I’ve been challenging myself to do a lot more public speaking over the past few years. In 2012, I spoke at 11 events, nearly doubling my previous annual total. That’s a lot of storytelling, Q&A, improvising, and (hopefully) learning. I’ve been speaking at technical conferences since 2006, and over the past six years I’ve learned a lot by watching others and being critical of my own work.
This made me think about putting together a post on how just about anyone can become a great public speaker. I was going to call it something pithy like How to Give Good PowerPoint. It would be stocked with platitudes on bullet points, sentiments on stock photography, and truths on storytelling.
Beyond the great ideas and tactics they shared, I was inspired by how they mixed their strategies on public speaking with honest, personal storytelling about their approaches and ambitions. So rather than just creating a tired list of bullet points already covered elsewhere, I wanted to aspire to their level of excellence and authenticity.
So I’m going to pivot off of something that Ross mentioned in his post: he’s an introvert.
I’m Outing Myself as an Introvert
I’m an introvert, too. If you don’t know me well (or if you only know me online), then you probably wouldn’t guess that I’m introverted. Not to mention shy and socially anxious. That’s because I go to great lengths to hide these traits. I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to coming up with strategies and tricks to prevent most people from detecting my inner nature. I collect them like some folks collect baseball cards and trade them with other introverts and shy people the way some folks trade coupons.
Why go to all that trouble? Well, I used to be deeply ashamed of my introversion and shyness. I used to wonder why I felt so different than how other people seemed to feel; like I was The Other. I couldn’t figure out why interactions with people were so hard and so draining. I absolutely dreaded making small talk.
At one point in the distant past, I had so much difficulty with personal encounters that even calling a restaurant for take-out or talking to the teller at a bank (remember when we had tellers? Ha, not to mention when we had banks?) were challenges that required focus, preparation time, and even recovery afterward.
I felt broken, like something was missing on the inside… the Tin Man without his Heart. It wasn’t “just a Geek Thing” — I know plenty of geeks and technically-oriented people who aren’t shy or introverted whatsoever. So it’s best not to confuse the two concepts by thinking that they’re one and the same. Just because you’re nerdy doesn’t mean that you’re shy!
But this sort of conflation is part of the problem that shy people and introverts experience when they speak at technical conferences.
I Didn’t “Get Better” — I Hacked Myself
If you saw me present at the Content Strategy Forum, MozCon, SMX, ad:Tech, or Social Media Club (where I swore up a storm on the stage — once again, my apologies to Doris Kearns Goodwin), or any of the other conferences or meetups that I spoke at in 2012, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that I’m either introverted or shy.
Hopefully, you saw someone who looked relatively confident and secure. Someone who was delivering new content and ideas that you’d never heard of before. Someone who got you excited about trying some new things or seeing an old concept from a new point of view. Someone who was focused on you, your learning, and your needs.
But whenever I got off-stage, the introversion and shyness would take over again. For example, at MozCon, I saw several folks I “knew” online — Geraldine DeRuiter, Todd Friesen, Brittan Bright, and Tom Critchlow to name a few — but had never actually met off-line, in real life. I was petrified by the thought of going up to them and saying “I love your writing” or “Thank you for inspiring me this year” or even just a cool-sounding “Hey” with a gentlemanly nod.
And so I barely spoke with them at all. Which is a pretty big loss — I mark it down as a failure in my Book of Life.
But get me up on a stage, and I have no problem telling you secrets, making jokes about myself, or referencing nerdy things like Voltron or My Triumphs, My Mistakes by Gaius Baltar. When I present, I’m a pretty jovial fellow, able to respond to changes and get the audience on my side. They laugh at my jokes, forgive my attempts to channel Bill Lumbergh, and (hopefully) take away new insights and perspectives that they didn’t have before.
That’s quite a contrast between my on-stage and off-stage personas — pretty weird, huh? I used to think so, too. That is, until I figured out what was happening and learned to make it work for me both on-stage and off. Sure, I don’t succeed all the time (as illustrated above), but I generally get along well enough to make you think that I’m extroverted and not shy or anxious at all.
How do I do that? I didn’t “get better” — introversion isn’t a condition from which one can recover, no more than gravity is a condition from which the planet recovers — but I figured out a few ways that I could make my introversion work for me, so that being an introvert became its own source of strength. As for my shyness, it’s something that I still struggle with, but I’m constantly learning ways to challenge myself to overcome my fears. And you can you.
