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Stress Can Be a Good Thing

According to Psychology Today, "Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium." This fight or flight response keeps us alive in times of danger. It's necessary for our survival. Unfortunately, it also wrecks havoc on our emotions before stressful events like a speech. But I'd like to discuss why some stress is helpful, if not completely necessary, in order to deliver a successful speech.

The same emotions that cause us to fear speaking can also nudge us to spend more time preparing a speech and to be more enthusiastic when we speak. That's why I never recommend over-rehearsing a speech. I've heard many students describe their disappointment over a mediocre speech despite countless hours rehearsing. Speakers must find the right balance between practice and being self-assured in their ability to give the speech. So there's something you might not find in a typical public speaking textbook... don't rehearse too much!

Practice and preparation are very important. But your speaking skills will suffer when you are overwhelmed with stress. Conversely, if you don't feel any stress, you probably don't care much about the speaking engagement. You must learn to harness your optimal level of excitement to prepare, practice and perform at your best.

This is perfectly described by what's known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. In 1908, researchers found that arousal improves performance up until a certain point at which too much arousal will decrease performance. A little stress before a math test might get your blood flowing to help you recall the correct formula. But if you experience too much anxiety, then you might forget to put your name on the paper!

The same thing is true of public speaking. Public speaking anxiety can be transformed into the motivation to put together a powerful presentation. Find that sweet spot on the stress scale that allows you to perform at your best. If you feel nothing, then you might want to psych yourself up! But when your fears and worries pass that point of peak performance, consider some ways to reduce your levels of stress. Or perhaps consider the possibility that your worrying is becoming counterproductive and harmful to your speech.

I can't think of a better way to end than with some words of wisdom from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching:

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven.

With that said, until next time!