How Norman Vincent Peale became one of the most inspiring public speakers of his day.
by Edward Grinnan — Posted on Mar 29, 2011
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale was a preacher’s kid, the son of a very good preacher, in fact, who had high expectations for all his children, especially Norman. Norman didn’t believe he possessed a natural aptitude for the pulpit. He was terrified of public speaking. He didn’t even like to speak up in class, though he was a decent student. After college he pursued a career as a newspaper reporter in Detroit, reporting on events rather than being at the center of them.
One night, covering a story on a house fire, Dr. Peale witnessed several firemen imploring a woman to walk to safety across a shaky board that led to an adjacent rooftop. The woman was paralyzed with fear, her eyes frozen in a stare of terror. No threats that she would burn up if she didn’t exercise her only avenue of escape seemed to sway her. Fear had completely taken over. It was a do-or-die moment if ever there was one, with the latter being the probable outcome.
Dr. Peale, standing nearby, suddenly started talking to her, telling her that he knew she had enough strength to put one foot in front of the other, and then the next, and when her courage faltered God would be there to help. “Don’t look down,” he said. “Look ahead and see yourself safe. Faith will give you courage and courage will give you faith!” In minutes the woman had crossed to safety. “You should be a preacher,” one of the firemen said, yet Norman was as surprised as anyone by his actions.
Finally Norman’s strong-willed mother persuaded him to enter the seminary. Again fears and insecurities took hold of him. Seminary was a struggle. One day in his sophomore year an eminent professor took him aside after class. He demanded to know how much longer Norman was going to allow bashfulness to hold him back. He lambasted him for being hesitant and tentative. “How long are you going to be like this, Peale?” he nearly shouted. “A scared rabbit afraid of the sound of your own voice?” The professor accused him of using shyness as an excuse. “You better change the way you think about yourself, Peale, before it’s too late. That’s all. You may go.”
Norman was devastated. It was as if a bomb had gone off in his life. He ran from the classroom all the way to the steps of the chapel and collapsed, holding his head in his hands. All his insecurities were arrayed before him. He was angry, hurt and resentful, and he felt powerless: powerless to change the way people saw him and powerless to do anything about himself. Most of all he was frightened. He knew what the professor had said was as true as anything he’d ever known about himself. He was a scared rabbit, worse than the woman at the house fire, who at least had had something real to fear.
Now he prayed with the greatest intensity of his life, a do- or-die prayer: “God, please help me. I know you can do it because I’ve seen you make drunkards sober and turn thieves into honest men. Please take away these inferiority feelings that are holding me back, this awful shyness and fear. Let me see myself not as a scared rabbit but as someone strong and confident who can do great things.”
After that moment on the chapel steps, Dr. Peale’s life would never be the same. His insecurities and self-doubt did not evaporate overnight, and never vanished completely. But from then on he used the technique he called imaging to face down his problems, to see himself as a success rather than a failure, to envision overcoming challenges rather than succumbing to them. What was most remarkable about his plea was this: He didn’t desperately ask for the divine intervention you would expect. He didn’t beg God to change him, but rather to help him see himself as a person who could do great things in life. He prayed for the gift of imagination.
Try this: At the beginning of any change effort, large or small, develop a change vision statement. Commit to your effort by stating explicitly:
Then call on your imagination to fully envision how that change occurs in you. See the tangible, physical results, but also envision a change in the underlying dynamic…Be sure to imagine not just the change itself, but also how achieving that change will make you feel. Ultimately change is about feelings, not behavior.