I’m not the only one. Such bright minds as Lisa Barone, Ian Lurie, Mike Arnesen, Kate Matsudaira, Michelle Lowery, and Todd Malicoat have commented on their introversion in the past. Mike pointed me to resources like The Plight of the Introvert and On Being an Introvert at Big Conferences, both of which helped me understand that I wasn’t alone out there — there were others like me.
So if you’re an introvert and/or consider yourself to be shy, don’t give up hope. You’re not alone. And you can learn how to hack yourself (and your audience!) to become a better public speaker.
Introversion ≠ Shyness
First things first: not many people understand this, but there’s a big difference between being introverted and being shy. Thinking that these two concepts are the same is a lot like thinking that Elvis and The Beatles are the same because, you know, MUSIC. But in reality, they’re not even in the same spectrum; they’re two completely independent concepts.
I personally equate shyness with concepts like fear, anxiety, sensitivity, risk-aversion, and personal/emotional zones of discomfort whereas introversion involves one’s preferences for processing, producing, and expending energy. I’m not the only one who thinks this way: psychologists, researchers, and even an author of a book all about introversion all warn against conflating these two terms to mean the same thing.
To do so means that you risk misunderstanding people who experience one or both of these conditions. You’ll be perceiving them from the wrong perspective, creating expectations of them that they cannot fulfill. Worse yet, if you’re shy or introverted yourself and confuse the two, you’ll either under-prepare for your conference talk or over-prepare for the wrong things. Both of which leave your audience in the lurch.
Here’s how you can avoid that by understanding these facets of your character and turning them into strengths.
Acknowledge Your Fear
If you’re shy, a big key to success is getting comfortable and intimate with your fears. Learn what they are and identify them by name. Talk about them out loud, even if it’s only to yourself. Sometimes putting a label on the things that cause you anxiety is the best, fastest way to start gaining some control over the things that prevent you from speaking in public. Once you know what’s making you uncomfortable, then you can start taking productive action toward overcoming that fear… or at least minimizing it so that it’s no longer a factor in your public speaking.
I can’t cover every fear that might cause you to be shy or anxious in this one post, but let’s tackle a common one for technical speakers: you might be worried (as I often am) that someone’s going to disagree with you or call you out when you get some fact or figure wrong. Maybe you think that someone’s going to stand up and point a long, bony finger at you while crying out “J’ACCUSE!”
Guess what? That happened to me! I made a technical mistake on stage at a flagship conference in my industry. I was scared, hurt, and felt foolish at the time, but in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad a thing at all because it led to a “teachable moment” for the attendees as well as a follow-up response from the industry.
The way I overcame (and continue to overcome) this fear is to dispel the tension by being direct and upfront about your assumptions, your sources, and how/why you’re drawing conclusions from a given data set. Being open and accountable is like a warm blanket that can comfort you when you’re stressed out.
Why? Because you don’t have to make anything up. But the more you leave people in the dark, the more you hide your influences and sources, the more it looks like you’re scrambling, then the more it seems like you have something to hide.
Instead, just show your work — intellectual curiosity, honesty, and having an open mind for new information is the hallmark of great scientists and speakers alike. Cite your sources and link to them in your slides. Offer your slides for download so that they can be inspected later.
If someone disagrees with you, that’s actually great for your audience (and for you), because there’s an opportunity for knowledge exchange and real, on-the-fly learning. It’s fun for the audience to watch and gives them additional interpretations of the subject of your talk that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
As a speaker, you can keep this sort of disagreement positive and useful for your audience with a few simple tactics:
- Be accountable. Accept that you’re going to make a mistake at some point and be honest about what you get wrong. I’ve made a number of factual errors when I’ve spoken in the past and have sometimes been called out on them. In these cases, I think it’s best to admit your fault and then follow-up with updated information afterwards. You can do this through direct engagement with attendees in-person as well as via Twitter, Slideshare, your personal site, etc. Obviously, you should always strive to do your best, but remember that a simple mistake doesn’t ruin an entire presentation — so don’t let it fluster you.
- Save the drama for your mama. If someone disagrees with you while you’re on-stage, remember that it’s not personal — and it doesn’t have to escalate into anything more than a discussion about the facts and how your interpretation of them might vary from someone else’s. Your job as a speaker is to defuse the situation of any tension so that you can best guide the conversation back toward utility and learning. Laughing at yourself when you’re on-stage and showing authentic humbleness and humility before a crowd is a great way of taking ego out of the situation. I’ve done this before and it’s always lot of fun. You can lighten the mood and turn the talk back around to discovering the right answer or interpretation that meets your audience’s needs. I’ve seen Adam Audette do this in the past with great aplomb.
