We introverts can be good communicators too

introvertAbout 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

4 thoughts on “We introverts can be good communicators too

  1. leapfrogmark

    I’m an introvert, and the thought of having to work a room full of people brings me out in a sweat every time. I’m remedial in small-talk and still am seriously shy at social events. But, put me in front of an audience to talk about a subject I ‘own’, and I’m in my element. That’s learned behaviour for me rather than being natural. I learned it by first imagining I was someone else when faced with having to make a presentation – a colleague taught me how. Weirdly, when she was presenting, she always took on the persona of Jackie Kennedy (even more weird as this was the late 80s) and would approach an event thinking: ‘What would Jackie say?’ Without ever channelling the late Jackie O, I learned from my mentor and had my own series of characters-who-spoke-in-public, all a little bit more outgoing than me.

    Like Nat, after a while, the ‘act’ became real – to the extent I now lecture at a university as well as doing the comms stuff (including training others in face to face comms). The key for me was getting on top of my subject. That gave me the confidence to connect – even if I knew I was bright red from my neckline to hairline (and probably above that). After that, it was learning a few connection tactics – mirroring my audiences, working on my storytelling – the usual stuff. As a result, I do a good impersonation of an extrovert – at least until the small talk starts. What few realise, is just how sticky the back of my shirt still gets.

    1. creativecommunicator Post author

      Mark, that’s really interesting and I can certainly identify with what you say about realness and passion. It’s just what Susan Cain says in her book about why she can deliver TED talks and lectures, depsite being a raging introvert. It’s the subject matter that gets her through it. I feel the same way. If I’m totally into the subject, I can stand and deliver, so to speak, but it’s not a natural state for me. I love all that psychology stuff about ‘being in flow’ and ‘finding ones element’. Fascinating. Thanks for the comment. Dave

  2. stuffnatsays

    As a fellow introvert, communication professional and psychology graduate, I’d just like to point out a few things from your post. Firstly, I too have read Susan Cain’s book and I think it’s great – from the introvert perspective – but I think the main misconception about introverts is that we attribute things like shyness, low self-esteem and fear of public speaking as something innate that can’t be changed because we’re introverted. I have to disagree with this, especially as a communication professional. I believe communication skills, such as public speaking, can be taught. I use to be a shy, nervous wreck before speaking but I had to do so many presentations at work that I became desensitized to the ‘social pressure’ and was able to step into ‘extroverted shoes’ for the time being. This doesn’t mean that my ‘introverted’ physiology didn’t give my personality away. I still sweat, go bright read and feel my body trembling. I just block it out and focus on my external environment. A great counter argument to Susan Cain is Amy Cuddy’s ‘fake it til you become it’. I’d suggest watching this on Ted.com, if only just for a little more perspective but to also see that things like confidence in public speaking can be learned. If anything, it just comes more naturally to extroverted people.

  3. Di Burton

    Lovely piece Dave Di the extrovert.

    Di Burton FCIPR FCIPD, Managing Director, Cicada Communications Limited

    Tel: 01423 567111 Mob: 07768 517219 http://www.cicada-comms.com

    Follow me on twitter @DiCicada

    CIPR PRide award winners for more than a decade


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