Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

I’m Jo and I’m an introvert. Here’s my speaking story.

Anxious NerdSo here’s the thing: you  have been working seriously in your chosen profession for over 20 years. You have  some credibility: diplomas, degrees, served on committees, taught, organised, managed…all that stuff. So, you’re pretty comfortable presenting to large or small groups, right? No problem chairing a committee, running a tutorial, or asking questions at meetings in large groups of your peers? Right?

Well, no, actually.

I work in health. I am an anaesthetist. This has been an outstanding career choice for me. I was the girl at school who never said much, studied hard, played sport, sang in the choir, did debating,  was dutiful. They made me school captain, which required a bit of speech making, which I wasn’t terribly happy about, but it seemed to go with the territory. Then the bliss of  university, where,  with 300 others I could sit quietly, absorb and study,  and  do quite well. 

I passed the necessary exams to specialise in a highly competitive field, and I’ve flourished in the workplace. Reliable, quiet, practical, getting it done with minimum fuss – I’ve been the ultimate enabler. I’m the backstage manager, I make the conditions right for the lead players, and I have always loved it.  I’m on their team, and I know I am valued.  

A while back, I moved from the city to the country, and a whole new world of opportunities opened up.  I got the chance  to contribute at a higher level in teaching and policy. In Australia  a non-metropolitan clinician who wants to contribute to reforming the system is on everyone’s guest list. So now my CV includes management experience and committee  chairing, endless trips to Sydney and Canberra and even a quite prestigious moment  at Harvard.

The problem? Presentations. Doesn’t matter to whom:  medical students, junior doctors, peers, bureaucrats…whatever. I tremble, my heart pounds in my ears, my voice goes all shaky. The stress is in proportion to the perceived threat. For a student gig  the nerves are short-lived, while the Ministerial presentation had me sleepless for a week. I even suffer physically in a small meeting (until I get underway, when it usually settles down).

I am analytical enough to know I need to do something about this.  As the ultimate anxious nerd, with a pressing need to speak up, I need all the help I can get. I have made various attempts. Beta blockers (short term solution), reading  some stuff, a “presentation” course at  a drama school  (not bad). Lots of thinking, probably too much thinking, and in all the wrong ways.

Here’s the  trouble: if you feel you have something to say, you must find a way to get those things said, in the most effective way possible. If, by reason of education or experience, you are the natural leader, but this conflicts with your basic personality type, it’s your duty (there’s that word again) to find a way round this conflict. You just have to speak up, and take centre stage. You just have to.

I came across this book which I think summarises my fundamental dilemma: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain*. It  really spoke to me.

So far, here are my solutions. It’s a work in progress.

  1. Do your homework. Know your stuff. And know your audience. You can never be too well prepared. And rather than casting yourself about, worrying, use the “worry time” to go over what you want to say.
  2. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. In other words, accept your final product as the best you could have done on the day.  You will say “umm” and you may forget a bit, and yes, you probably could have done it better. Move on.
  3. Accept your anxiety, and use it to your advantage- I must be honest, I struggle with this, but it does let your audience know you are serious, you take them seriously, and you want to do your best. They may recognise you are nervous. Too bad.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. Rather than avoiding the limelight, take any opportunity to speak or present. Keep moving yourself out of your comfort zone.


* Susan Cain is a former lawyer who quit Wall Street to write a book about how society is geared around extroverts at the expense of introverts and the wider economy. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been on the US bestseller lists since publication, and was published by Viking in the UK  in April 2012.

Watch Susan Cain tell her story here.

Wikipedia says this about the two personality types:

The term introversion here is taken from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. People who prefer extraversion draw energy from action: they tend to act, then reflect, then act further. If they are inactive, their motivation tends to decline. To rebuild their energy, extraverts need breaks from time spent in reflection. Conversely, those who prefer introversion expend energy through action: they prefer to reflect, then act, then reflect again. To rebuild their energy, introverts need quiet time alone, away from activity.

You might think introverts are less suited to speaking than extraverts, but it’s not necessarily so. For one thing, as  The Eloquent Woman says , “You’re less likely to wing it and more likely to bring a thoughtful approach, among other advantages”.

For more advice on mastering nervousness, take a look at  Four secrets to not screwing up under pressure,  Nuke those nerves!  Six steps to great script. Step 5: Rehearse and re-edit

Many thanks to Jo for sharing. How do other introverts handle this?   PLease share in the comments.


One comment on “I’m Jo and I’m an introvert. Here’s my speaking story.

  1. Thanks for sharing, Jo – and for posting, Claire. To me (as an introvert), the light that Susan’s shone on introversion is good all round.

    To answer your question about handling public speaking, I’ve found Amy Cuddy’s advice on preparation helps a lot. Her video and research paper are here:

    On the NY Times site, Susan gives a fascinating account of her own TED preparation:

    And re your tip #4 (practice, practice, practice), Susan and I alike recommend joining Toastmasters. For anyone curious about TM, here’s a professional video that shows how their meetings work:

    Here’s to continued discussion on the values of introverts and extraverts too!

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