Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why Introverts Make Better Public Speakers

This past week, I spoke at an industry conference hosted by the company I work for. The topic would relatively boring to most people reading this blog (Marketing Data Subscriptions Services), but it was a lengthy two-hour workshop during which my boss and I spoke for about the same amount of time.

Afterwards, my boss and I received a variety of compliments, the most ironic of which was, "It was clear that you and _______ had rehearsed A LOT." We hadn't rehearsed a bit, and when I told the attendee that, he seemed to brush off my assertions as false modesty. It's then that I realized that my boss and I had pulled off a rather intimidating and enviable feat in others' eyes -- we had made public speaking look easy and enjoyable.

Now, I can't speak for my boss, but there's a certain paradox to this accomplishment given that, by all self-assessment tests, I am a serious introvert.

But I'm also starting to realize that being an introvert might be the biggest asset for a public speaker.

For those of you unfamiliar with what introversion really means, some clarification is probably in order. Introversion is not the same as being shy. It's also not the same as being highly sensitive (although I definitely qualify as an HSP).

Introversion, in my experience and understanding, starts with a need for solitude and quiet to recharge. If you found yourself annoyed and exhausted at college house parties after hanging out with your friends all day, you're probably an introvert.

But introversion doesn't stop there. The most interesting introverts often have a rich interior life and a longing to discuss ideas not events, humanity but not people. This isn't intellectual snobbery (although it can sometimes manifest that way). It's more of a temperament and tendency to see what's under the surface of everyday interactions. This can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation and depression, but grown-up introverts turn this trait into an ability to nurture compassion and understanding towards other people's inexplicable behavior.

So what does this have to do with public speaking? Well, when talking to others about how I like public speaking (it's taken me years to say that out loud without feeling like a narcissist), I've learned that the most extroverted people can sometimes fear it the most. Even if they're also scoring high on introversion scales, these are people who have extroverted mechanisms of feedback -- people who rate their success and happiness by the number of friends they have or how activity-filled their calendars are. And while having friends and activities is by no means a character flaw, seeking extroverted markers of success are the death knell of any good talk.

Standing on stage and expounding for an hour or more about any topic that interests you requires a certain self-containment, a certain self-confidence that your worth is not determined by your audience's reaction. And introverts are better suited for this lack of feedback. Most are so enthralled by the chance to talk about the ideas that fill their quiet lives that they don't register audience reaction until they're well into their talk.

It also helps that my generation of introverts grew up alone on playgrounds. When you're not used to being the most popular kid (but are often respected for being one of the smart ones in class), it's easier to get up there and put your mind on display without a need to be liked. There was only one time I ever worried about whether people liked me while I was talking (and I bombed that talk). The thing that I'm actually more attuned to is "Are they understanding what I'm saying?"

There is one caveat to this rule, however. Introverts need an adult audience to succeed (at least at first). It's easy for me to get on stage and talk when I know that the audience has to behave like, well, adults. No one's going to be outright mean or start talking back during my presentation (although I did have two young women whisper throughout an entire presentation once -- it definitely threw me for a loop). As an introverted but seasoned speaker, I would still rather work an assembly line for 20 years than present in front of children or teenagers.

Which may be, perhaps, why most introverts think they're afraid of public speaking. School is the worst place for an introvert to make their public speaking debut. It's like Simon trying to get the conch in Lord of the Flies. No amount of prophesizing is going to get you off that island alive.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Worst Piece of Advice I Ever Got

The worst piece of advice I ever got was "Bloom where you're planted."

To be fair, I don't quite remembering being told to adopt this attitude. I'd like to ascribe it to one of my high school teachers, but that's not quite right. Instead, I think it was just a generally-accepted adage, a function of American "Can-Do!" thinking. Like "There's a college for everyone."

There really isn't.

The problem with these sort of "ignore-the-circumstances, make-the-most-of-it" platitudes is that they really only work if you're also willing to embrace assimilation. There probably is a college for every white American in every high school in this country. But if you're an Indian-American who wants a small liberal arts college with a South Asian Students Association and enough acceptance that a few boys will think you're cuter in your jeans and salwar top than the girl with the sweater set and pearls, good luck. I promise you that college doesn't exist. Or at least it didn't between the years 1995 and 1999.

I grew up on Staten Island and I hated it. I mean, really hated it. I hadn't lived in any other city, but by the time I was 16, I wanted out. In all my travels since leaving Staten Island, I am yet to come across another town so ripe with verbal aggression. Maybe Brooklyn comes close, but even they have some hippies and artists that provide refuge and escape. There's no place to hide form the verbal assaults on Staten Island other than one's own home.

So I went to Maine for college, where I was confronted by the preference for sweater sets -- a fetish I still find baffling. The virtues of my alma mater aside, it was probably a bad choice, evidenced by the fact that I left almost every weekend to party with my brother and his friends at Brown.

I spend most of my twenties moving around, living in Boston, Manhattan, Brooklyn. I even contemplated an ex-pat life in Europe, or the lifestyle of prodigal NRIs in Bangalore (that's Non-Resident Indian, the latest culture to invade India).

Recently, I had a meeting with the senior staff of a popular personal finance magazine that publishes one of those "Best Places to Live in America" lists. I told them their subtitle needs to be "If You're White." Because Carmel, Indiana and McKinney, Texas suck if you're looking for an Indian grocery store or need a Sikh priest for your grandfather's funeral.

Fortunately, my story seems to end happily. After 35 years, I finally found a place that "fits" me and my lifestyle. Washington, DC has all the things I like -- trees, parks, public transportation, a lively arts and culture scene (usually free, in fact), internationally-minded people (even if they've never lived abroad), and liberals that aren't hippies or hipsters. It's smaller than New York, with houses and yards populating the side streets, but doesn't have the claustrophobic suburban feel of Staten Island or New Jersey. Unlike Boston, people are friendly. And I'm usually not someone's "Indian friend" since they usually know a few more, making "Indian" a vague qualifier.

So my advice to friends who still feel like they don't fit -- it may not be you. You may not be "manifesting" your misery, despite what Oprah and The Secret say.

Take the time to discover what it is you like in a place (I reluctantly admit that I've been spoiled by the beautiful, expansive parks of Staten Island, and I can't imagine not living within walking distance of one ever again).

Then move. And if you're still unhappy, take stock again of your needs and desires and move again. Maybe it's just a matter of moving to a new neighborhood, or maybe you really do need to go abroad. But don't try to grow an orchid in a desert. It won't work no matter how much optimism you have. Look for the soil that nourishes your own soul and then plant yourself there.