It’s the end of a jam-packed day at the 2019 Philly SHRM Symposium. Pete Smith, closing keynote speaker, queries the audience “anyone in here afraid of public speaking?” Several people raise their hands. Others clap. Some chuckle. The speaker continues: “anybody want to work on overcoming that fear today?” The crowd gets quiet. As suspected, there are no takers. Pete pivots a quarter turn as if to turn back to the giant slides projected above his head, when there is a faint but growing round of applause gaining momentum in the back of the room. Pete leans forward and shades his eyes from the harsh glare of the stage lights and looks towards the applause. A woman is volunteering herself as a tribute. Pete seems a bit surprised but encourages her to come forward. “Well, come on,” he waves.
We soon find out that the woman’s name is Patty and, as expected, she does not like to speak in public. Her discomfort is underscored by her body language; she recoils as Pete decreases the distance between them. He reassures her that this exercise will be relatively painless. She just needs to read a selected paragraph from a book out loud to the audience. Public reading is, after all, public speaking. In fact, the presenter reminds her, she’s been engaging in public speaking the entire day at the conference since she’s technically been speaking…in public.
Patty reads the paragraph from the book. As a reward, she is gifted with the book and a $20 bill that the speaker has hidden in the book. And a burgeoning sense of accomplishment, of course. The audience underscores her achievement with a rousing swell of applause. As the noise dies down, Pete inquires “did anything bad happen to you?” She shakes her head no. He turns to the audience “did you miss out?” Many heads shake “yes.”
It’s a simple but powerful demonstration of how important it is to address our fears. As the speaker acknowledges, fear can be a motivator. It is a definite driver but not a sustainable one and, as such, fear needs to be managed, defined even.
In his 2017 TED Talk, author and speaker Tim Ferriss delineates his technique known as “fear-setting,” a structured reflection technique inspired by the stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger who imparted, “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” This three-page exercise is meant to help you see decisions more clearly when fear is holding you back and distorting your thinking.
You begin by dividing your first page into three columns. In the first column on the page, you are to write down all of the worst-case scenarios if you were to do whatever it is that you are afraid of. In the next column, you are to annotate what you are able to do to prevent each of these worst-case scenarios from happening. In the final column, you describe what it is that you could do to repair the damage were the worst-case scenario come to fruition. Chances are, Ferriss reminds us, someone else has been in this same situation before and managed to find a way out.
The second page is even simpler. What are the benefits of an attempt or even partial success? List these and then assess the potential positive benefit of these successes on a 1-10 scale ranging from 1, a minimal impact, to 10, a very significant impact. The objective is to realize that even small wins can be significant.
The third page of this exercise alludes to Pete Smith’s inquiries to the audience after Patty read aloud from the book. It’s the “Cost of Inaction” page and arguably the most important step in the process, says Ferriss. Humans are highly versed at wargaming what might go wrong if we try something new, but we aren’t so proficient at considering what will happen if we don’t do anything. Defining our fears, Ferriss explains, can sometimes prove to be more useful than defining our goals. It’s not enough to ask ourselves “what’s the worst that could happen if I tackle my fears?” We must ask ourselves, “what’s the worst that could happen if I don’t tackle my fears?”
About the Author
Melissa Sims is the Regional Chief of Human Resources for the Northeast Region of the National Park Service. She began her career with the Park Service as a Management and Program Analyst at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C. in 2010. She has served the Northeast Region as both a Partnership Specialist and, most recently, as the Regional Employee Development Officer. Melissa is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Sociology and Systems Engineering. Melissa also holds a Master of Science in Human Resources, as well as an MBA. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Communications. Melissa serves as a Vice President for the Thought Leadership arm of Philly SHRM.