- Crowd-source your answers. Never be afraid to turn from speaker into facilitator and ask your audience for their ideas. I did this during MozCon last July when I got a question about tools for tracking the amount of time that you spend on e-mail versus time spent on “real work”. I didn’t have an answer, but someone in the crowd did and I helped them gain attention for it. This doesn’t make you look stupid; rather, you look like a confident facilitator focused on helping people get the most out of the event.
- Know when you can’t win (and if you’re smart, don’t even try). If an audience member is purposefully being a jerk to you when you’re speaking and won’t relent even when you make an honest attempt at answering their question, encourage them to take the conversation off-line so that you can get back to providing value for the rest of the audience. After all, your job when you’re speaking is to provide the most value for the most amount of people; not to win stupid arguments or even to look “smart”. So if someone’s picking a fight with you, don’t take the bait — be the better person by turning the other cheek and offering to talk with them in person afterward. Then follow up in a quieter location where drama wins them no points. Publish and share the results and learnings afterward to provide transparency.
On that last point, the bottom line is that your initial response should be toward decency and graciousness when you’re on-stage (or in the audience, for that matter), even when you know that you’re absolutely 100% correct about something being disputed. Don’t hesitate to make your point, but seek to understand first before you attack. Otherwise, it’s best to be humble and let your ego go whether you’re on-stage or in the audience.
Remember that snark may rule on the Internet, but no one likes to see anyone else get humiliated in real life.
There’s Safety in Structure
Another common occurrence for shy people is being anxious about how to start conversations. I know this is something that I have trouble with occasionally, sometimes even when I know people relatively well. But I find that it becomes especially difficult in a crowded room filled with folks whom I’ve never met. I get worried about saying the wrong thing and it just sort of locks me up, both mentally and physically.
Luckily, there’s a secret weapon that can really help out here, and it’s not alcohol; It’s structure. It won’t work for everyone, depending on what drives your anxieties, but it’s done wonders for me and I know it can work for others, too.
I have difficulty getting to know people without a structure in place, some sort of system that provides me with a sort of template to facilitate a relationship. A structure gives you clues and hints as to what to say, which takes a lot of the guesswork and fear out of the equation.
For example, my anxieties never bother me at work or when I consult because there’s a pre-established system for me to collaborate with others on shared tasks. Meeting people in a situation like that is a cinch because the structure gives you a reason to talk with other people; you don’t have to guess nearly as much — you just need to focus on the task at hand. Generally you start conversations like this: “Hi, I’m your content strategist/inbound marketer – what can I do for you?” See how easy that is?
In this case, the conversation is very transaction-focused, meaning that you’re trading knowledge and bits of information back and forth (in a technical setting, this is generally how-to information and undocumented “tribal knowledge”) so that everyone can succeed in the project you’re working on. It involves asking questions, sharing your skills or domain expertise, and generally being a good colleague first before you get to know your work partner(s) as actual human beings.
You might worry that there’s going to be stuff that you don’t understand or know how to do and you might experience anxiety about expressing your lack of knowledge in some areas. But the best way to get over that fear is to be direct, honest, and upfront whenever you can.
Here’s a little something I know from personal experience: no one’s going to think less of you for not knowing something than they will if you pretend to know something you don’t.
The more you make use of them, the more you’ll come to realize that these structures for human interaction already exist almost anywhere there’s a shared experience or task to be performed. For example, if you volunteer at a food bank, there’s a structure for that. If you join a running group, there’s a structure for that, too. If you interview for a job, there’s quite a bit of structure there as well (ha, maybe too much!).
Once you realize that you’re in the presence of structures like these, you can focus on being productive: learning what you need to do to be effective and then actually being effective in the work or effort or whatever the task ends up being. And the magical part is that just by building a shared experience with someone (or a group of someones), you’ll notice that your anxiety melts away to a large degree. Because working directly with people makes them familiars instead of strangers. And then you can interact with them much more easily in the future.
You can create structures at conferences, too. For example, when I go to the larger mega-conferences (think SMX Advanced, eTail, or ad:Tech), I try to structure my time and activities as much as possible so as to avoid large groups of unknown people.
One way to do this is by moderating panels or Q&A sessions – that keeps me busy with a dedicated task. Instead of facing a crowd of a thousand people, you’re using dealing with just a producer, IT staff member, or a technical director. This is how I got to know Michelle Robbins at SMX, where we struck up a fun conversation about Battlestar Galactica because she had a BSG sticker on her laptop. See how the structure led to a shared experience, which led to an easy, engaging conversation?
