Can introverts be charismatic public speakers?

Reluctant public speakers sometimes tell me that they’ll never be any good at inspiring audiences because they’re not extrovert enough. Actually I don’t believe introversion is the barrier to persuasive public speaking that many believe it to be.

I recently read Susan Cain’s excellent book “Quiet. The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking” which articulated her concerns as an introvert about how to manage in a world that idealises extraversion. One of the major challenges she identifies for herself as an introvert is handling a phobia of public speaking. That said, she describes several known introverts who nonetheless manage to enthral audiences. She herself has become an accomplished speaker as you can see in her TED talk.

It’s true that at first glance introverts don’t seem to have the right temperament to wow crowds. However, introverts have some innate talents which are very useful for public speaking. Moreover, in some circumstances introverts can take on some useful extrovert characteristics without going as far out of their comfort zone as they would imagine.

I’ve witnessed many introverts develop their own style and, with practice over time, grow in confidence as charismatic persuaders of large audiences.

If you are an introvert, the following may well apply to you:


Introvert talents

High reactivity – This is not an exclusively introvert trait, but it is very common among introverts. It means that you have a heightened response to the stimuli around you. At worst, it can seem like overload. At best, it makes you vigilant to cues around you, such as your audience smiling as a particular point resonates with their experience, or individuals frowning as they disagree with a suggestion. Your observations can equip you to make subtle physical adjustments and changes of tack to create better rapport with your audience and win the argument.

Storytelling – Many of the key skills of good storytelling are ones that come naturally to introverts. Building a structure which is resonant, making sensitive choices about what mood or moods to convey, and identifying details which will illuminate the general picture –  these are all activities which can be done in quiet solitude. This gift for meticulous preparation work is as important for storytelling as in-the-moment extrovert attributes, such as a capacity to vary intonation and to be expressive through facial mobility.

Character and conviction – There is something very compelling about listening to someone who addresses an audience from a position of quiet conviction. A speaker displaying the gamut of emotions is not necessarily more effective. What is effective is creating emotion in the audience, and this is achievable for any personality type. An introvert’s sincerity can be a credible ambassador for a bold vision.


Tips for handling the challenges you face as an introvert

De-sensitise yourself to your fear – A tried-and-tested cure for phobias is to gradually expose yourself to the object of your phobia, initially in very dilute form until the real deal holds no terror for you. I recommend inventing reasons at run-of-the-mill meetings to get out of your chair and hold forth standing up, even for 20 seconds to begin with. This is a chance to turn the meeting group into a bona fide audience. A flipchart board is a very handy prop. All you need to do is draw a pie chart or write up one significant word. Yes, it will supply more drama than a three person meeting actually needs. And yes, you will be taking action in circumstances in which solutions could easily be arrived at over an informal chat without this kind of palaver. This is exactly why this is a good opportunity to practice being in the spotlight, albeit very briefly. The risks and stakes are very low. Then, when you have to do a proper presentation it won’t seem so alien and you won’t have as many negative associations to combat.

Make sure you care about what you’re talking about – If you have mixed feelings about the message, identify the aspects you do connect to and foreground those. If you find yourself constantly at odds with your message, this will constantly undermine your presentation. Ultimately, it will undermine you. This is true for all personality types but, according to Cain, introverts seem to suffer even more when their feelings are not congruent with the message. And if an introvert is really mobilised by passion for the topic, they seem to unselfconsciously “borrow” extrovert attributes of expressiveness.

Use breathing techniques to deal with nerves and tension – You will still perhaps find yourself not relishing your turn in the limelight as much as an extrovert. If fact, your physiology may be telling you that you are in mortal danger. Regulate your brain and body through your breath. Allow yourself to gently blow air out through your mouth until your lungs are completely empty, squeeze out the last little bit, and breathe in again when you need to. Do this five times, noticing how each time the out-breath is becoming calmer and longer. If you’re subtle about your mouth position as you blow the air out, you can do this with impunity in any situation – as you set up your laptop or while you listen to the speaker in the slot ahead of you. You won’t attract undue attention; after all, you’re only breathing!