Leadership: Pitching a Message of Hope
Former professional baseball player
and stutterer leads by example.
By DiAnna Steele
Byron Embry has a message: “Your handicap may just be your greatest asset.” He should know. Embry grew up poor and had a severe stuttering problem. As a result, he endured cruel taunts from others. His determination to overcome such drawbacks led him to tackle his speech problems head-on, become a professional baseball player and eventually flourish as a motivational speaker. Along the way, Toastmasters played a key role.
“At a time when I believed my limitations, this organization taught me to believe in my God-given abilities instead,” says Embry, a member of Pikes Peak Toastmasters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a professional baseball pitcher for 12 seasons. He was a finalist in the 2009 World Championship of Public Speaking.
As a black child of a single mother in Richmond, Kentucky, Embry grew up in poverty. “There were poor folks and then there was po’ folk. We were po’,” he says. “Poor is when you’ve got nothing; po’ is when you’ve not only got nothing, but you owe everybody else money.”
This painful reality was coupled with the physical challenge that brought him much ridicule: His stuttering. Putting a sentence together and then uttering it aloud was not only excruciating but humiliating, as people quickly lost patience with his slow and often incomprehensible speech.
Embry saw his childhood dream of being a television weatherman swiftly shot down by a schoolmate who told him, “By the time you spit out the words ‘A storm is coming,’ people’s house would have already been blown down!” To avoid further public embarrassment, the young man turned inward, keeping to a small group of friends. He couldn’t ask a girl to the high school prom without stuttering, so he didn’t go.
Finding Solace in Sports
Consulting one professional after another, his mother despaired that nothing seemed to help. To protect her son from the rough and rugged, she encouraged art, literature and music. Instead, Byron gravitated toward sports. “Baseball was the one place I felt secure,” he says. He embraced the game and soon found he was quite good at pitching.
Embry perfected his fastball while attending Indian Hills Community College in Centerville, Iowa. He enrolled in Professor Enfus McMurray’s freshman speech course, but stopped attending after he failed his first two speeches
“One day at baseball practice I looked up to see Professor McMurray walking toward me,” Embry recalls. “She’d come to tell me I was failing.” The professor listened intently as her student complained that speech class was pointless for someone with his impediment. Her reply stopped him in his tracks. “You don’t have a speech impediment; you have an excuse.” In that pivotal moment, she expressed belief in a young man who had a challenge that could be overcome with hard work. To his surprise, she told Byron he would have to attend Toastmasters to pass her class.
“Speaking for Table Topics was sheer torture...for everybody in the room,” says Embry, “but it gave me the confidence I needed to finish the course, and eventually I graduated.”
After commencement services, Professor McMurray approached Embry with a hug and encouragement. “You will be a star one day off the field,” she told him. The words were quickly forgotten, landing somewhere in the back of his mind. America’s favorite pastime had become his obsession.
In 1997, the Atlanta Braves recognized Embry’s pitching talent and signed him right out of college. His career with the Braves was interrupted by elbow surgery and he later wound up with the Kansas City Royals organization. There his fastball topped out at 100 mph – an elite speed for a pitcher – and he had the opportunity to go toe to toe with Roger Clemens, his childhood baseball hero.
Ten years into his pitching career, Embry faced a third elbow surgery and began to wonder what life after baseball would look like. By this time he had married, and he and his wife, Kelly, had two young daughters to support. One afternoon, while working out at the gym, he saw a poster promoting Toastmasters. Despite the painful memories of Table Topics, he decided to give it a try. “I gave my Ice Breaker on January 16, 2008,” he says. As he spoke to the club about his life experiences – the poverty, the stuttering, the professional baseball career – several of the audience members sat with their mouths wide open the entire six minutes, Embry recalls.
Throwing a Career Curveball
Several months later, he joined the Pikes Peak club. He was assigned a mentor, and as he gained experience, speaking became second nature. Byron began to seriously contemplate leaving baseball to become a motivational speaker, despite objections from friends and family members. Even so, Embry stepped off the baseball field and into the world of motivational speaking. His Toastmasters mentor, Tom Lachocki, says it was a natural transition from successful athlete to successful speaker.
“Having been a pro athlete, Byron understands the serious dedication and effort it takes to achieve excellence,” says Lachocki. “There’s no better qualification to achieve something than to have already experienced it.”
He adds that Embry isn’t afraid to be honest when dealing with emotional subject matter. “He shows a great deal of courage,” says Lachocki. “Byron can speak on very personal topics and still has the strength to display deep emotions without diminishing the delivery. The effect is that his audience feels every word much more intensely.”
Says Embry: “Baseball gave me the confidence to stand in front of huge crowds. Toastmasters afforded me the confidence to speak to those crowds.”
He developed a presentation for schools based on the true story of Emmett Till, a black teenage boy hung in 1955 for whistling at a white woman in the heat of America’s racial unrest. The speech, “The Whistle that Changed America: The Murder of Emmett Till,” launched his speaking career.
In 2009 Byron started his company, Closing Remarks. The name originated from his experiences as a “closer,” which is a particular type of relief pitcher.
“As a closer, you come in when the game is on the line,” explains Embry. “A closer makes certain that his team comes out ahead. Closing Remarks reflects my mentality in speaking to organizations that are in a pinch. The heat is on and they need someone to pull them out of a close situation. Instead of throwing baseballs, I throw words of inspiration and encouragement.”
Aiming for a World Championship
In the spring of 2009 Embry attended a Toastmasters club as a guest speaker. A member was practicing her speech for the International Speech Contest and Byron instantly realized this was something he wanted to participate in. Entering the contest himself, he subsequently won competitions at the club, area, division and district levels. In August 2009, he found himself standing on the stage in Mashantucket, Connecticut, with nine other finalists in the World Championship of Public Speaking. It was the culmination of a dream born from much encouragement from others.
Embry is a passionate advocate of Toastmasters, noting how the program helped him overcome powerful doubts and opened up a whole new world.
“Toastmasters took my handicap and made it my greatest asset,” he says. “Speaking professionally is not merely the source of my income but the source of my joy, the source of my life’s purpose.”
“Anyone dreaming of pursuing a career in speaking, or of just becoming a better communicator, should not allow anyone to tell you that you can’t do it,” he adds. “You have an entire story to tell and no one can tell it quite like you. Toastmasters can give you the tools to tell it effectively and powerfully.”
DiAnna Steele is a freelance writer and professional speaker in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Reach her at dianna@DiAnnaSteele.com or www.DiAnnaSteele.com.