If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

Harvard Business Review

JULY 29, 2016
You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.

Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.


How to Deliver an Effective Presentation: Lessons from a Middle School Speech Contest

“Hi, my name is Beckett. You must be Mr. Selover.” He looked me in the eye and held out his hand for a firm handshake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

As a frequent public speaker, I had been invited by a local charter school to judge a speech contest among their younger students. The school is outside of downtown Orlando, under some shady old-growth trees, with a well-worn parking lot and an unprepossessing entrance. Front door locked, with no attendant. I escaped the Florida sun through a side door and wandered the cool, dark, semi-deserted hallways, unsure of where to go… until I found a little knot of students, the boys in jackets and ties and the girls in dresses. Beckett, who looked to be about 12, saw me first, and stepped forward. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, too,” I said. The ice broken, the others introduced themselves. If you’re reading this, you’re likely an educator who has been surrounded by a crowd of preteens, so you know what that’s like. Their excitement carried me down the hall and into the contest room on a wave of enthusiasm. Speech contest: on.
I’ve been to hundreds of corporate meetings, seminars, and other events over the years. I’ve met and worked with dozens of big-name speakers and high-profile executives. And you’d be surprised at how few of them know to do what Beckett did — reach out, say hello, get things started. We’re all nervous with each other, a little bit shy, even people of great accomplishment. So a greeting, with some energy and a desire to connect behind it, means more than people realize. So does dressing up a little bit. What these students knew, and many adults don’t, is that a speech is an occasion. When you’re up in front of people, taking their time and asking for their attention, you owe it to them to step up and give your best.

The Genius in the Format

The administrator who had invited me to be a judge had found me by looking online. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be asked to speak at the local TED conference, where I talked about a worldwide public speaking series called PechaKucha Night (pronounced puh-CHAW kuh-SHAW). I organize the Orlando version of this event several times a year, not only hosting but coaching the speakers before their performances. PechaKucha is a bit like TED, but on steroids: Each speaker uses PowerPoint, but only 20 slides. The slides run automatically on the computer for 20 seconds each, and the presenter has no control. Unable to pause, go back, digress, or indulge in any of the other bad habits that make an audience squirm, they are onstage for precisely six minutes and 40 seconds, after which they cede to the next speaker.
PechaKucha (a Japanese word that roughly translates as “chatter” or “chitchat”) was invented by architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein about 12 years ago. From a small venue in Tokyo where they work and host events, it quickly spread around the world — PechaKucha Nights are now held in about 900 cities.
These nights are a chance to hear a variety of local speakers on any number of fascinating topics, but the real genius is in the format. With only 20 slides, and only about 50 words sayable in 20 seconds, the presenter is forced to not only be brief but also to be concise. It makes a huge difference. The compression of thought and ideas into this tight space causes the same explosion of meaning that’s found in haiku. As Dytham put it once, after all that cutting and pruning “all that’s left in people’s presentations is the poetry.” So a PechaKucha Night has one distinct advantage over any other speaking event, including TED: None of the presentations are boring. Or to put it more precisely, none of them give you that terrible feeling of trudging through a desert of bullet points with no horizon in sight.

The Elements of a Captivating Speech

Back at the speech contest, we were at a more traditional speaking event. There were 15 contestants, all speaking on the topic of the world’s dwindling supply of water and what to do about it. This was (pardon me for saying) a typical academic mistake. You’re putting a student at a terrible disadvantage with a topic like this, something requiring not just expertise that’s way beyond them but a highly developed ability to package that knowledge in a way that resonates with an audience.
I’ve actually had speakers at my events talk about the world’s supply of water, and there is no drier topic. A fair number of the students did what you’d expect — they went to Wikipedia and found a bunch of facts. This, too, is something many adults are guilty of doing. Many people view communication as a conveyor belt: Put a pile of facts on one end and send it off to the audience. But facts are not enough. You need to have a point of view that the facts are in support of, and more than that, you need to convey passion and purpose behind that point of view.
Yet several of the students gave excellent speeches despite the fairly deadly topic they’d been saddled with. During their presentations, they:
  • talked about water in their own lives;
  • gave details about their families and their neighborhoods;
  • shared their feelings and experiences;
  • used the subject as a starting place for a broader discussion;
  • structured their talks with a clear beginning, middle and ending; and
  • made sure that both the start and the finish were dramatic and interesting.
The beauty of a well-done speech is that it doesn’t have to be on a timer. In fact, you’re unaware of the time passing and it’s over too soon. That’s how it was for our three winners, Karmelyn, Cortez and — you guessed it — my friend Beckett, who came in a strong third. Each of them gave the audience a clear sense of themselves and their sensibilities. I share this advice with the speakers I coach: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
After the contest, the students and I talked about how all of the above elements make a good presentation. We also discussed the other lessons PechaKucha teaches: Focus on your topic, have a clear goal (what you want the audience to know, to feel, or to do), and organize the presentation clearly around that goal. All good lessons. But when I think back on it, the most memorable lesson of the day was the one I relearned from Beckett. Step forward, hold your hand out, look somebody in the eye. Don’t make a speech — make a connection.
Eddie Selover is a marketing communications professional, a life coach, and an award-winning public speaker. 

