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.