Boldly Face the Number One Fear in America

FearLife is so full of trade-offs.

Do you go for the job with meaningful work but lower pay instead of the high-paying position doing work that doesn’t engage you?

Do you go out with the great-looking “bad boy” instead of the sweet, steady guy with a good job? Do you push out of your tiny comfort zone instead of hunkering down and playing it safe?

If it were my life—and knowing what I know now—I say “yes, no, and absolutely!”

Why your tiny comfort zone is good. And bad.

It’s good because it keeps you safe when you want to do something, but you’re afraid. When you’re afraid to even think about trying some scary stuff, your CZ is a refuge. Nothing too bad or anxiety-provoking can happen as long as you plant your feet firmly in that CZ and don’t move. You can always tell yourself that some day you’ll try the scary stuff, but not now.

But it’s bad because it limits you, confines you, and keeps you from stretching your wings and living boldly.

What kind of scary stuff?

It could be anything: changing jobs, scuba-diving, going back to school. For most of us, public speaking is really scary stuff. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, it’s the number one fear in America. Death is number two.

Is public speaking your worst fear or at least near the top? Let’s tackle it head on.

We want to be able to make presentations at work, at conferences, or in groups we belong to. But we’re afraid that adrenaline might kick in, prompting a primitive fight-or-flight response. Our knees would shake, we’d turn red as a beet, our voices would quaver. We’d make perfect fools of ourselves.

I was one of those people for a long time, although I had done some public speaking during my first career. Sometimes I actually did a good job, but other times I was very nervous and self-conscious. I wanted to do a good job every time, but I was stuck in my teeny-tiny comfort zone. Then I took some simple steps.

Five simple steps to get your head out of the sand

1. Say these words to yourself:

“I’ll just get some information about where there is a Toastmasters club nearby and when it meets.”

And do it.

2. Next say these words to yourself:

“I’ll just go a meeting and see what it’s like.”

And do it. If you feel afraid and don’t go in the door the first time, that’s OK. It happens. A lot. If it does happen, say these words: “I’ll just go to the next meeting.” And say them again, if you need to.

3. Attend a meeting as a guest

You can do this as many times as you like. (One person I know joined a club after going as a guest every week for about 4 months.)

4. Join a club

If you need some more compelling reasons why this step out of your comfort zone is life-changing, check it out here.

5. Give your first speech

The first speech in Toastmasters is called The Icebreaker. You only have to talk for 4-6 minutes — about yourself. You’ve done that a million times at cocktail parties!

What you need to expand your comfort zone more

1. A supportive, friendly environment

2. An organized program which starts with baby steps and progresses to more challenging projects

3. Feedback which focuses on what you did well

4. Specific suggestions (not criticism) for making your speech even better

5. Milestones along the way

6. Acknowledgement and awards when you reach a milestone

7. Flexibility to go at your own pace

I got all that and more in Toastmasters. And the really exciting part is that when I gave a speech and got support and suggestions on how to make it even better, that expanded my CZ and motivated me to do an even more challenging speech.

And when I did that, I got more support and suggestions which expanded my CZ and motivated me…and so on and so on.

Some examples of what I did and you can do too:

•Giving a presentation to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight by Orville and Wibur Wright in a huge conference room filled with aeronautical engineers
•Competing in humorous speech contests. The most recent one, called “It ain’t easy being a little old lady” was a great success. What a thrill to stand in front of a crowd and make them laugh.
•Giving speeches that touched people at a deep level. (OK, I made them cry, but I didn’t do on purpose–exactly.)
•Serving as an evaluator hundreds of times to help others expand their comfort zones
•Taking two acting classes and an improvisation class

Lessons you learn while expanding your comfort zone about speaking in public

1. All you need to do is to take it one step at a time.

2. That rush of adrenaline, preparing you to run away, turns into performance energy getting you pumped up to wow your audience;

3. You gain confidence with every speech you give, every evaluation you get, and every meeting role you do;

4. You learn how to give others the support and suggestions they need to expand their comfort zones beyond their wildest dreams; and finally

5. You wonder why you waited so long to do this!

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