About 48 hours before I will start getting butterflies. I wake up in the night and go over it again and again in my head. I lose my appetite and my concentration. On the day itself I will steel myself and rehearse constantly in my head. I’ll try techniques to calm my breathing and half-heartedly attempt some positive thinking exercises. I’ll prepare a Plan B in case I get dry-mouthed and lose my thread. There have been times when I’ve completely stopped mid-sentence and forgotten everything, including who I am. As the moment draws near I drink water, breathe deeply and try to look relaxed, even though inside I’m fighting demons. My hands shake, my heart pounds and my stomach tightens. And then I step up to the podium.
For me, this is a typical run up to giving an important presentation. I hate doing them. I hate public speaking. “But you run a successful communications business” I often say to myself. “And you used to be a radio sports commentator, broadcasting to thousands of people. Speaking to large groups should be bread and butter to you. How can you possibly hate presentations?”. I just do. I’ve never liked speaking in public. I’m an introvert you see. I tend to be the person in the meeting who sits in the corner, listens to everyone else having their say and taking it all in. Then I’ll speak at the end. Part of me feels that, as a consultant, I should be doing all the talking and taking control, speaking up in a confident and purposeful tone. But often I just sit there and listen, working it all out in my head. I sometimes see an opportunity to contribute but then I’ll hold back when someone louder or more forceful gets in before me. Next week I’m going to be at the Hay Literary Festival. At the end of the talks and presentations the audience can ask questions. I’m usually dying to put my hand up and ask a question but I never have. Not once. The worst part about running your own business is having to ‘sell’. I’m rubbish at that. If I go to a conference, which is rare, I’ll be the one in the corner pretending to be on the phone in the breaks. I just can’t work a room and approach strangers. I admire those people who can, but it’s not for me. And I’ve never made a cold sales call. Too nervous.
I’ve always considered this introversion to be a fault (and bad for business!), a part of my character I should try to fix. But then I read Susan Cain’s wonderful best-selling book on introverts* and now I feel at peace with myself. Introverts (or ‘high sensitive’ people as Cain describes them) tend to be more observant, more creative, more reflective, more philosophical and more intuitive. They are less likely to take risks, be swayed by material gains and give in to the ‘buzz’. They have greater empathy and are better listeners. They are better at delaying gratification and spotting subtleties. It’s about time these characteristics were valued, says Cain. If we’d had more introverts at the head of governments and banks in the last ten years maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess economically. It’s time to stop trying to turn introverts into extroverts, she says, pointing to the trend for open plan offices and classrooms, and the obsessive celebration of celebrity. We revere great orators, confident speakers and socialites. But for every ‘life and soul of the party’ taking all the plaudits, there’s a quiet group of introverts in the corner having a meaningful conversation. Or the one who turned down the party invite to read a book.
We imply that good business communicators should be able to work a room and excel on a platform. But what about listening, empathy, intuition, creativity? Us quiet types are often better at these things than you loud people. But actually, it takes all sorts. Extroverts and introverts need each other. Selling a message and engaging an audience is not all about craft and performance. Yes we need the leaders but we need the listeners too. There’s a quote in Susan Cain’s book that really resonates with me as a communicator. It’s from a man called Jon Berghoff. Jon is a super-successful, record-breaking salesman … but he’s an introvert. He’s quiet, shy and wouldn’t say boo to a goose. He listens far more than he talks. So what’s the secret of his sales success? “I discovered early on,” he says, “that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling. They buy from me because they feel understood.” And that, ladies and gents, is how you get engagement.
* Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain