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.

For one week, not writing but speaking

It’s been an exhausting but satisfying and edifying week. I spent all of it speaking, rather than writing, and I learned a lot about the difference.

I) The written word

The occasion was my Special Report on “Democracy in California”, which was on the cover of the previous issue of The Economist, a cover as cheeky as one might expect of us (see above). The cover of the actual report (which is an insert of 11,000 words, eight chapters) looks like this:

It’s my fifth Special Report (we used to call those things “Surveys”). I usually urge people to read a Special Report on paper, or as a PDF, because it is really one single narrative, with each chapter leading to the next and none meant to be read in isolation. Online readers often land on one chapter and don’t realize it is part of something bigger.

Here are the chapters:

  1. The People’s Will
  2. Direct Democracy: Origin of the Species (I had the most fun with this one)
  3. Proposition 13: War by Initiative
  4. Stateside and abroad (this is a short box comparing other states and countries)
  5. California’s Legislature: The withering branch
  6. Education: A lesson in mediocrity
  7. How voters decide: What do you know? (The second-most fun, and most suprising)
  8. What next: Burn the wagons

I tried to remember and list all the sources here, but it’s inevitable that I forgot somebody, so apologies.

II) The spoken word

Once the report was published, two of my colleagues — Amy Jaick and Dayna De Simone, our brand enhancement geniuses — ferried me around California to “market” the report.

As you might remember, I’ve long been pondering the difference between the written and the spoken word, so it was constantly on my mind this week. The two are really completely different. You can write well but speak awfully, or speak well but write awfully. (You can also be good or bad at both, of course).

All of which is to say that this was really a great warm-up for the speaking I’ll probably be doing in January when my book comes out.

In particular, I now appreciate the importance and difficulty of being a good “accordion”. Which is to say: You have to be able to expand and contract at will — ie, to speak equally well about (in this case) all 11,000 written words in

  • 1 minute,
  • 2 minutes,
  • 10 minutes,
  • 30 minutes and
  • 1 hour.

And that takes quite a bit of practice, especially since I don’t believe in using any written notes at all.

The only reason, as far as I can tell, why somebody might want to hear a writer speak (as opposed to just reading his writing) is spontaneity, which equals authenticity. If you’re speaking from written notes, how can you be spontaneous? Whenever I’m in an audience and a speaker uses written notes, the oratory is dead and boring.

So I speak “naked”, as it were, which can, admittedly, be a bit nerve-racking. I did get sidetracked a couple of times. But as the week went on I got better at my pacing. Every talk was partly the same and partly different, and Amy and Dayna gave me great feedback on what worked and what didn’t, so that “the speech” kept improving.

And the reaction from the various audiences was fantastic. At every event, we ended up having a lively debate. I was learning a lot from the audience. And learning is really my main hobby. So I guess it was a good week.

Britishness, masculinity and humor

I’m still digesting the cornucopia of impressions and ideas that came out of our (The Economist‘s) powwow last week. One observation, not new but reinforced: Those Brits are unbelievably good at public speaking, at humorous and witty banter that nonetheless has a point–and indeed pointedness–and force.

There were of course all those presentations. But the performances that stood out were the after-dinner speeches by two of our “most British” writers, both cavalier Oxford types. They were a) hilarious and b) profound. The two can go together.

There they were, in front of all of us, lightly and sprightly bantering away, to smirks at first, then smiles, then chuckles and eventually full-throttle guffawing. And yet the topics were dead-serious. They were debating which of the many pressing world issues we should take on as our next “cause”.

(We were founded 160 years ago to campaign for free trade, and since then we have always pushed for one liberal and progressive cause or another–that’s “liberal” in the true, original sense of the word. Sometimes we actually win. Then we have to find a new cause.)

The Commons, moments before hilarity

The Commons, moments before hilarity

Perspective Number 1: Non-British

After the dinner, a German colleague and friend of mine came up to me, and we reflected how we continentals just don’t grow up in environments that instill this public-speaking culture. That is why we are so in awe of the Brits. We love watching the debates in the House of Commons. Or, for that matter, the debating that goes on in each and every one of our famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist. Really, it is a pleasure just to sit back and listen to the cadences and ironies and codas.

Perspective Number 2: Female

So impressed was I that I kept talking about this at lunch the next day, as I was sitting between two female colleagues. One of them, a very senior editor, immediately said: “But that’s just the men!”

I looked genuinely puzzled. Not because my years in the Inquisition politically-correct America have taught me to shut up whenever any topic remotely related to sex (or “gender”, as Americans say) comes up. But because I genuinely had no idea what she meant.

But the other female colleague knew exactly what she meant. “Absolutely,” she said. The British boys of a certain social class learn public-speaking and ironic and witty mano a mano verbal fighting from the day they enter Eton and Harrow or whatever “public” school they attend. The girls don’t so much.

“No, it’s more than that,” said the other female editor. “Men are just much funnier.” This is when I knew that this conversation, like all the others during that gathering, would become very interesting. But, Americanized as I am, I just listened. (Larry Summers, anyone?)

Among the theories advanced: In the Darwinian struggle to reproduce, humor may have become a male strategy to display “fitness” to the opposite sex. Interesting.

Then: Somebody proposed that, especially in humor-challenged cultures such as America, the funniest people tend in fact to be lesbian women. We pursued that for a while.

And so it went. Never a dull moment, when you’re hanging around us writers of The Economist…. 😉