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Member guest blog: “Optimal anxiety” and why it’s okay to be scared of public speaking

This week, our guest blog is courtesy of Carrie Swift, of Love Public Speaking. Below, Co-Women member, Carrie, shares her thoughts on why being nervous about public speaking is actually a positive...

How often do you step out of comfort zone? How frequently do you take the plunge and do something that challenges your own personal status quo?

Our comfort zone is a safe space – built up over the years through the routine of habit, our levels of competence and knowing we are unlikely to make a mistake, and the safety and security that comes from knowing we are not going to come to any ‘harm’ if we keep on doing what we’ve been doing. And our comfort zone is not a bad place to be. It’s a natural state of existence and in fact – especially as we navigate our way through a global pandemic – it can be a reassuring space to retreat to in a very uncertain world.

But, when the time is right to push ourselves a bit further, we need to step out of comfort zone. We only learn, grow and develop when we are trying new things that might make us feel a bit nervous to start with, but give us an enormous sense of satisfaction when we’ve actually done them.

Stepping out of our comfort zone feels daunting and nerve-wracking. We might struggle to sleep or have permanent ‘butterflies’ for the few days before a big or new event. But this is actually not a bad thing.

In order to optimise performance, we need a state of relative anxiety – a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called ‘optimal anxiety’ and it’s just outside our comfort zone. And the word ‘optimal’ is key – too much anxiety is not a good thing as our stress levels are then too high and performance drops off. If we have no anxiety at all, we are unlikely to have the ‘push’ we need to perform. Optimal anxiety is the place where mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

When you step out of your comfort zone, you step into that space of Optimal Anxiety. And once you start doing it, it gets easier over time as you become accustomed to the feeling, accustomed to how you manage it, and accustomed to knowing that you can do it. Whilst there is still a feeling of anxiety, this starts to become more normal to you, and you’re willing to push yourself further.

One area where many of us have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone is public speaking. Whether presenting an update to our team, talking the CEO through our ideas or standing up on stage at a conference, we can feel nervous, out of our depth and often we try to do all we can to get out of it.

But to gain confidence, to become more practiced and to feel less daunted we need to push ourselves into that space of Optimal Anxiety. We have to keep on taking new public speaking opportunities to continually build confidence.

Taking small steps is a good place to start:

1. Get into the habit of leaving voicemails or sending Whatsapp voice messages rather than sending a text. It’s good to get comfortable with hearing your own voice.

2. Get used to speaking out loud and speaking spontaneously – seize the opportunity to share a funny story when the moment arises!

3. Seek out opportunities to present more frequently, or to a slightly bigger audience, or a more senior audience – can you offer to do a Lunch and Learn at work, or put yourself forward to speak at an industry conference?

4. Grasp an opportunity to make a toast at dinner, speak at a friend’s wedding, or at a colleague’s leaving drinks.

5. Attend your local Toastmasters group as a guest, join a drama group, improv speaking club or try your hand at stand-up comedy.

It’s amazing how quickly something that you once thought of as ‘scary’ soon becomes second nature. And once that does become second nature, it’s then time to look for the next challenge!

If Carrie's blog has inspired you to want to know more, visit her website: Love Public Speaking

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