An Introvert’s Guide to Public Speaking

02 Jun 2022

When I was researching and writing ‘A Quiet Education’ a few years ago, there was a common theme from all the introverted teachers, leaders and young people I interviewed: a deep aversion to public speaking.

Perhaps ‘aversion’ is the wrong word, it was almost as if introverts felt that they were excluded in some way from the art of public speaking.

For teachers, that often was related to a reluctance to deliver some kind of CPD in the school setting, or often turning down opportunities to share their thinking at a conference. “It just isn’t me”, was a common response.

I wrote about this at length in the book, but would like to use this blog to reinforce it: introverts often make absolutely terrific public speakers. The notion that only extroverts can give a talk is, in my humble opinion, completely wrong.

Full confession: I am fully fledged introvert so clearly I am outrageously biased. I also, however, feel very keenly that introverted teachers and the hidden treasures of the school setting and are completely under utilised. Their curiosity and deep thinking make them utterly valuable individuals who should be leading on CPD and sharing their work with others.

Preparation

Let’s consider first why introverts can make superb speakers. The etymology of introvert is from the Latin intro, to the inside, and vertere, to turn. Now, what are the prerequisites for a successful talk: the capacity to think deeply about the content, to obsess about it, to continually refine it in order for it to be impactful for an audience. In short: to turn inwards, in order to share effectively outwards.

That inclination to turn in, and to contemplate in detail, is an introvert’s superpower when it comes to delivering CPD or a talk.

It means that nothing is superficial, nothing is wasted – instead it leads to something that is hugely layered and has the potential to be profoundly useful for an audience. Any talk or CPD I have ever done has been the result of hours of thinking and obsessing, running over it again and again (usually in the company of my bemused small children early in the morning!).

There is never any argument about introverts being effective writers, and thinking about delivering CPD or a talk is exactly the same process. Deep thought, translated into deep impact.

Ok, I hear the introverted reader cry, I can spend hours reflecting on what I am going to say – but how do I deliver it?

Delivery

Ten years ago, I was twenty-six and making an absolutely hash of being an Assistant headteacher in London. There was, however, one aspect of my role that I didn’t fail miserably on: delivering assemblies.

Each member of the leadership team awaited the weekly assembly rota with trepidation: five consecutive mornings of a thirty-minute talk to 200 students each time.

The night before my first assembly I think I slept for approximately five minutes. When it started however, something struck: it was, in fact, a fairly introverted process. It doesn’t involve any ‘unscripted’ conversation, you don’t need to ‘work’ a room, it is just you. And that ‘you’ is a larger version, a performer – something that is actually fairly liberating. Afterwards I could find a room to hide in, recharge and not have to have any small talk. Excellent news.

I have been fortunate enough to have many more opportunities to engage in delivering CPD and public speaking. I am by absolutely no means an expert, but I have applied that introverted conscientiousness in an attempt to deepen an understanding of this skill. And it is a ‘skill’ – something that we can practise, hone and refine.

Here are some top ‘tips’ to the performance side of things.

1. Be authentic. Anything you read on public speaking has this at its heart: authenticity. Sounds delightful, but what does it actually mean? The genuine authentic me is fairly boring – but the authentic talk version is just a larger, more animated version. The core individual nature is the same. Whoever you are, your quirks, your sense of humour, your fascination with certain things – bring it to a talk or CPD event you do. The connection you make with people will be much stronger if you reveal these parts of yourself. Humour can be such a powerful way to achieve this.
2. Speak (and move) slowly. I have been rambling on about this for years, so I won’t repeat all the points in this post on slow talking. Managing the audiences’ attention is a major focus of all talks and CPD, and the pace and nature of how we talk is so important in this regard. It is much more important than the glossy PowerPoint we design. More often than not I have been rejecting the PowerPoint recently, finding it just serves to confuse a talk or CPD – with heads bouncing back between you and the screen and concentration lost. Barack Obama is the master of the slow talk (and also an introvert!): watch any speech he has ever delivered and you will see how he uses pace and tone hugely effectively. What has worked best for me is managing my breathing when I am talking, slowing that down has the impact of slowing the words down.
3. Focus on your supporters. Much like the classroom, speaking to a group of adults reveals a multitude of facial expressions. Some make absolutely no attempt to disguise their cynicism or dislike about what you are saying. Such is human nature, we are never going to please everyone. But a large number are wonderful and their facial expressions are willing us on: they smile, they nod, they encourage. While you talk, keep coming back to them – they are the fuel we need to give us confidence and persevere.
4. Be a giver not a taker. The best speakers or CPD I have ever seen aren’t trying to get something from an audience, they are there in the genuine spirit of sharing. I have fallen into the seductive ‘selling’ allure many times: rambling on about books I have written or podcasts that I wanted people to listen to. The reality is that people tend to resent it – and if they are interested in what you are saying they will make the individual decision to look into you afterwards. Instead, use the CPD or talk to give, to channel all that passion and interest in the spirit of collaboration and learning. Introverts often tend to hate self-promotion anyway, so this is another superpower we can tap into. A phrase I often remind myself when the nerves kick in is, ‘it’s not about me’: it is about the audience and what you want them to take away.
5. Tell stories. I know as an English teacher I am biased with this, but believe that stories supercharge any talk or CPD we give. The attention in the room changes immediately when you launch into an anecdote or a story. Any talk I have ever given on applying more of a slow philosophy begins with Aesop’s fable ‘the tortoise and the hare’, and it becomes the hook which the rest of the talk relies on. People love stories and remember them – just look at our evolutionary ancestors, gathered round fires and sharing stories.

All these ‘tips’ fall into insignificance if we don’t apply a certain mindset. That mindset has to be that no matter what our personality type is, we have something profoundly useful to share with others. For those of us who are introverts, let’s celebrate our capacity to think deeply and refuse to fall into the trap that public speaking is for extroverts.

Simon Sinek is the author of the excellent book ‘Start with Why’, and a self-confessed super introvert. If you are not convinced by my rambling in this post about your potential to inspire and share your ideas, watch this clip ‘How to Leverage Being an Introvert.’

Thank you for reading.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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