Courage Under Fire

Courage Under Fire

– Mary Anne Radmacher

He knew she would call on him. First the old nun glanced left, then right. He was doing his best to hide. Even so, he knew she would find him. For a second he thought, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps she will pick someone else. He slumped even lower in his chair, shielded by a row of classmates. Unfortunately, he made the fatal mistake of peeking out at the wrong time. In an instant, their eyes met. She called him by name and asked him to stand in front of the class. There was no way out. Reluctantly, he stood to his feet and slowly walked to the head of the class. He didn’t need to look to know that all eyes were upon him. His heart was now beating like a rabbit’s.

Finally, the teacher said the dreaded words, “Class, open your readers to Lesson 3.” Then she told the terrified second grader to read aloud to the class. Hesitantly, he began to read, stumbling over nearly every word. In seconds, silent snickers turned to open laughter. Even the old nun could not contain herself. After what seemed like an eternity, he quit reading and somehow found his way back to his seat. Humiliated, he slid down into his chair wishing he could disappear.

Second graders can make vows, and on that day he vowed never to read aloud or speak in a public setting again. And for many years he kept that vow. However, as an adult, things changed. His role in the military forced him to do what he vowed never to do. He has been speaking in public ever since, hundreds of times to thousands of people. This story is true. It is my story. I was that little second grader. Take it from me, if I can learn to speak in public, so can you.

Wrestling with Fear

Jerry Seinfeld got a big laugh when he joked about a survey that found that the fear of public speaking ranks higher in most people’s minds than the fear of death. “In other words,” he deadpanned, “at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

Fear is our natural response to danger. Like that little second grader, many believe public speaking is terrifying and risky, and statistics verify this point. On May 14, 2010, USA Today Snapshots listed activities adults say they dread and public speaking was at the top of the list. It is well known that fear of public speaking ranks up there with fear of death, snakes, and spiders. Why is it that speaking in front of a group of people solicits such fright and dread? Let us begin by attempting to answer this question.

Glossophobia, or speech anxiety, is the fear of speaking in public. Wikipedia lists symptoms related to this phobia as “intense anxiety prior to, or simply at the thought of, having to verbally communicate with any group; physical distress, nausea, or feelings of panic.” If you have ever experienced these symptoms, you are not alone. Most speakers wrestle with anxiety to a greater or lesser degree. Some speakers do so before, others during, and still others after speaking engagements. Although speech anxiety is common, it should be differentiated from other phobias such as “social phobias” or “social anxiety disorders.” These phobias have to do with fear of crowds, and they can certainly add fuel to the fire when it comes to a speaker’s anxiety. People with social anxieties experience emotional and bodily discomfort just by entering a crowded setting. Often this is true whether or not they are scheduled to speak. Social phobias complicate a public speaker’s task, but they can be overcome. (Severe social anxieties, however, are best treated with the help of a trained professional.)

Generally, speaking in public is not hazardous to your health, and it won’t kill you, although there have been exceptions. For instance, Jesus Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, and a host of other historical figures whose messages inspired, and often enraged, the masses. Their words evoked such faith and allegiance that many loyal followers were willing to die in order to perpetuate their teachings. Those who opposed them committed violent acts, even murder, in the vain hope of silencing them. In the end, their deaths only served to magnify their teachings. It is fair to say that most of us need not worry about suffering bodily harm as a result of speaking in public, so that is one bit of fear we can put behind us.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
– 1994 inaugural speech by Nelson Mandela

A Few Words about Courage

Some people think the opposite of fear is the absence of it. It is not. The opposite of fear is courage. Permit me to share a personal story that might be helpful at this point.

Many years ago, I fought in the Viet Nam war, serving in the United States Army as the Staff Sergeant of a twenty-eight-man helicopter assault platoon. I was twenty-years old at the time, and my platoon was a rapid deployment force assigned to protect the 4th Division in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. We had four helicopters that transported us into battle and two Cobra gun ships that acted as escorts. During my tour of duty, I was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor under fire. I remember that day like it was yesterday. We were on patrol in a dense jungle when suddenly all hell broke loose. In a moment, the air was filled with the smell of burned gunpowder from firing weapons. This pungent smell was mixed with the odor of sweaty men and a myriad of jungle scents. It was my responsibility to lead, but at that moment all I wanted to do was hide. During the firefight, I carried a wounded comrade to a medical evacuation helicopter. On returning to base camp, I learned that men in the field had recommended me for the Silver Star.

The day the award was given, I stood in a short line with four or five other soldiers who were also receiving commendations. When the senior officer came to me, I felt like an imposter because the level of fear I experienced on the battlefield that day had made me feel more like a coward than a hero. Yes, I did what it said on my certificate, but the officer had no idea how frightened I was at the time. As he pinned the Silver Star to my chest and told me that I was a war hero, I recall blurting out, “I was so afraid; I’m no hero.”

I will never forget his next words. “Yes, son, you are a hero, because when overwhelmed by fear, your courage prevailed and you performed a heroic act.” To this day, I am proud and grateful for the Silver Star because it constantly reminds me of the true definition of courage.

Public speakers need courage because most will face some degree of fear and/or anxiety before, during, or after they speak. For some, that fear may be related to a concern about failing and the subsequent rejection that might follow. Stop for a minute and ask yourself these questions: What is the worst thing that can happen to you? What if you stand in front of a group of people and mess up? What if you get lost during your talk or forget what you wanted to say? What if you look out into the audience and everyone looks bored? Questions like these surface in all of us, but notice the common denominator: It is simply the fear of humiliation. Our pride says, “If you don’t try, you can’t fail,” and this is what keeps so many voices silent. Perhaps your motto has been, “Better to remain quiet and let people think I’m a fool, than to open my mouth and prove them right.” Can speakers humiliate themselves in front of a crowd? Yes, it does happen, but not as often as you might think. Most people in an audience realize the difficulties related to speaking in public, and this generally makes them more tolerant and forgiving than you might imagine. Remember, with few exceptions, more people will be rooting for you rather than against you.

By Dr. Gary Rodriguez

Purpose Driven Public Speaking


TNS for LG Spring Cleaning Survey of 1,000 adults, March 2010.