Advice to introverted public speakers (and their hosts)

I’m an introvert and I also enjoy public speaking from time to time.

That is not a contradiction. If you think it is, then you probably haven’t understood the definition of introversion. (In which case, read this excellent and short explanation by Jonathan Rauch, who used to be a colleague at The Economist.)

The problem for me when I speak publicly is usually not the speech itself, no matter how big the audience. Rather it is the people who invited me to speak and feel they must take care of me before and after. Invariably, these organizers/hosts/masters of ceremonies are extroverts. They mean well but do not understand the introvert brain (whereas introverts usually do understand the extrovert brain).

So, as we get close to my speaking time and approach the podium, they make sure to keep up the chit-chat, introduce me to five more people, ask me to meet their old friend Jim and trade cards and so forth. Because it’s all so fun.

Well, no, for an introvert that is the bit that is draining. And the last thing you want to do before public speaking is to drain yourself. You’re about to need your energy to go deep inside yourself and project it outward (which is a strength of many introverts). And after the speech, you’ll need a bit of time to collect your thoughts and energies again for the next part. Once you’ve recovered, that next part can be social.

That’s why I found it so refreshing to give a talk the other day in Amsterdam to the European Speechwriter Network. It was a roomful of, well, speechwriters. And voice coaches, and storytelling strategists, and all those contiguous professions.

Quite a few of them were themselves introverts. And all of them understood. I was standing at lunch with one of them, when she noticed all by herself that my speaking time was coming up.

“Honestly,” she said, “if I were you I would now walk away from me and go outside, to the toilet or wherever, and get focussed.” Those may not have been her exact words. But the sentiment was modest, pertinent and beautiful. So I went to the men’s room, did a few power poses in a stall, and read through my index cards (but then put them away).

And the speech went fine. It was called “Should you hate Angela Merkel’s speechwriter?” The topic was her speaking style, including her body language, which is very surprising to non-Germans. Here is the podcast. (There is no video, which is unfortunate because much of the talk was me imitating the body languages of various German politicians.)

After the talk, I went out again for a while to reconnect with myself. And then I came back into the room to connect with the others. It was educational and fun. Because, even for introverts, it can be fun, if the conversation is good and the others let everybody be.

39 thoughts on “Advice to introverted public speakers (and their hosts)

  1. Oh, dear. Now I really want to see not only the video of your speech, but of your power poses in the men’s room stall. That is going to end up in a comedy film somewhere, or get grafted onto the hero of my mystery novels (a timid, easily flustered newspaper editor with a bad haircut, who nonetheless shines when he moderates a forum)… if I ever write another one.
    And infinite thanks for Jonathan Rauch’s article. I want to print that up and distribute it to everyone I have to deal with. Why is so hard for most people to understand “I have to go home and be alone now?”

    • “… a timid, easily flustered newspaper editor with a bad haircut..”
      Do I get royalties?
      The power poses in the bathroom would make for a great scene. More people than you would think or than would admit it practice this sort of thing.
      Pls do distribute the article. It helps all of us.

    • Believe it or not the character model was/is the editor of the hyper-local rag. He crossed me once in the matter of a theater review and I pledged I would eventually get him (he is still fending off inquirers who think he wrote the books). There must be a flustered, sartorially challenged editor type.

      As much as consciousness raising, that article is a shot in the arm for its cheerful lack of apology. “Are Introverts arrogant? Hardly. I suppose this common misconception has to do with our being more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive than extroverts.” :p

  2. Gotcha. Excellent topic. Thank you. I think I’ll print out the Atlantic piece, make copies, and hand it out in my present surroundings, as my own desperate attempts to explain myself keep falling on the deafest of ears (and of whatever other senses it takes to properly interpret nonverbal clues) around here.

    I’ve never done any public speaking per se, but I used to work as an actor. Never had a problem being on stage no matter how large the audience. In fact, the bigger the better. The limelight had an oddly relaxing effect on me. (The only thing that aggravated me was my wanting acting skills, which is why I eventually lost interest.)

