Bit of a detour: Tips from an introverted communicator
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
I couldn't decide what to write about this week, so I out-sourced the topic to the internet. The topic I got was overcoming introversion. Specifically, overcoming introversion in larger group settings. Luckily enough, I taught public speaking for a few years.
I'm going to give some tips and things to remember here and try to avoid too many cliches. (If you have any questions or want some additional advice, hit me up on Twitter) I am an introvert and I was kind of a professional public speaker for a time, depending on how you define that. I used to give a mini-talk at the start of every semester for my public speaking classes about how those two characteristics can live in harmony in one person. There's this false perception that people who are good at public speaking actually like it and feel confident when they're doing it. It's actually pretty rare to find this. Even people who are good at public speaking don't usually enjoy it. That's the first thing to remember:
Everyone* hates public speaking
It's a cliché but it is so true. Even people who are stellar public speakers dread actually doing it (in most cases). It is exceptionally rare to find someone who loves it or doesn't feel some level of apprehension. Remembering this is the more useful "imagine the audience in their underpants." Don't do that. Standing in front of several half-naked people is awkward, I would assume. Reminding yourself that everyone in the audience would be just as nervous in your position can actually help. It will help you feel less isolated and more connected to the audience.
Most of your audiences wants you to be successful. Very few people go into a situation wanting the person speaking to fail and those people are terrible so ignore them. The majority of any audience will be rooting for you, at least in a small way. So, as you're about to start speaking, remind yourself that the audience is there to see you. You are the expert. This can scale to any size of audience from just a few people at a networking event up to the largest audience you can imagine. No matter the size of the audience, they want to hear what you're saying and any little mistakes you will make don't matter in the grand scheme. The audience will have sympathy for any mistakes and will forget them literal moments later. They won't even notice most of those mistakes.
Story time: In my talk at BSides DC last year, my brain just stopped. I was in the middle of a thought and then...nothing. Even better, the talk was recorded and now lives on YouTube forever. I rebooted my brain and even said something like "I just lost my train of thought" and got back into the talk. The audience didn't react and I doubt any of them remember. The fact that this is up on the internet doesn't bother me either and I tell my students about it all the time. That second part is probably a bigger deal to most people but, the first is pretty universal. The audience isn't trying to catch your mistakes, they're trying to learn from you. That talk was an overall success and people had some really nice things to say about it, which is what matters.
Pick your buddies
This is actually a trick one of my students told me about and I love it. These people can be your actual friends or just random audience members. Find the people who are giving off great non-verbals: nodding, smiling, laughing at your jokes, etc. and look to them when you start to feel overwhelmed. This will help you vary your eye-contact around the room and will potentially give you an ego boost. It's simple but can make a big difference. Eye contact can be one of the harder things to do when you're nervous but it can also make your talk more dynamic and engaging.
Note: If you are an audience member, try to be this person. Use your body language to show that you like what they're saying. Sit up and lean forward just a little; smile, take notes, laugh, all of that. This is mainly about being aware of what you're doing. When you're sitting through a talk or even a small group conversation, it's easy to just let your non-verbals relax. Relaxed non-verbals can look like disinterest, especially to someone who is already nervous.
Just do it
When I started teaching, I had to speak in front of 10-20 people (who would have rather been basically anywhere else) for an hour three times a week and try to teach them something that they either thought they knew how to do or had literal nightmares about. After the first month or so, that will cure anyone of at least some speaking anxiety. Immersion therapy can work in some cases, I guess. We, as humans, are more afraid of the unfamiliar and uncertain. Becoming more familiar with something that scares us reduces the fear. Now, not everyone is lucky enough to be forced into public speaking. Most people have to force themselves and seek out experience which is especially hard when it's something you don't want to do but experience and practice are two of the most critical factors to successful and less painful public speaking.
Start small by getting your friends together and giving a formal presentation to them about something. Maybe volunteer to present something at work. Start with audiences of familiar, friendly people. If you're really motivated, you could even get a group together for regular speech practice - everyone prepares a 5 minute talk or just improvises something. There are more formal versions of this like Toastmasters. The more experience you have speaking, the less uncertainty you will feel. Once you get comfortable with your friends and colleagues, propose a talk or panel at a smaller, local event or conference and start increasing the audience size. Talk about something that you are passionate about and familiar with, it makes it a lot easier. My friend runs something called Nerd Nite which exists in a few different cities and is a nice, low stress speaking event to get your feet wet.
How you prepare varies from person to person. There are a lot of guides for preparing a speech and a lot of rules but don't get too caught up in those, just find what works for you. Maybe you want to script out your entire speech verbatim, maybe your prefer outlines. If the situation is less formal, improvisation might be appropriate. I really do not recommend improvising longer, more formal presentations. I also don't recommend reading a fully scripted speech directly off the paper but note cards are great and I use them all of the time. Both of these can lead to trouble.
However you do it, prepare and prepare a lot. Don't fall into the habit of procrastinating the thing you dread. The more prepared you feel, the less nervous you will feel. Know all of the points you want to make and actually practice saying them out loud. This step is critical if you are speaking on the clock. Reading speed and talking speed are drastically different. Also, saying it out loud will help you catch anything that reads fine but sounds awkward spoken.
Story time: I was an alternate for BSides and found out about two weeks before the conferences that I would be speaking. That's enough time to prepare but then I got the flu. I started writing my presentation two days before the conference. I did not feel prepared for my talk and I was a mess of nerves before my talk.
There is so much more to cover here. Approximately a semester's worth of content but these are some easy basics that can get you started. Maybe down the road I'll do a follow up with more advanced tips. I'd love to do a training at a conference eventually too. As an introvert, that first point has been really important for me. Remembering that everyone in the audience understands and empathizes with my speech anxiety and that they all want me to do well is very important for me and I hope it helps some of you as well.