Another good way to take advantage of the structure for an event is to be the facilitator at a “Birds-of-a-Feather” lunch table about some technical subject (this is a great tactic for SMX and eTail, in particular). While it helps to have technical knowledge in the area being covered by the table, your real job as a facilitator is to get other people talking, not to show off your expertise. This is like a shy person’s dream job — let everyone else fill up the conversational space!
Some conferences (the IA Summit is famous for this), offer “mentors” for new speakers who can coach them through the event and guide them on how to succeed as a speaker — this gives you a friendly face that you’ll recognize at the event because you’ve been working with them to put together your presentation. It can also help you alleviate your fears and anxiety about being prepared for the event and its audience.
Many conference organizers set up mini-events (tours, outdoor activities, dinners, pub crawls, etc.) outside of the event itself that can help you break the ice and build shared experiences with your other conference-goers. Challenge yourself to take advantage of these opportunities! They’re a great way to meet people and break the ice by taking advantage of built-in structures.
If You Don’t Plan to Succeed, You’re Planning to Fail
Getting control over your fears is essential for shy people. But what if you’re introverted? You’ll quickly discover that big conferences and other public events take a toll on your energy.
At a typical conference, your schedule goes something like this: there’s the early morning registration, then breakfast (if you’re lucky — and don’t hold out hope for “second breakfast“), then a keynote, then sessions, then lunch, then more sessions, then dinner with attendees, then usually an event at night that goes on for hours. You go to sleep late (and, perhaps, drunk) and then wake up early the next day and do the same thing all over again. the only thing that keeps you going is constant slugs of weak coffee.
And that’s just for the attendees. If you’re a speaker, you’ll need to, you know, SPEAK at some point. And you’ll need to be high-energy, engaging with your audience and being ready for them to ask you anything. You’ll need to project confidence and expertise as well as be intuitive and receptive to your audience’s energy and needs.
How is an introvert supposed to deal with all of that energy expenditure? Conferences, like many other parts of our lives, seem to be designed for the extroverted, who thrive on all of this public activity, open exposure, and talk, talk, talk, talk, TALK. What should introverts do to survive an event like this?
It’s simple, really: plan for your exhaustion in advance. Create blocks of quiet, disconnected personal time during which you re-charge yourself. Sure, you won’t be able to build up the same level of energy as you would by, say, spending the weekend reading, or hiking with your dog, or catching up on a season’s worth of Downton Abbey on Netflix, but you’ll recover enough of your energy to make it through the event.
Here are some simple ways for introverts to conserve their energy at conferences and other events:
- Conserve energy in advance. Rest up the week before the conference, eat healthy, get exercise, and get your alone time. The strong need for alone time may not be understood by your extroverted friends and colleagues (who will likely be pinging you with their excitement about the approaching event), but stand your ground. If you want to actually enjoy the event, you need to be fully energized when you start.
- Early to bed. Assuming you’re attending a multi-day event (esp. one that requires travel away from home), you’ll experience constant tugging to stay out late and lose out on sleep. Try not to give in to those urges, even if it means missing out on something. Or, if you choose to stay out late, then try to do it on a night where you don’t need to be anywhere first thing the next morning. As an introvert, your sleep-time is likely the only time that you have to fully recharge during the event and you should give it up only with great caution.
- Early to rise. Assuming you can get to sleep early, getting up early is the best chance that you’ll have to avoid the throngs of fellow conference-goers. You can treat yourself to a quiet coffee, reading a newspaper or blogs, or if you’re like me (and I am) a walk around some new city you’ve never experienced before. Getting up and ready early can help reduce your anxieties as well as add to your store of energy for a busy day of people, people, people.
- Exercise. While it might not seem intuitive to a lot of folks, exercise is one of the best, most productive ways to build up your energy. A light run, bike ride, city hike, or even climbing stairs in your hotel is a great way to balance your mind and focus your thoughts on your goals for the day. Based on her tweets, I think that Joanna Lord seems to be particularly good at this when she’s traveling. I have a goal to become just as adept.
- Create goals. Document a small handful of accomplishments that you want to succeed at during the day. Making a list and checking things off when you get to them help you keep track of your energy output during the day and making sure that you’re expending your social energy on the things that matter most. So if you want to shake Scoble’s hand after his keynote, get some coffee with Margot Bloomstein, talk authorship with AJ Kohn and Rick DeJarnette, catch a drink with Dan Klyn, or ask Relly Annett-Baker exactly how one should pronounce her first name, you’ll do those things first before you lose all your energy.
