compton says that inoculation techniques can help preempt some of the things that keep people from speaking up in the first place.

"So in this way, inoculation isn't being used as a rhetorical strategy—a way to develop and organize your points—but instead, as a preparation strategy for building one's confidence to speak up," he says.

A study Compton led with researchers at the University of Western Australia in Perth inoculated college students against public speaking anxiety

"A few weeks before a scheduled classroom speaking assignment, we shared a message that acknowledged the likelihood of speaking anxiety and then raised and responded to some of the reasons we get anxious," Compton says. 

"Preempting these challenges prior to experiencing them in full force helped them reduce their public speaking anxiety on the day of their speech. Now it didn't get rid of all of their anxiety—and we wouldn't have wanted it to. Some anxiety can actually make for better public speaking—a sense of energy and enthusiasm, motivation to prepare. What we found was, for those inoculated, they re-interpreted their remaining anxiety in healthier ways."

Beyond Speech and Fluency 

Compton frequently writes and speaks about his experience with stuttering in both academic and popular outlets, from the Journal of Magazine Media to the Proud Stuttering podcast.  He is also collaborating with fellow researchers on a study to examine if it's possible to inoculate oneself and others against stuttering stigma. 

Additionally, Compton plans to teach a class at Dartmouth on the rhetorics of stuttering. 

"This is a course designed for everyone and anyone, stutterer or not," Compton says. "Studying stuttering is studying communication." 

For Compton, fluency is overrated—and not a requisite for dialogue. 

"A bad argument smoothly made is dangerous," he says. "Truth can be stuttered."

Furthermore, he says, too often we think of communication as one-sided and focus only on the speaking part.

"But there are so many ways that we communicate, that we engage in shared meaning-making with one another," he says. "I'm thinking here of how writing is communication, email is communication, emojis are communication, photos are communication, emotions are communication, silence is communication, and so on. We can dialogue across communications media." 

Compton also emphasizes in his teaching that good speaking means nothing without good listening. 

"A lot of responsibility for good communication falls on the ones not speaking," he says. "It's up to us to listen, to suspend judgment in some cases, to safely remove ourselves in others. I think most of us—and I'm including myself here, too—need to continually recommit to listening beyond superficialities (like inflection, or pitch, or tone) and listen instead for understanding of the perspective, the idea, and the argument." 
Compton's 8-year-old son, Truman, who is autistic and nonspeaking, helped open his eyes to the power of nonverbal communication.

"I've never had a conversation with my son, but we are in dialogue every day," Compton says. "That often means creativity, bravery, patience, and commitment—some from me, as his conversational partner, but none more so than from him. And he rises to the challenge. He's the most creative, brave, patient, and committed person I know, and those who take the time to dialogue with him are all the better for it."