‘The bottom line is if I can do it, anybody can’

Iain Upton and his dog Ellie at home in Hayling Island.  Picture: Mick Young (132503-04)
Iain Upton and his dog Ellie at home in Hayling Island. Picture: Mick Young (132503-04)
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Articulate, funny and a natural performer, Iain Upton is clearly in his element talking to a room full of people.

As he makes dramatic gestures and delivers his message, the experienced public speaker holds the attention of his large audience and frequently makes them laugh.

And then this footage of Iain at a public speaking competition a few years ago cuts to a very different picture.

It’s a photograph of the 50-year-old behind some bars, followed by the words – ‘And now he sounds drunk, but perhaps he’s not.’

The footage and startling statement are part of Iain’s presentation revealing the challenges faced by someone with speech problems.

It is designed to give health professionals and students a view of life behind the communication barrier.

Once a gifted speaker who competed in national contests with public speaking organisation Toastmasters, the navy commander had ambitions to coach others once he left the service,

But then Iain was delivered a cruel blow. Diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer (a cancer of the uppermost part of the throat) in 2011, he received chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

A combination of the disease and treatments left him with severe speech problems.

‘Basically I’ve got nerve damage. I can’t move my tongue properly and my mouth and chin are quite numb.

‘Over a period of about three to four weeks, my voice went from that to this. That’s quite frightening,’ he says.

But the Hayling Island father-of-two has come a long way since then with a combination of speech therapy, grit and determination.

Never one to give up, the 50-year-old is determined to make life easier for himself and others with speech problems by giving presentations 
to students, carers and medical 

His talks, which gives people tips on how to communicate with people with severe speech difficulties, have already proved a big success.

‘I want to give a view from the other side of the communication barrier.

‘This is what’s powerful about this presentation. Nearly all lectures are by a well-spoken professional.

‘I’m looking at it from my side.’

He advises audiences to focus on whole sentences rather than words, because context is important for understanding, and tells them never to worry about asking questions.

Iain is delighted to be achieving his public speaking goals after all he’s been through.

But when he looks at the footage of himself at the Toastmasters contest, he can’t help feeling a mixture of pride and sadness.

‘Sometimes I feel quite disappointed I can’t do that any more. Some days I’m fine, some days I think “I wish I could talk properly.” – especially when I have problems communicating with someone.’

Iain, a navy weapons engineer, had been thinking about a public speaking career beyond his 30-year naval service when he received his devastating diagnosis.

He responded to treatment but the nerve damage also left him finding it hard to swallow and he has a feeding tube.

He thanks the people closest to him – including wife Jacquie and daughters Naomi, 16, and 24-year-old Rachel – for helping him through his tremendous ordeal.

‘When it happened, and a few months after that, I didn’t have any anticipation that I could work my way through this. It’s with the support of friends, family and church that I’ve managed to get to this position.’

Iain has had to make huge adjustments in his life. Initially he found it hard to talk to people in shops but therapy at Headley Court military rehabilitation unit in Surrey improved his speech and gave him confidence.

Staff noticed how well Iain was doing and persuaded him to talk to other patients.

He now advises medical staff and students to always look at a patient with speech problems because lip reading helps. ‘People who have been around me enough pick up patterns in my voice and don’t need to look at me, but that takes a long time.’

Iain says it helps if people repeat certain words back, to show that they’ve understood.

And he urges audiences never to pretend they’ve understood. ‘Don’t be embarrassed about it. I’m not embarrassed about how I sound now, I have to live with it.’

Sometimes he manages to see the funny side and has plenty of stories, including the time he was trying to find the toilets in a hospital.

The receptionist thought he was asking for a permit. ‘I was getting quite desperate,’ he says.

He also has tips for others with speech difficulties, based on his own experiences. Iain makes sure he speaks slowly and listens to how he sounds so he can put himself in the other person’s position.

And now he’s focusing on his original ambition – delivering public speaking workshops.

He has already run two of these and says he has a lot to offer despite his speech difficulties.

Successful public speaking, after all, is about far more than pronunciation. There’s confidence for starters, and Iain has that in spades.

‘I’ve edged closer to what I want to do. It might work. And the bottom line is if I can do it anyone can.’


Since being diagnosed with cancer, Iain has received support from the navy and in particular Hasler Company.

This unit is part of the Naval Service Recovery Pathway and is dedicated to the needs of seriously injured and ill Royal Marines and other naval personnel who require bespoke programmes to aid their recovery.

Within Hasler Company is an employment co-ordinator whose role is to find training, mentors and work placements, both within the service and with civilian companies.

For those facing the prospect of having to leave the service, this helps them clarify what they want to do.

The work is supported by the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund and Help For Heroes Quick Reaction Fund.

Visit rmctf.org.uk.


Iain has delivered his presentations to speech therapy students at the University of Portsmouth and staff at The Rowans Hospice, Purbrook and St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester.

He has spoken to support groups and 
charities, including a group of Parkinson’s disease patients.

His audiences have also included people working in social services and he will soon be talking to medical students at the University of Southampton.

Iain is keen to run public speaking workshops for anyone who is interested and has already delivered two successful sessions. In these he works on presentation, speech content, structure and language, dealing with nerves and preparation.

A website is available but still under construction. Visit speaking4yourself.co.uk

Contact Iain at info@speaking4yourself.co.uk.