    Then I waited tables for many years. Seems about half of my time in NYC I spent in (dining) rooms full of people. I hated the job itself, but interacting with customers and colleagues was fine, indeed fun. I had a job to do, and all the chatting with patrons an colleagues sort of happened on the side.

    In my down time, however, I’m most comfortable either alone or with exactly one other person (provided I feel comfortable “being myself” around that person, which naturally works with some individuals but not others).

    But when I’m in any kind of group situation of more than two (= me and one other) where my only (or primary) task is to “socialize” or “mingle” or “network” or just “have a good time,” I feel so incredibly lost and awkward (“wie bestellt und nicht abgeholt”), it’s ridiculous. Parties, weddings (= the worst), birthdays, bars, nightclubs, opening night parties (as opposed to performing in the show itself), you name it — I just stand there mentally searching for the ejector button that would hurl me through the ceiling out into the cosmos. “Draining” doesn’t even come close. Nothing more exhausting for me than being among people (plural) without having a specific job to do (like acting or waiting tables or whatnot) that relegates purely social interactions to a mere side show (which, for me, takes the pressure off them).

    That’s part of the reason why I’m having — and always have had — such a tough time here in Austria. In New York, I could live my life as my introvert self without drawing the ire of my surroundings. But back “home,” it is expected of me to socialize, be part of the family, behave like a “normal person,” and regularly lunch or dine or join or celebrate various occasions in groups of four or more. And every sign of reluctance on my part is summarily diagnosed as “arrogance” or some other pathological drive to set myself apart from the rest. It is to out of the skin drive, as we say in our native tongue.

    One of these days, I’ll jump out of a window. As a matter of fact, there’s a wedding coming up in August. To snowclone Ted Nugent’s (sadly unfulfilled) promise, I’ll be either dead or back in the U.S. by then.

    Glad I’ve got that off my chest. How much do you charge per session?

    • Weddings really are the worst. I mean, why do they even insist on having them? But if you look around, you’ll always see fellow sufferers.
      Yes, by the sounds of it, you are very much an introvert. And (as Jonathan says in his article) you’ve even chosen a typically introverted profession, acting. Like me, you’ll be happier from now on, having come out of the closet.

    • I came out a long time ago. That’s not the problem. The problem is explaining my introvertism to the extroverts I’m stuck with until such time as I’m in a position to, once again, geographically remove myself from this extrovert-dominated environment. Fleeing across the ocean (as opposed to merely relocating within the same country or continent) is the only remedy I ever found that actually works.

      Incidentally, that wedding in August will be held in Berlin. If it gets too unbearable (and how could it not?), I may escape and apply for asylum at The Economist’s headquarters, because I know someone who works there that will understand and shield me against all those extroverts coming to drag me back to the banquet.

  3. You should consider becoming an engineer. Do you know the joke about how to tell if an engineer is an extrovert? He(she) looks at your feet instead of his own when speaking.

    Anyway. I hear you, brother(s). I know you’re not asking for advice, and you don’t need mine, but since you asked, I’ll tell you. Public speaking for me is a physical thing. When I can’t do headstands in the bathroom, and I’m forced to wait my turn from my seat (or I just don’t want to talk to anyone), I start writing with a pen and paper. For me, this is the best way to avoid self immolation. I try to write in my best cursive (which is awful). I just start observing – myself and everything else. Can I write complete sentences? Is it cold? Is my handwriting legible? If I’m lucky, I’ll find myself ‘in the zone’ rather than bursting into flames. It may seem a bit rude or it may seem that that I’m taking notes because I’m sooo impressed with whomever speaking before me (an extrovert, e.g.).

    • I just checked Mr. C.’s best-selling publication on public speaking. I note in Chapter 5, titled “Written Self Assessment:”
      “[…] if you’re particularly nervous before your presentation, start with something simple. Look down at your shirt and ask yourself, did I just vomit a little bit?”

  4. Thank you for the Jonathan Rauch piece. Quite interesting and informative. I simply avoid, as much as is humanly possible, speaking in public or attending social functions.

  5. Looking at YouTube videos of Angela Merkel speaking, I can see her appeal. She seems comfortable in her own skin. She is who she is, or at least she appears this way. I would buy a used car from her.

