Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking: Playing at the Edges of your Comfort Zone

Stretching your comfort zone edges
Stretching your comfort zone edges

I’ve recently gone back to yoga classes after a break of 10 years or so, and one thing about doing the poses which confused me initially, was knowing how to distinguish between intensity during a stretch versus discomfort or pain. Intensity is another word for energy flow, and that’s what you’re after in yoga, and public speaking. But where does intensity tip over into negative, unhelpful territory, and how can you stop that from happening?

The solution, I’ve found, is learning how to “play at the edges” of my comfort zone, my limits, without going too far. I feel my way into each pose, breathing, then relaxing into the stretch and going a little further, but stopping before I feel pain.

This got me thinking about public speaking (of course), and how “playing at the edge” of our comfort zone  is  relevant when learning how to deal with fear of presenting.

In daily life, most of us try to keep away from the edges of our physical and mental comfort zones. And quite naturally – why put yourself through something that’s uncomfortable if you don’t have to? This is one reason why learning how to do something like public speaking as an adult can be so challenging; you don’t want to go through the steps required. And yet you know underneath that if you want to become a better, more relaxed speaker, you’re going to need to go beyond the edges of your comfort zone. What you want is ‘out there’, beyond your current experience.

But to travel ‘out there’ can seem all too hard, too overwhelming. So you don’t act. You stay away from the edge. And, like tight muscles in yoga practice, you stay restricted – and your speaking skills don’t get any better.

There is, of course, a place for big, bold actions which catapult you over the edge into new territory. But you have to be feeling resilient to attempt this, and you’re more likely to activate your fear’s fight/flight reactions and give up before you reach your goals if you push too far, too fast. Small steps don’t frighten your brain!

So how can you increase the range of your comfort zone, without having to be Superspeaker brave and bold? In ways that don’t cause pain, or diminish your sense of self?

By taking small steps and testing your boundaries as you go, you get to bypass the brain’s fear triggers that can send you back to your shell. And you increase your range, until before you know it, you’ve become confident and strong. Trust me, every little step you take will make you feel stronger and more in control.

Action Steps. Here are 3 possible levels from which to experience playing with the edges. And remember, when irritation or fear comes up and you want to stop, breathe (exhale for twice as long as you inhale, to calm the sympathetic nervous system) and think of something that helps you to feel calm and secure:
  1. If you already speak to groups and are fairly comfortable, ask yourself: “If I were to go close to the edge of my comfort zone, what would I be doing?”. Pick one thing. Suggestions might be standing in front of a group waiting for 3 seconds longer that you feel comfortable right now before you start to speak, and using that time to breathe, centre yourself and let the audience’s attention come to you. Or you could try practising a section of your talk at home for an extra 5 minutes, even though you’ve had more than enough and would rather be watching TV!
  2. If you haven’t yet risked speaking to groups, then use daily life as an edge-tester. Pick one area to try. You could stay focused (and pleasant!) on a dull conversation with a work colleague for a couple of minutes longer than you’d normally tolerate. Or stay on the treadmill at the gym for an extra 2 minutes, even though you’re over it. Or speak up in a meeting when you’d usually keep your head down.
  3.  And one of the biggest ways to expand your speaking comfort zone? If you’ve been putting off learning how to improve your speaking skills and know it’s time, sign up for a workshop or course in your area. You can accelerate your expansion enormously. (I recommend first trying to get a feel for whether the trainer is flexible: overly prescriptive or rule-driven is probably a warning sign.)
You already have within you all that you need to be a good speaker. Willingness to test your edges through small, consistent steps will allow your abilities to surface without over-straining your system.




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