Harper excitedly hugged her brown paper bag as if it contained gold.
To her, it did. Three items were inside: a sparkly bow, a bright pink soapstone hippo trinket from Rwanda, and a plastic toy microphone. Today was her day.
It was finally her turn to bring show-and-tell items to school; three items that revealed something about her (they couldn’t have been more perfect). After her classmates asked questions to gain clues about the items, she revealed the treasures and explained their importance.
As a professional speaker coach, you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear that these 4-year-olds were presenting in front of their classmates. The younger they start, the more chances they have to speak, the more comfortable and confident they will get.
So you can also imagine my reaction to an article published by The Atlantic in September 2018 titled Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations. The article explains “In the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options.”
Anxiety is no joke.
Many of our clients suffer with anxiety, heightened particularly after they’ve experienced blacking out or forgetting content mid-presentation. When these experiences happen in grade school, it often plagues them throughout their adult careers. It’s a story we hear often.
While I certainly don’t deny the significant impact of anxiety, I am concerned about the rising popular belief that if something makes us uncomfortable, we should avoid it. According to Ula, a 14-year-old 8th grader, “Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable.”
Imagine the future of these kids if we validate their feelings by giving them a pass based on some momentary discomfort. What happens next for them?
They become more fragile.
In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt thoroughly discuss this idea of safetyism. “A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”
Students may skip class to avoid their 9th grade oral book report on Tuesday but they can’t get ‘sick’ every time their manager asks them to present at the quarterly meeting. When we deny students (or adults) the opportunities to overcome – when we eliminate threats or discomfort – consequently they become “…more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.”
This vastly expands beyond fears, like public speaking.
Lukianoff and Haidt reveal safetyism on college campuses around political thought. Since 2000, there have been 379 occasions were students protested against guest speakers with differing viewpoints. Although I applaud students for being passionate, attempting to uninvite (or loudly interrupt) guest speakers whose thoughts conflict with their own is not noble – it’s unwise. “Viewpoint diversity is necessary for the development of critical thinking, while viewpoint homogeneity (whether on the left or the right) leaves a community vulnerable to groupthink and orthodoxy.”
When we attempt to shield people, especially students, from challenging experiences and conflicting thoughts/beliefs, we actually set them up to fail.
That’s precisely what psychologist Angela Duckworth found when she interviewed hundreds of people deemed the most successful in their respective fields. The number one indicator of success was not natural ability, monetary resources, or external support. It was grit – the drive to overcome obstacles. When things got hard, when things didn’t go as planned, when they faced rejection and criticism, how did they respond? There was an overwhelmingly clear answer.
Successful people don’t give up.
This creates a dilemma for me as a speaker coach.
It’s not uncommon for my clients to struggle during practice sessions. Becoming hyper aware of previously subconscious distracting mannerisms, while practicing new skills that feel mechanic and foreign, is challenging to say the least. There are times where I see them fatigue mid-practice. I watch them struggle to keep their train of thought. They get increasingly flustered.
In these moments, I have two choices as a coach: I can spare them or I can let them struggle and rebound.
Everything in me wants to sweep in as Savior, let them off the hook, and spare them from the discomfort. But I don’t. A fellow facilitator once told me, ‘Allow people the dignity of hitting their own bottom.’
Is it uncomfortable? Yes. Do they enjoy it? Not in the least. Are they in a safe supportive environment? Yes. (If you are a teacher or manager, it’s absolutely critical that we create a brave space where failing is part of the learning curve.) And, perhaps most importantly, is it productive? Every single time.
They finish the day looking and sounding more confident and credible despite the rocky moments. They learn to push through. They realize they won’t die. They can rebound if they learn to trust themselves and their newly refined skills.
If people are spared from uncomfortable situations, they’ll never realize their ability to overcome.
They’ll never develop grit. They’ll have one negative experience in the 3rd grade when they dropped their cue cards while presenting on sloth habitats and, fast forward 30 years, they’re still avoiding presentations. If we are accommodating anxious adolescents by letting them avoid presenting in class, we’re not helping prepare them for the real world.
So how can we all become antifragile, especially in public speaking?
First, get curious.
Instead of avoiding discomfort, investigate it. What about speaking in front of others makes you nervous? Is it the group size that spikes your heart rate? The amount of time you had to prepare (or didn’t prepare)? Is it the fear of making a mistake (for you perfectionists out there) or the fear of coming across as unintelligent? In the words of Brene Brown, rumble with it. Sit with it. Getting curious will probably reveal multiple distortions – exaggerations or assumptions that lead to greater anxiety.
For example, if your presentation fails, you’re a failure. You’ll most likely black-out like last time. They all think you’re the least qualified to present. You’ll inevitably stutter. This will always be hard. You’re not good enough.
These are assumptions. To overcome fear, you’ll need to differentiate your emotional reasoning from the truth.
Just because these thoughts exist doesn’t mean they get control. Becoming antifragile is taking these thoughts hostage and trusting yourself more and more.
Second, stop avoiding mistakes.
They are inevitable. There is no such thing as perfect, especially in public speaking. Most speakers make mistakes but the good ones don’t let it bother them. They simply move on. Just last week I got off track and lost my train of thought. I paused and chuckled while asking the audience “Where was I?” They threw me a life line, reminded me of the topic, and we moved on without skipping a beat.
Most mistakes don’t discredit us, despite our deeply seeded fear that suggests otherwise. Our reaction to our mistakes is what unravels our credibility. If you keep composure and move on, the audience won’t remember. But observable self-doubt (and panic) begets audience doubt.
Becoming antifragile means staying flexible and not taking things so seriously.
Third, speak over and over and over again.
How do swimmers carve off a second from their lap? How do calligraphers perfect the shapes of their letters? How do astronauts prepare for a shuttle landing on the moon? They master their skill through repetition. Nothing replaces practice. Ask for more opportunities at work to lead meetings. Join a speaker’s club like Toastmasters. Apply to speak at a small local TEDx event. Participate in a Moth event near you. Speak at church or at a PTA meeting. Register for a workshop for helpful tips to prepare well (I heard this one was pretty good). The more you speak, the better it will feel (eventually).
Years ago my friend Mark, a high school biology teacher, asked me to share presenting tips to his class. Because the students are required to present and are graded on their presentations, he wanted to set them up to succeed (what a marvelous idea). Before class started, Mark warned me about the ‘try-hard’ mentality on high school campuses. Students intentionally don’t try hard so that, if they fail, it’s not a reflection on them – it’s because they didn’t care.
Can you believe that? No effort, no risk, no failure.
That day I passionately rebuked the ‘try-hard’ mentality by sharing stories of high-profile executives suffering through 20 years of speaking anxiety only to call us up late into their career for help. Hopefully the students got the hint: choosing to avoid discomfort and moments of failure, choosing not to try at all, will cause unnecessary prolonged pain. It’s not a winning game plan.
To Ula, the hundreds of nervous protesting students across the country, and to their well-intended parents who have succumbed to the safetyism mentality: I understand the discomfort. I know class presentations can be brutal. I’ve been there. But don’t give up. This skill is too critical down the road.
Always try hard.
It will pay off.