Learning Persuasive Public Speaking

    • TED talks a great motivator

      CMSchool brings persuasive speech to 21st Century

  • Clarissa Gowing  Courtesy photo

    Clarissa Gowing Courtesy photo

    By Lara Bricker

    Seacoast online

    Posted Jun. 30, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    STRATHAM — Eighth-grader Clarissa Gowing admitted that public speaking is not her favorite thing.

    But the new format of the eighth grade persuasive speaking requirement at the Cooperative Middle School made it tolerable for her. Gone are the days of students reading their speeches off note cards or memorizing a talk. For the past three years, eighth graders have done their own version of TED Talks, known at CMS as ED talks.

     “We didn’t have to do a boring essay that was long and really formatted. We could be really fluid around it and have a lot of freedom,” Gowing said. “It was my own topic and I was interested in it, so it was easier talking about it. I don’t love public speaking. I think being able to choose the topic and only going in front of a small group of my peers really helped.”

    Before the ED talk approach, teachers heard many of the same topics each year. From why the school day should start later to the menu in the cafeteria. That all changed three years ago when a group of teachers at CMS decided to try something new. Eighth-grade English teacher Melissa Tobey broached the idea of having students try their own version of TED Talks after listening to the TED Radio Hour on National Public Radio one summer.

    “It just kind of sparked the idea of making the persuasive speech more kid-friendly and 21st century,” Tobey said.

    They found that students knew all about TED talks and were much more invested in the project that previously. The student talks have to be three to seven minutes long. The top eight talks, as selected by their peers, were presented before the entire eighth grade in late May, as a recognition of the project more than a competition.

    The ED talk format invited students to really become an expert on a topic and talk without notes.

    “We decided that they’re not ever going to be allowed to do a written speech because they tend to memorize and it makes it robotic,” Eighth grade English teacher Janet Prior explained.

    Tobey agreed.

    “It really makes them absolutely know their stuff really well because they have to be able to talk about it,” she said.

    Students found topics they were interested in and spent time learning about them, such as a student that apprenticed with a master blacksmith as research for his talk or another student who worked with a carpenter.

    Gowing did her ED talk on reactive attachment disorder, which she became interested in because she has a family member that may have the disorder. The disorder is caused when a young child is taken away from their main parental unit, usually their mother, which leads them to be unable to build trust with adults.

    “Later on they have trust issues and they can’t build loving relationships with others,” she said. “You can have therapy but there isn’t a real treatment they’ve discovered.”

    Topics were varied this year from Sean Collins’s discussion about Julia Childs to Jake Flewelling’s talk about the history of basketball.

    “I learned what YMCA actually meant,” Flewelling said, adding he also delved into famous players and the number of titles they had won. “I liked that we had a lot of time to prepare for it. I likes that you could vote on whose you thought was best.”

    Ben Gorman, who took on the issue of time travel, was one of the eight finalists who did their ED talk for the entire eighth grade.

    “It’s something that’s always interested me,” Gorman said of time travel.

    Gorman took the position that forward time travel is possible.

    “In order to time travel forward, when you approach light speed or greater then what happens is time starts to slow down for you,” Gorman explained. “One day for you could be 100,000 years for someone else.”

    Teachers recognized the value of giving students the freedom to select their own topic.

    “That makes it so authentic for them,” Prior said. “They pick topics that are their passion.”

    Students also incorporated technology into their talks by selecting images that enhance, not distract, from their message.

    “It’s something that every student can be successful with no matter their learning style,” Tobey said. “I think it’s less pressure for them. It’s really quite gratifying to watch.”

    Prior loves the genuine enthusiasm she sees in the students when they give their talks.

    “We need every day to feel like this day,” she said. “It remind you why you got into education to have a student who never shines in an academic setting getting applause and sit down feeling good about themselves.”

    The project improves each year, Tobey said.

    “It was so encouraging and positive from the get go. I love that the kids are excited to do it,” Tobey said. “It’s vital for our eighth graders to have such a positive experience with their first time presenting.”