That’s right, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy.

Most parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles know of Hairy Maclary. For the uninitiated, Hairy is a fictitious dog who lives at a dairy and embarks on adventures with his friends. Each story is playfully illustrated, written in rhythmic verse and begs the reader to deliver each page with theatrical enthusiasm.

I owe a great deal to New Zealand author Dame Lynley Dodd, the creator of this great character.

An embarrassing realisation

My introduction to Hairy Maclary took place when our eldest daughter was a small number of months old. Until that point, I had been winging it. As clumsily as one could, I had been making my way through our story time routine using stilted and stutter-filled language. It didn’t seem to matter until one day our daughter looked up at me when I tripped over a simple phrase, again and again. The look on her face said, ‘what’s wrong?’

Filled with shame, I had no response.

Through no fault of her own, this grew worse when my wife was in the room. More often than not I would defer to her incredible narration skills, born of being a voracious reader throughout her life, to deliver a far more elegant experience to our little angel. I would stay and watch in wonder as the littlest member of our family absorbed every syllable and developed her unique sense of language.

On reflection, I can trace this internal torment to my childhood. I was an awkward first child growing up in Australia’s capital in the late 1970’s. I have vivid memories of wanting to fit in and be part of the cool kids gang but when the opportunity presented to say something, to communicate my worth, I stuttered.

It became a vicious cycle and the ridicule that followed for many years afterward placed a toll on my self-confidence. For some reason, however, I knew there was a way through it, I just didn’t realise, aged five, that my course of action would have sustained unintended consequences.

I had to practice speaking out loud. What would new friends ask me? How were other children in the playground responding to one another? Which answers made sense, which didn’t? Which sounded good, which didn’t?

Walking around school speaking out loud to myself wasn’t about to win me new friends so I hatched a plan to reduce the likelihood of appearing to be a complete lunatic. If I wasn’t remaining silent, I would still speak but as a kind of ventriloquist. I could still hear myself speak but others wouldn’t see me speaking.

This happened many times each day, at school, at home, anywhere. The habit was fuelled by the positive feedback that my thoughts became clearer. The very significant downside was that I started to mumble. Badly. And this made me withdraw further.

At all costs, I would avoid public speaking and presentations through school, the army, my undergraduate degree, as a national athlete and the early parts of my career, particularly as the founder of my first company.

This couldn’t continue but I was clueless on how to change.

My first visit to Donaldson’s Dairy

The day I first read Hairy Maclary to our daughter and felt that shame coincided with the year I was finishing my MBA. I was well aware, through my experience in the army and triathlon, of the impact that training has on preparation, and by extension, success.

Later that evening, I took the three Hairy Maclary books we had in the house, went to laundry beneath our home and read each story out aloud over and over for hours and hours. I practiced theatrical delivery in different forms, each time imaging I was sitting in front of my daughter. I did this for months.

I noticed gradual improvements until one day, as if by adding some compound to catalyse a chemical reaction, the confidence I had been pursuing for 30 years appeared!!

Not only could I entertain my little angel at story time (with or without my wife in the room), public speaking and presentations became occasions I genuinely got excited about and looked forward to.

Dame Lynley Dodd and Hairy Maclary (and Hercules Morse as big as a horse, Bottomley Potts all covered in spots, Muffin McLay like a bundle of hay, Bitzer Maloney all skinny and boney and Schnitzel Von Krumm with a very low tum) helped me realise that change was desperately needed. I will be forever grateful.

We all have vulnerabilities

This was one of mine. And if my experience is any measure, it only takes a small, conscious step and practice to change a behaviour. For me, it started with Hairy Maclary.

How will it start with you?