When I coach an executive on public speaking, I always spend some time reviewing the nerve curve. This is a theoretical curve that plots degree of nervousness on one axis and presentation quality on the other.
The arc of the curve is the same as the arc of a baseball thrown across the diamond. It rises, reaches a peak, and then descends. The lesson is simple: you need to be somewhat nervous to give a good presentation. Nervousness alerts your senses, focuses your mind, and stiffens your spine – all good things for giving a great presentation.
If you follow the nerve curve, you’ll also realize that too much nervousness is a bad thing. The peak of the curve represents your best possible performance. If you become so nervous that you pass the peak, your performance starts to degrade. You might shake, sweat, and stammer. Your audience will be sympathetic; many of them have been there and done that. But they won’t be listening to your message.
Another way to read the nerve curve is that some stress is good for you. A little stress will improve your performance. Too much stress will degrade it. But it’s also true that too little stress will degrade your performance. If we want to maximize performance, being under-stressed may be just as bad as being overstressed.
That’s an interesting perspective for me because my docs have always told me to reduce my stress. They seemed to be saying that all stress – even a small amount – is bad for me. I should strive to eliminate stress. But striving creates stress, doesn’t it?
From my recent readings, I’m beginning to conclude that stress follows the nerve curve. Too little is bad for you; too much is bad for you. You need to attain just the right amount.
So, how do you attain the right amount? Well, not by disengaging from the world. If you try to minimize your stress, you may just get bored. And, as Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert point out in Experimental Brain Research, boredom is stressful. In fact, it may well be more stressful than being sad. (The authors also point out that, “Research on … boredom is underdeveloped.” Sounds like a promising field.)
Your attitude towards stress also seems to play an important role. If you believe that stress is bad for you, and you feel stressed out, you may well conclude that you might drop dead at any moment. That, in itself, is stressful. On the other hand, if you understand the nerve curve, you know that some stress is actually good for you. As you start feeling stressed, you’ll realize that your performance is also improving. You’re more likely to feel energized and engaged rather than stressed and depressed.
So, what’s the lesson here? Try a little stress. It may well be good for you.