Boldly Face The Number One Fear in America

A guest post by Madeleine Kolb of Age Myths

Life 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.

How my public speaking expanded beyond my wildest dreams

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!

Madeleine writes about the grim myths and positive realities of growing older at Age Myths.

If you want to read more about living boldly, download my FREE e-book called How to Live a Meaningful Life.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 15 comments
  • Billy

    Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing the topic with the lesons as well. Lovd it 🙂

  • Farnoosh

    Wow, Barrie, talking about public speaking and Toastmasters. I am a huge fan of both. In fact, I did a long guest post for our friend Steve Aitchison personal development blog about the “Irrational Fear of Public Speaking” because it IS considered a huge fear. Toastmasters can help a great deal. I have been a part of it for years and even founded an Advanced club two years ago….Your points are extremely accurate and you touch on a great topic. Thank you !

  • Madeleine Kolb

    Farnoosh, I remember reading your terrific post about public speaking, and I really appreciate your comment. And congratulations on having starting an advanced TM club. I was a member of one near Seattle for years and really miss it.

    Joining Toastmasters is a great way to not only reduce your fear but also to meet many wonderful and supportive people. Sort of like blogging!

  • Angela Artemis

    This was terrific! I’m so glad to see someone talking up the merits of Toastmasters.

    I’m a public speaker – one of those strange birds that enjoy it though.
    I used to belong to Toastmaster and found it very worthwhile. I also made some very good friends and contacts there.

    Thank you for this excellent article!
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..Would You Rather Have a Big House Or A Big Life =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb

    Angela, I didn’t know that you’re a fellow Toastmaster. (Once a TM, always a TM.)

    “…one of those strange birds that enjoy it though.” It’s not strange at all, and it’s such a useful skill to have. One more way to spread your message.

    You also make an excellent point about the good friends you made in Toastmasters. The social side is another super benefit.

      Marie Young

      I used to be terrified to speak in public. When I found out I had to take Speech Comm in college, I almost dropped out. I managed to make it through the course, but I still HATED public speaking.

      Somehow in the course of my career, I have come to love it. I have to pitch creative ideas and give formal presentations often. The more I do them, the more my comfort zone grows. I find I am always nervous, but I get this tremendous high when I can feel the room connecting with me, particularly when I make a joke.

      I also highly recommend Toastmasters. We started a chapter at work a couple years ago. It is a great way to practice and get constructive feedback. I even had the opportunity to be one of the speakers at a district convention. It was awesome!

      Madeleine Kolb

      Marie, Thank you so much for sharing your experience .

      “The more I do them, the more my comfort zone grows. I find I am always nervous, but I get this tremendous high when I can feel the room connecting with me, particularly when I make a joke.” Exactly! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Joyce at What Would You Do In Heaven?

    Life is really full of risks! But then sometimes, the biggest risk is not trying to risk anything at all. The safest place could be the most dangerous one if it kept us from growing and from being prepared to face the challenges that await us each day.
    .-= Joyce at What Would You Do In Heaven?´s last blog ..All The World Is Meaningless Without Love! =-.

      Madeleine Kolb

      A really interesting comment, Joyce. You, certainly, do miss opportunities to grow if you let your fears hold you back.

      And it’s interesting to me that so many performers, including some professional singers and actors, have fear (stage fright) even though there’s no real risk. Somehow something safe can feel terribly dangerous.

  • Jon Bennett

    I’ve been doing a bit of public speaking in my career, though I think I would benefit greatly from Toastmasters. I’m sure it would make me a better speaker. This is definitely something I’m considering pursuing in the future.
    .-= Jon Bennett´s last blog ..Single Player Games After the Honeymoon Period =-.

      Madeleine Kolb

      Hi Jon, Thank you for your comment.

      Something interesting I noticed when I started blogging was that writing speeches and writing blog posts are very similar. Both are conversational, fairly succinct, and rely on personal stories as a powerful way to engage an audience.

  • Katie

    Madeleine, great advice. I have veered towards the bad boy in the past, but know better now. I love the idea of saying, “just go see”. It gets your fearful side off your back long enough to let your adventurous side go for it. I’ve never regretted giving something a look-see. Thanks for a great post. Lots of tips I’d like to pass along to my daughter as she enters University.
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..What is the World Trying to Tell You &amp Are You Listening =-.

      Madeleine Kolb

      Katie, Just going to see what it’s like is a safe baby-step. I’ve taken my daughter to several TM meetings when she was home from college. After the first one, she said, “Mom, I can’t believe how supportive everyone was.”

      How exciting to have your daughter starting college soon.

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