I was sure everyone in the audience noticed my leg shaking like an old style milkshake machine that was switched on high speed. My leg shook while my anxiety (and embarrassment) escalated.
In my late forties I returned to university to receive my communication degree. It was the first of many presentations I was assigned to deliver.
It was humbling to have my body react so strongly to the stress of public speaking. I felt like my body had a life of it own and that I was merely an observer. I felt an intense fear.
I thought my fear stemmed from shyness. I had a lot to learn.
There’s nothing particularly dangerous about presenting at a meeting or giving a toast at a wedding, but for many people, giving a speech or presentation is as anxiety-inducing as hugging a boa constrictor or hiking an active volcano.
Thankfully, relatively few people suffer from glossophobia (fear of public speaking). It’s much more common for people to experience a milder sense of dread, although just how common this is this isn’t clear.
What we do know is that anxiety around public speaking can be debilitating, even for those who have a mild case. Being unable to speak in public with confidence—to share your ideas, speak about your work, or pitch solutions to problems —can impede professional growth and your access to opportunities.
This is particularly true for executives who require excellent public speaking skills to be effective leaders—not just in the written word, but in face-to-face encounters with groups of people, whether IRL or online.
However, if you’re an introvert, knowing how to approach events and interactions in which you’ll be called upon to speak—while taking care of your energy—is key to effective leadership.
The Difference Between Introversion And Shyness
Introversion is often confused for social anxiety or shyness, but the terms are not interchangeable.
It’s easy to assume that giving a presentation is always easy for an extrovert, who tend to be comfortable in the spotlight. However, both introverts (those who recharge with alone time) and extroverts (those who recharge by socializing) can experience a fear of public speaking.
Introversion is an in-born personality trait, whereas shyness or social anxiety stems from negative life experiences. To put it another way: introverts are born, while the socially anxious are made.
Of course, there is plenty of overlap between introversion and shyness as well. One study of personality traits among people with social anxiety disorders showed that the majority, 62%, were introverted. But it’s important to note that introverts may dread speaking engagements simply because of the exhaustion they feel before, during, and after an engagement.
The good news is that regardless of why an introvert is uncomfortable with public speaking, there are plenty of strategies to help them make the most of each speaking opportunity while taking care of themselves.
Introverts and Public Speaking
Malcolm Gladwell, the famous New York Times journalist and author, once said in an interview that “Speaking is not an act of extroversion.” He added that while public speaking may be a performance, many wonderful performers are introverts. As a self-described introvert and lauded public speaker, he would know.
Introverts can be wonderful public speakers. Business magnate Bill Gates, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and TED speaker Susan Cain all receive high praise on their ability to deliver inspiring speeches.
Gates, Roosevelt, Cain and many others resonate with their audience not in spite of their introversion, but because of it.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain says that introverts are phenomenal listeners, which makes them uniquely attuned to the needs of their audience. Empathy and awareness of others gives introverts unique perspectives that the world needs to hear. We live in a time of enormous global change. We need ideas and solutions from thoughtful, insightful people who might normally avoid the limelight.
We need introverts to speak their minds.
If you’re lost and unsure about how to make your presentation compelling, I can help.
3 Public Speaking Tips for Introverts
Introverts can be confident, engaging, and successful public speakers.
I didn’t think it would be possible for me to enjoy getting out in front of an audience. I would eagerly accept an invitation, but as the day drew closer my anxiety would escalate. Finally, I’d bite the bullet and present, but after the event I’d need to take time off to regroup.
Now I love it. As a presentation coach, I’ve watched the same transformation happen for many of my introvert clients.
The key is to specifically hone presentation skills for introverts and realize—even celebrate—the different perspective and cadence introverts bring.
The following tips for introverts have proven helpful with my clients. Follow these tips as you prepare for your next public speaking engagement and be sure to take care of yourself before, during, and after an event.
#1 Challenge Your Thinking: Introvert or Extrovert, Everyone Can Become a Great Public Speaker
After Cain wrote her book on introversion, she found herself doing far more public speaking than she ever expected. As an introvert herself, she began studying the craft of public speaking and was relieved to find that plenty of soft-spoken, introverted personalities like herself excelled.
She urges introverts to remember that public speaking isn’t the sole domain of extroverts and that they can succeed, too, by using their own natural gifts.
The key to stepping out of your comfort zone and into the spotlight is being secure in who you are.
“The real power comes from a position of pride and entitlement in who you are,” she said in an interview with CNBC . “When you have that you become more effective in job interviews, showing up at meetings and speaking up.”
#2 Manage Your Energy: Introverts Need Time to Recharge Before and After a Presentation
With a limited amount of energy for social interaction, introverts must budget their energy, much as they mind their finances and time.
Energy conservation is particularly true in advance of intensive obligations like an upcoming presentation or speech. Cain says that planning for “solitude time” to regroup after a speaking commitment or other leadership activity is essential.
Consider limiting other social commitments in the days leading up to a speaking engagement. Space out your more energy-intensive obligations to allow opportunities to recharge your batteries.
Likewise, develop a ritual the day of the event to help you preserve energy or even recharge. Find a quiet place to take a walk, meditate, or do anything you need to filter out distractions and gather your thoughts.
I encourage you to block time out before and after a presentation. I learned the hard way how necessary this is, especially after I deliver a presentation when my tank is completely depleted. I know it may seem counterintuitive and you think that after the presentation you’ll feel a weight lifted; however most introverts usually feel exhausted post-event.
#3 Practice Your Speech … A Lot
Although there’s some debate about whether the best speeches are scripted, improvised (or some combination of the two) there’s no doubt that preparation is key for introverts. Gladwell, whose talks can earn him fees in the six digits, takes the guesswork out of speeches by planning every last word.
For many, Gladwell’s approach—outright memorization of a speech word-for-word—results in a presentation which comes across as stilted and unnatural. Most presenters are better served by learning your key points and then free flowing from there. But don’t mistake this for flying off the cuff … practice is required, it’s just practice of a different variety.
Cain recommends spending as much time as you need to craft a speech that flows well and is peppered with stories and examples for colour. Videotaping your practice sessions helps you learn how you come across to the audience, and you’ll feel more confident as a result.
Introverts are “wired” to be more sensitive to the behaviour of others and prefer low stimulation to high stimulation activities. For this reason, introverts tend to be more comfortable with one-on-one conversations than speaking to rooms of people.
And while you can’t change the genetic makeup which determines whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you can teach your nervous system to be less reactive with regular exposure to things that overwhelm you — including public speaking. One of the techniques Cain suggests in Quiet is that introverts gradually desensitize themselves with regular exposure to public speaking.
You might consider joining Toastmasters, speaking up at meetings, or doing anything else that challenges you to push past those feelings of discomfort that pop up when you speak in front of other people.
When I returned to university as an adult, I took every opportunity to speak up or deliver a presentation. Take the leap of faith. Try on a perspective that each try is a learning experience. Over time, repeated experiences will calm down your reaction to overwhelm.
Public speaking is can be daunting to introverts and extroverts alike. Whether you fall into the former or latter category, find support to challenge your thinking, manage your energy, learn how to make the best of your practice time, and dampen down any overwhelm so you can deliver a presentation that receives terrific feedback and accolades.
I help professionals master public speaking and communication skills. Reach out to set up a quick call to discuss how coaching can help you succeed as a speaker and position you as a leader.