MCCULLOUGH: An old fear remains dead

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

As you can imagine, I have a lot of opinions.

Offering them in print has never been much trouble. Offering them in person, in front of a crowd, was once a different story.

For the first part of my life I was terrified of public speaking. Paralyzing, crippling fear. Unable-to-function terror.

I remember one time I had to give a presentation in front of several classes in high school. By the time it was over, my nerves had doubled me over the podium to the point where I was speaking directly into it. I doubt anyone could decipher my cracking, almost nonexistent voice. I don't remember my grade, but I'm sure it was terrible.

By college I was to the point that I made whatever excuse I could to keep from speaking in public. Make fun of me, flunk me -- I didn't care.

All that changed my junior year when a great friend of mine, Ron Boyter, talked me in to going to a meeting of the Demosthenian Literary Society.

The Demosthenian Society at the University of Georgia is one of the oldest public speaking groups in the United States. Its members meet in a building on North Campus that is nearly 200 years old, and it counts among its alumni senators, governors, a bishop and even a count (who was also a fashion designer.) It's named after Demosthenes, who conquered a speech impediment to become one of Greece's most famous orators.

The society practices extemporaneous debate, a form of public speaking in which one person presents a topic and then members debate that topic with no preparation. In other words, not only do they give speeches in public, they do it on a whim, off the top of their head.

Why, then, would a person like me, who very nearly passed out once during a speech, want to go anywhere near a place like that? To face my fear, of course. To conquer it, once and for all, just like the society's namesake.

But I didn't face it at first. Guests could attend and just listen, so that's what I did.

But the more I listened, the more I wanted to participate. Remember all those opinions? I wanted to share them.

So eventually I petitioned for membership. It required attending a certain number of meetings and passing a test on Society history and Robert's Rules of Order. And making a speech.

The innaugural address is one the society allows you to prepare ahead of time. So I worked on it and worked on it until finally the day came.

The meeting began, and the society went through some announcements and business. Then came the call for new members. I'm pretty sure my heart stopped.

But I got up. Shaking. Sweating. Nearly dying. I put my notes down on the 170-year-old lectern that generals, politicians, judges and statesmen had spoken from, and I started to speak.

I don't know what was different that day. Somehow I stifled the urge to faint or have a cardiac event. And the more I spoke, the more the nerves faded, ultimately replaced by confidence. By the end, I was speaking with fervor and feeling, my voice echoing off the ornate ceiling in the society's hallowed upper chamber.

When it was over, I got a standing ovation. I was pretty sure the vote on my membership was going to go my way. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, having faced down the monster and slain him where he stood. All without fainting or making a fool of myself.

I continued to speak most Thursday nights at 7 p.m. for the rest of my college career and for a few years after that. Then life moved on, and I stopped attending.

This past Saturday, I finally made my return. Every year on the Saturday closest to Feb. 19 (the date of the Society's founding in 1803) the Demosthenians hold an all-night meeting that features key-note speakers and an alumni debate. I ate some good food and saw a couple of old friends.

And for the first time in 18 years, I got up and gave a five-minute speech off the top of my head. It was pretty good, if I do say so myself. One of the students even told me it was the best he'd heard all night. I wanted to give that kid a hug.

But more importantly, I proved that the monster is still dead, that my fear of public speaking remains vanquished.

I hope Demosthenes is proud.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.


PatrickMalone 2 years, 1 month ago

A difficult thing to overcome. Thanks for setting an example for all those who stuggle with the same concern. Well done.


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