Mythbusters: The Publicly Speaking Introvert

This month marks the six-month anniversary of the release of The I’s Have It, my e-book about introversion in student affairs. It’s been an amazing journey to put my proverbial baby out into the world, watch her reach her first milestones (first time she was gifted to a reader! First time someone gave her a recommendation! First time someone told a friend about her at a conference!), and see how she grows as time goes on.

But at the same time, we’re trying for another. And that means keeping an eye on additional research. The work that Susan Cain is doing to redefine the workplace in the introvert’s favor has fascinated me. I love that Scientific American is diving even deeper into the brain chemistry than most people care to go, and I am riveted. Advances like this will make the impending younger sibling really strong; I will have learned my lessons from the older kid and will be more informed when creating her younger sister.

However, there are some pieces that I struggle with, pieces that remind me that not everyone gets my kid 🙂 A piece that a friend shared earlier, 4 Tips to Help Introverts Nail a Presentation, piqued my interest. Most pieces claiming to rescue introverts from their unmanageable anxieties and idiosyncrasies do. And while none of the advice in the article was blatantly incorrect, it did the one thing that raises my hackles more than anything else: conflate shyness with introversion.

Doctor Cosby and I hate it when you do this. IMAGE CREDIT: ReplyGif

Please, please, please…stop. Just stop.

I want badly to go J. Evans Pritchard on you all (Dead Poets Society reference)*, but instead will walk you through some of the points in the article that I want to draw attention to. As I said, there’s truth to some of what is said, but other elements of it…well, Dr. Huxtable is nailing my reaction here.

In the opening paragraphs of the article, the following sentence comes into play:

Few of us actually enjoy public speaking but for introverts, it can be devastatingly painful.

Yes, for introverts, it can be devastatingly painful. But it can be devastatingly painful for extroverts too. Know why? Because the pain of public speaking, generally a function of shyness or ill ease with the medium, has nothing to do with introversion.

I say it this way in Chapter Two of the book:

For shy introverts, the fear of judgment that is accompanied with putting your words and opinions on a larger stage can force them to shrink in the presence of a spotlight. Frankly, that is a fear shared by all shy people, NOT all introverted people. For those who are introverted, but not shy, this fear doesn’t prevent us from taking center stage in the service of something greater. Why the qualifier? Introverts don’t tend to seek attention for its own sake. Their inward orientation avoids attention-grabbing maneuvers. If their public speaking can help someone, introduce a topic they are passionate about, or spark a meaningful discussion, however, they’re generally willing to let that spotlight shine.

So what’s the lesson here? If someone identifies as an introvert, don’t count them out for public speaking. If they’re interested in the topic, or are doing it in service of something they love, they could be your best best. Conversely, don’t assume that extroverts are going to be the go-to crowdpleasers. Shy extroversion exists, and public speaking can be equally painful for them as it can be for a shy introvert. All of us are more than our temperament. Look past the classification to the preferences and abilities. You never know what you’ll find!

Another piece of the article that made me a touch itchy?

Of course people are going to prepare before they present. My point is that for introverts, preparation can be even more important than for extroverts. For introverts, it not only helps create a flawless presentation but also builds up confidence.

This piece doesn’t bother me because its particularly untrue. It’s very true; preparation benefits anyone giving a speech, and it does favor introverts because it gives them the certainty in their knowledge of content that will allow them to display more confidence. However, the introvert that needs to be told to prepare is rare. A defining characteristic of introversion is the tendency to ruminate for long periods, and can apply to most anything: preparation for a project, choosing just the right words to approach someone, or, as in this excerpt from Chapter Six, a setback in the office:

Because introversion is an internally focused concept, it necessarily creates a kind of insulation between the individual and the rest of the world. It’s difficult to peek out from behind that insulation; it takes a tremendous amount of trust and energy to do so. And in the event that this leap isn’t rewarded as we expect, we struggle to recover. Criticism that might roll off the back of less internally critical individuals sticks with us, rumination over how we might salvage a bad situation goes on longer than it would for extroverts.

This rumination sounds negative in this context, but it has positive applications as well, most notably the tendency to (over)prepare for public or spoken displays of knowledge. So don’t tell me to prepare- trust me, I already am!

Now, in the interest of being fair, I do want to point out the positive elements of this piece as well; there are some that I want to praise. First, this tidbit about composition and timing of a speech:

Keep it simple. A good rule of thumb is to keep your presentation to about 45 minutes. This way, you will leave room for a Q&A session at the end. This approach typically benefits introverts, because the presentation morphs into more of a conversation.

Spot on. Where small talk tends to fail or minimize introverts, informed conversations about areas they’re interested in or knowledgeable about are far more comfortable. So leaving time for them to speak in their element is good; it’ll allow them to bring up points that heavy preparation may not always leave the spontaneity to address, while building their confidence by letting them properly address uncertainty. To be fair, this approach benefits anyone who may have qualms about public speaking. One fear when we speak to a group is to be caught off guard, stumped by someone with a question. But if all else goes to plan, the knowledge base is there and true “I don’t know” moments can be handled easily.

And lastly, this reassuring piece of wisdom:

I really think that introverts have nothing to worry about when it comes to doing presentations because, we’ve all been there, we get it.

I agree with the sentiment of this statement, if not the tone (the “bless your heart, this is hard for you” implication, I could do without). The fear in public speaking is very real, and not something to be minimized. But the disastrous effects that we envision when we walk up to the podium rarely come to fruition. We sweat, but others can’t see. We flub a line or mix up words, but we don’t generally lose the room altogether. The occasional mistakes that come with our stead at the front of the room rarely break us. If anything, in many cases they endear us to the people we’re imparting wisdom to- people who are probably relieved to not have to be where you are. So the last lesson here- introvert or extrovert, cut yourself some slack. Come prepared and know your stuff, but don’t sweat the small missteps. We are all likely to make them.

*For those wondering, to “J. Evans Pritchard,” in this case, would be to plot the scale of introversion and extroversion on a horizontal axis, versus the shy to outgoing scale that would be represented on a vertical axis. But we don’t have to do that.

What other tips do you have about public speaking, for introverts and extroverts alike?

If you don’t already have a copy of The I’s Have It, there’s no time like the present to pick it up! And stay tuned later on this month for more posts about it and its subject matter, as well as special deals to honor it’s six-month birthday!

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