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.

1 comment:

DanduMandu said...

Brilliant in an understated way, provokes you to think and you end up agreeing that there is a lot of truth in this blog.