    However, I would be reluctant to buy a used car from either Gysi or Gabriel. Too slick, both. Perhaps the German electorate sees this too?

    Merkel having a Doctorate in the hard sciences, as well as the way she comports herself, I surmise she’s an introvert. Gysi and Gabriel, on the other hand, I see as extraverts. Are they, actually?

    • Gabriel is definitely an extrovert. With Gysi I’m not totally sure. (Remember, it’s not whether you’re good around people, it’s whether being around people gives or takes energy.) Merkel is intensely PRIVATE, but that doesn’t necessarily make her an introvert. At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell unless you know the person very well.

  6. On the the topic of introversion/extraversion, here’s the *Autism-Spectrum Quotient* questionnaire that’s designed to detect where you are in the introversion/extraversion continuum.

    For what it’s worth, I scored 30 the first time around, and 29 the second time – which places me close to mild autism. This does explain nearly all the problems I’ve had throughout my life!! How do you score?!!

    I see western culture, and particularly American culture, as an extraverted culture. East Asian cultures I see as somewhat introverted. How say you?

    • I scored 21. But that’s a test for autism, not introversion. I’m sure there can be overlap between the two, but they’re not the same or related. Or are they?
      I think the same proportion of people must be introverts in all cultures, but some cultures are better for extroverts and worse for introverts. Latin!! American, yes. In Europe, i think being Scandinavian is better for introverts, especially the more north you go. East Asian I don’t see as being very good for introverts: so focussed on group dynamics. No idea about African.

    • I got stuck on question 9 of the test: “I am fascinated by dates.” What kind of dates? I like dates with blue cheese. When I am on a date, I like to eat dates with blue cheese. Dates are fascinating? Like, 11/11? Moroccoan dates are the best. Dates alone are too sweet. One of my favorite dates is Joseph Fourier’s birthday. Why do I never go on dates?

    • “……I’m sure there can be overlap between the two, but they’re not the same or related. Or are they?……..”

      I would say they’re strongly related. Is not full-blown autism but the most extreme introversion?

      Anyway, here’s an *introversion personality test*, taken from the book “The Introvert Advantage” (that I’ve read and recommend, particularly its first 90 pages).

      I scored 26 on this test. I would guess you’ll score 20 – 21.

  7. Hi Andreas Kluth,

    I am new on your blog. I wish to join in and share with you my thoughts on this very interesting subject.

    Actually I don’t have many thoughts on it. Only one. Instead of spelling it out, which will be difficult and liable to being misunderstood, I just would like to ask you to read – if you have not already – Anthony Storr’s “Solitude, A Return to the Self”. The subject deserves more than the treatment of two labels – In- versus Ex-. There are many layers to the experience of the need to be alone.

    You have read me before. I am one who is very fond of your book “Hannibal and Me”. I also enjoyed your talk (inclusive of body language and demeanor) at Berkeley (was it Berkeley? It’s been a while). I continue to enjoy immensely reading your writings. Your content is responsibly thought-through; the prose is limpid and clean; and there is no whining. Reminds me of the compositions of Schubert (Franz). I learn from reading you.

    – Ash

  8. My god, have I just been compared to Franz Schubert? Please come around more often, Ash. 🙂
    I’ve got Storr’s “Solitude” in my browser window now and will check it out.
    If you do decide to try to spell out your thoughts, I’m sure it’d be very interesting.
    Thanks for being here!

  9. I don’t know that I can say anything better than Storr on this aspect of personality formation and expression. Suffice it to say it is not uncommon to see both the features of an “In-” and an “Ex-” in the same individual. Many performance artists exhibit these two seemingly contradictory traits. At the end of the day, the “In-” part is private, while the “Ex-” part is fabricated out of necessity and for public consumption. [Unless, of course, one does not have to work to make a living]. These individuals are fiercely protective of their “In-“. As soon as the “Ex-” is turned off, they would feel most “bothered” by any any type of unsolicited attention. People call them “weird” and “arrogant” for this behavior. Don’t mind those words. They are more diagnostic of the users of the words than the person(s) the words are used to describe.

