Public Speaking as an Introvert (or Giving My Younger Self Advice on Not Being Terrified)
Sometimes I think about how weird it is that I've found myself in this career as a public
speaker and educator. I was a shy kid, long before there was a widespread understanding of what an introvert was. For years I had been the wallflower with occasional bouts of wanting to be the center of attention. I was a goofy kid and can be a motormouth around people that I know and trust. But around new people, I have always felt the pain of social anxiety, even to this day. The voice in my head says things like, "What will I say?" or "I don't have anything interesting to talk about." And so I clam up.
So in retrospect, it's kind of baffling that I decided to go to undergrad at Penn State University Park, a sprawling campus that is packed with over 40,000 students. Maybe I was trying to push my own boundaries. It was with terror in my heart that I learned that in order to graduate, I would need to pass a public speaking course. I can't recall a specific panic attack but I do remember the pit in my stomach that I would get walking to that class every day. Throughout the semester, we were tasked with putting a slide deck together and our final project would be presenting our topic to the class. Not only would the teacher provide a grade, we were being graded by fellow students. As I sit here writing this, I can't for the life of me remember my topic. I was so thoroughly blacked out from anxiety that it's all gone in the ether. What I do remember is stuttering and sweating my way through a barely coherent presentation. I ended the semester with a D (I passed...barely) and a desire to never stand in front of people again.
As my career progressed, I found myself gaining more confidence in my abilities, my decision-making, and my ability to speak to others in a professional setting. Speaking, training and coaching became part of the fabric of what I do, to the point that I now regularly speak at workshops with hundreds of participants. There wasn't one particular moment or event that I can point to and say that it changed my outlook, but rather a slow progression and development over time.
My journey was kind of meandering but generally moving in the right direction. If I could go back and give myself some targeted advice for how to learn to shine as a public speaker and an introvert, there are a few things that I'd say.
Develop your understanding of yourself, including your strengths and areas for growth
It took me a long time to really understand myself and my relationship to being in the spotlight. It wasn't until I was given the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain that I really began to get what made me tick. This book (and her TED talks) helped me to feel okay about needing time to recharge by myself, especially after being in social situations. Therapy and clinical supervision were crucial for gaining personal insight as well. Which brings me to...
Find someone who can mentor you and put you in situations that stretch your comfort level
I was so fortunate to have a supportive and empowering supervisor (thanks Michelle!) who was invested in helping me develop professionally. She was a guiding voice who was clear with her expectations and forced me out of my comfort zone in developing and delivering educational content to my staff. She was also my biggest cheerleader and never hesitated to give me kudos in executive meetings. My confidence grew and my view of myself as someone who wasn't able to do public speaking slowly began to change. If you don't have anybody that fits that description, coaching services (like BR offers) can be a good way of moving forward.
Imposter Syndrome is the enemy
Early in your career it's easy to feel like you're an imposter and that you have no business speaking with confidence on any topic. That starts to go away as you gain more experience, but it needn't take so long. An expert is anyone who has knowledge of a topic. You can develop this by diving in and immersing yourself in a topic. Even experts don't know everything, that's impossible. But they are comfortable in a topic and feel at ease speaking about it. Develop your comfort level and worry less about having to know the answer to every question ever.
Learn the power of asking questions and comfortable silences
I mentioned in the last section that you don't need to know everything. One of my favorite tools is asking questions and then shutting up and listening. Sounds simple, right? You'd be surprised how many people are bad at it. Whether you're speaking, teaching or coaching, you're in a conversation. Your ability to be genuinely curious about your audiences experiences will be what sets you apart. Wanting to learn about others' motivations and experiences is truly what keeps me going. Even if you're the "teacher", you can and should learn from your audience.
I still struggle with social anxiety but I have a better relationship with it than I ever have in my life and I intend on continuing to develop this skill. Not everyone is as fortunate to have the supports that I've had and some people struggle to gain an understanding of their own strengths and areas for growth.
If this sounds like you or someone you know, Brie and I would love to hear from you. We're experienced in helping others grow in their abilities and are energized by helping others succeed utilizing evidence-based approaches. Don't hesitate to reach out! Think of it as a down payment on your future success.