- Stay in balance. There are a lot of bad temptations at conferences and it’s all too easy to overdose on any of them: coffee, alcohol, coffee, bad food, coffee, sweets, coffee, more alcohol, and yes, EVEN MOAR COFFEE. Falling out of your regular patterns will likely have a negative impact on your energy reserves and willingness to engage with new/more people. So don’t give in to them and try to keep to your regular schedules and diet as much as you can. You don’t need to be draconian about what you eat or drink — part of the fun of traveling to an event is the opportunity to take in the local culture, food, and drink. Just try to stay in the norms of what you would usually do without going off the deep end. Your diet will always have an effect on your personal/social energy.
- Go AWOL. Take a look at the goals you put together for the day. This may be hard to accept, but if they truly represent your priorities then it’s perfectly fine to miss out on other things that don’t matter as much. If you’ve met the people you wanted to meet, seen the sessions that you needed to see, and had the conversations that you needed to have, then it’s okay to excuse yourself for the day and just step out. I think of it as “taking French Leave“. But it’s important to plan this sort of time-out period in advance so that you can make sure that you’re not missing something that you need to attend, like a quickly arranged one-off meeting with a services provider to get a demo of their product. Speaking of which…
- Avoid the expo floor. Sorry for saying this, events organizers, but your expo floors are like the Ninth Circle of Hell for us introverts. They’re made up of narrow corridors with people shouting your name at you, scanning your badge, signing you up for email you don’t want, asking invasive questions, and throwing cheap trinkets at you… but they’re necessary evils because those vendors and service providers pay for the conference and make it more affordable for the regular attendees. And if you’re a speaker who gets your travel and lodging paid for or perhaps an honorarium, guess where those funds come from? But instead of wandering around the expo floor, hack it to your advantage: most conferences publish a list of their sponsors and exhibitors before the show — this makes it easy for you to contact those vendors and service providers in advance, set up private meetings, and get your questions answered and needs met without losing excess energy within the expo itself.
- Be direct. One of the most powerful things an introvert can do for an extrovert who won’t leave them alone is also the simplest: just tell them that you’re an introvert. Be transparent and direct about who you are and what your needs are in terms of quiet or alone time. If you’re generous, kind, and patient about the way you tell them, then they’ll most likely comply with your wishes. This is a new trick for me, but it’s worked remarkably well and it feels more intellectually honest and forthright than making up an excuse. You see, I used to be the guy at conferences who was always “just about to come down with a cold, so you’d better stand back.” But now I’m the guy who tells the truth about just needing a half-hour to go for a walk right now and I’ll catch up with you later. Which one do you respect more?
See any common themes here? A clear one is that if you don’t make time for yourself at an event, no one else will. So do yourself a favor and make the time. You’ll enjoy the event more, get more out of it, and reduce your recovery time once you’re back home.
There’s Nothing Wrong With You
If you’re extroverted, you might be reading this and come away thinking that introverts must hate you. And that’s simply not true (well, most of the time). Likewise, if you’re not shy, you might be thinking that shy people are silly to focus on all these strange social fears. As in all human relations, it’s hard to step outside of yourself to see life from someone else’s vantage point.
So if you can’t do that, then turn your gaze inward. Because when you look into your heart, you’ll see that everyone’s afraid of something… But the corresponding truth is that we all have the capacity to overcome our fears, to make the changes that enable us to meet our goals. And your goal shouldn’t be perfection (which is unattainable, mostly because it doesn’t exist) — instead, your goal should be to constantly evolve your skills and strengths so that you, as an introvert, can survive in this extroverted world.
So if you’re shy or introverted and you think that there’s something wrong with you — something broken that you just can’t seem to fix — you’re wrong. There’s nothing wrong with you at all. You are perfect, just as you are, and you’re ready to work your way up to the stage.
With enough hard work and focus, you can be just as good at public speaking as almost anyone you admire at any conference. You have the capacity to influence others with your knowledge, inspire an audience to learn a new subject, and engage with as many new people as you need.
Now that you know how to hack yourself, your audience, and your conferences so as to turn your shyness and introversion into strengths for public speaking, then you’ve also become aware of a final truth. It’s a deeper truth that was, perhaps, previously hidden from your view.
Some of your favorite conference speakers are introverts. Some of presenters that you like the most are very shy in public. Some of them may even be both, like me… and we don’t let it stop us. Rather, these very traits are the ones that power us forward.
Don’t let them stop you, either. Use them as the basis for your strength instead seeing them as a series of barriers that get in your way. Because it’s not enough to only exist online, to hide from your fears, to let a low state of social energy determine the entire course of your life. When you don’t add your voice to the conversation, everyone loses.
We want to hear your voice. We need you to influence our thinking. And we’re waiting for you to speak up.