    Q: What is the difference between commenting down here and commenting above in the space provided? I am entirely new in this blogging thing. I want to respect the community rules – Ash

  10. That makes excellent sense. Interestingly, I see that one of Amazon’s “also bought” suggestions under Storr’s book is Susan Cain’s bestseller “Quiet”. Introversion now seems to have its own genre.

    Not sure what you mean by commenting in “the space provided”. You can comment wherever you like, and there are no community rules beyond rudimentary civility. 😉 Happy to have you here.

  11. It is odd how an introvert can speak to a large audience, yet feels unease at meeting many people individually. I felt the same way though now have accepted to work on my weak side amd try to understand their perspective, that is ofcourse to further the goal of doing good.

  12. AK, Can’t agree with you more. Who is to say being an introvert is a “weak side” to be “worked on”? As a matter of fact…. :). See Storr.

    Re the book “Quiet”, I need to check it out before I can comment.

    Personally, the meaning I attack to the term “introversion” is this: The capacity for solitude – by choice, circumstance or enforcement – has a lot to do with a sturdy and resilient psychic constitution, and with this latter, the capacity for life-long growth. It is also the genesis of true creativity.

    Introversion, from my perspective, has got nothing to do with not liking people. You like people for what they can teach you. You retreat to your own solitude to think about what they have taught. It’s all very fun. 🙂

    • Ha! I don’t know if the putting is beautiful. It would suffice if there is a seed of truth in it.

      To be quietly with one’s own self without any form of exogenous interference is not easy. The experience is pretty scary. One discovers things that are big, bigger than one’s own self. That is the scary part.

      For a good portion of the general population, their neuro-biological givens ill support the experience. That is why they turn to all manners of interferences – for purposes of diluting, denying, and running away from.

      For another portion of the general population, the givens support but renders the experience too heavy for the psyche. It is healthy in those times to reach for the company of real cohumans. I emphasize real cohumans – which could be a dog. That is to say, under no circumstances would a psychically insufficient human do.

      It is important to know however ultimately alone, no one is in that singular fact. Hence people write, compose, paint to bridge the little gulfs and canyons everywhere. Some succeed, and make the world a very beautifual place.

      Ex- or In-, we really are all in the same boat. But of course we the In-s would rather be located next to another In- in the sailing. Surrounded, if I could choose. Ex-s generally give me a migraine.

    • AK,
      If I had offended anyone’s sensibilities on the subject by my extreme choice of words in my previous post, my apologies.

      It is very hard to try to say a lot in a few words – the hazard of instant cyberspace communication where cross-checking is seldom given a chance and nonverbal cues do not form a part of the conversation (this latter is subject for a book in its own right).

      I also assumed and conflated an ancillary concept in the matter of Extroversion v Introversion. And that is the concept of predilection for introspection – an element in the formation of an Ex- v. an In- that separates if a clear separation exists.

      My sincere apologies again for a case of passion overtaking discipline, in content and in the writing. No animosity is intended/meant whatsoever. My own Ex- in me gives me a migraine.

      Thank you for the opportunity to voice some of my thoughts. I enjoy your blog very much.

  13. Ash, Ash, Ash. What are you apologizing for? I have no idea. There’s no “extreme choice of words” in your comments (although we encourage extreme choice of words here!). There’s no “passion overtaking discipline” (which we encourage too).

    No, you just made some very thoughtful comments. And we’re pondering them. So keep going. People don’t always keep threads going, but that doesn’t mean anybody is offended. Great to have you here.

  14. Hahaha! You are very kind. It can be said saying a dog serves the purpose of a “real cohuman” better than a loud person who is prone to think not, introspect not, feel not, empathize not, but believes in the virtue of telling and selling a book by its cover instead of what’s in it constitutes “strong words”. (Even the obligation to make a living is no excuse. Because he/she can have that job only at most 10 hours a day, unless you are a member of the Congress).

    I said “prone to”. I think our high-tech internet age has creepily brought about a change in our concept and experience of time. That has not taught us how to value time. We squander time by surrounding ourselves with machines and relying on them to do our thinking and decision-making.

    How did I go from In- v Ex- to dog to machines to time? I think one word links them. I will now shut up or I’ll morph into the other which gives me migraines.

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