Chaplain Norris Burkes

Chaplain Norris Burkes. 

On Halloween Day, I delivered a speech in the student chapel service at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo.

My topic was “What Really Scares Me.” The speech was an expanded version of an October column I’d written on the same theme. The irony of my chosen subject wasn’t lost on me given my weak knees on stage.

I was battling one of the most common of all terrors: glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. The fear strikes every time I take the podium because, like all public speakers, I assume the risk of personal rejection.

The intensity of my vulnerability was staggering. I was presenting myself to strangers, co-eds on the threshold of coolness. These students didn’t know who I was or what a chaplain does, but worse, few seemed familiar wit newspapers or columnists.

For weeks I told my wife Becky that I didn’t want to go. Sadder still, I told her she could stay home because I didn’t want her to see me flop.

Becky encouraged me to squelch my anxiety by recalling the success of past speeches. She knows that since 2009, I’ve been crossing the country to deliver speeches to my readers. I once maxed out the auditorium at the Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla., and then returned to my home state to speak in chapel at California Baptist University.

In between, I’ve spoken to community crowds at hospital auditoriums in Colorado, Arkansas and New York. I’ve given talks in churches as diverse as Unitarian and as conservative as Southern Baptist in Ohio, Indiana and even Honduras. I’ve spoken at fundraisers, veteran assemblies and marriage retreats, all pretty much successfully.

But none of that mattered as I stood before my college audience in Bolivar. Their number was frighteningly huge, but so was the potential payoff.

If I did well, maybe some students would be inspired to overcome their fears and make their mark on life. From a personal standpoint, the university honorarium was generous and might bring a reference for future engagements.

I suspect you’re astonished that a chaplain with scores of sermons and speaking engagements to his credit could find public oratory so difficult, but I make this self-disclosure for a reason.

I want to encourage you that whatever fear you have is likely pretty normal. It’s been said that the dread of public speaking is among the most common of all horrors. But you can overcome it, you can possibly influence the direction of your civic or faith community.

Overcoming fear of speaking, or any fear, is an ongoing task. You can become better at it, but the fear may never go away. You can only develop coping strategies or methods to keep it at bay. Toastmasters can help but so can your local church or service organization.

My method is to keep doing it. Keep speaking, keep standing and presenting myself in this vulnerable act of faith called public speaking. I do it because I want to inspire people to believe in themselves, their country and their God.

Reach Norris Burkes through email at, by phone 843-608-9715 or on Twitter @chaplain.