Speaking as an Introvert

I’m at the end of a wonderful few days in Seattle, which included speaking to a welcoming and attentive group of Seattle Public School parents and others interested in better understanding the needs of gifted children. Does the thought of speaking about your writing excite you? Or terrify you? As an introvert, I have often wondered why I enjoy giving public talks. Yes, I get nervous, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Malcolm Gladwell (author of, among other books, Blink and Outliers) offers one answer. In a video interview with the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor, Gladwell talks of how he has “consciously chosen to do more speaking” because he finds it “interesting and challenging.” Be sure to find time to watch the six-minute interview in which he explains that public speaking “has nothing to do with extroversion. It’s a performance, and many performers are hugely introverted.”

Morgen Jahnke ponders in her blog Spectatrix: The Passionate Introvert “how most introverts are playing a role in some fashion or another. At work, and in social settings, we are often called upon to behave in a way contrary to our true nature.” She writes:

“For some reason, when I was younger I felt it necessary to repeatedly put myself into situations that were extremely stressful for me. Although I dreaded performing in front of others, that didn’t stop me from taking piano lessons, singing lessons, dance lessons, playing in a band, or auditioning for plays and musicals. At my most perverse, I joined the high school debate team (after my first debate, one of our opponents even asked petulantly, ‘Isn’t she supposed to say something?’).

“I think my motivation for doing all this was a combination of various factors: a misguided belief that suffering would make me a better person; a desperate need to express myself (which would later find a much better outlet in writing); and at times, actual enjoyment, mingled with terror, of participating in the activity in question. My forays into high school drama productions were prompted by a mixture of all three, and were aided by my sheer and utter ignorance of how crippling extreme self-consciousness is for an aspiring actor or actress.”

Her experience is probably all too common. Young introverts who force themselves into the public arena (or are forced, perhaps with good intentions, by adults) so as to “be more extroverted” are often met with misunderstanding and lack of proper guidance. They then go through their lives continuing to think they are forever barred from what we typically think of as “extroverted” experiences, skill, and careers.

However, the right kind of practice and training in theater arts, the kind that respects innate introverted and gifted traits and understands how introverts approach public performance, can be immensely helpful for introverted young people, not only in public speaking settings later on (high school and college, job interviews), but also in their day to day interactions. Our son benefited greatly from a local theater program, First Stage Academy, that, in addition to training children who are serious about pursuing professional acting careers (one of their students is now in the acting program at Juilliard), also, and perhaps more importantly, teaches “life skills through stage skills” to all of its students, regardless of whether they perform for money or applause.

What is your experience with public speaking? If you are an introvert and find speaking in public terrifying, might it help to think of it as a performance?

(Note: Parts of this post were first published on Everyday Intensity.)

1 thought on “Speaking as an Introvert

  1. Hi Lisa,

    The introversion only strikes when I have to stand in front of a group of people. In smaller groups it is no problem at all.

    But I didn’t let it stop me. Years back I took up the challenge of presenting a bird of prey show with microphone in front of a large audience. My voice was shaking and my heart tried to get out through my throat… but I did it anyway. Once I realized that the spectators hardly had any knowledge about what I was telling them, my nerves calmed down.

    So thinking of it as a performance might help, but also making sure you know a lot about what you are telling your audience, big or small.

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