Public speaking for introverts

A few days before I have to talk in front a lot of people I get this queasy feeling in my stomach that won’t go away.

I don’t want to eat. I just want to cancel the talk because I don’t want to deal with the stress.

My hands get sweaty before I get on stage. I feel like I want to run away. I consider asking someone else to get up there instead of me.

And then I walk out there, do what I have to do, and everything works out fine. I’m usually even pretty exhilarated by the time I get done.

By now I’ve done hundreds of these kinds of things. I’ve flown out to pitch Fortune 100 companies. I’ve negotiated with C-level executives who are decades older than me. I’ve done two or three press interviews in one day. I’ve even done live TV (see embedded clip below.)

By now I feel pretty comfortable with (almost) all of it. And I’m getting a lot better at it.

As someone who would rather be reading a book at home than running around on stage, it took me a long time to figure how to give a good presentation despite being nervous. Here are some techniques that I used to get over the public-speaking hump.

You can either spend your life running from it, or face it head on
The first thing to realize is that if you plan on living a successful life you’re going to have to speak in public. And you’re going to have to do it a lot.

And even though you might be tempted to come up with an excuse for why you can’t speak at one particular event, what happens when the next one rolls around? If you’re doing your job right those opportunities are going to keep coming up. Do you really want to run from this all of your life?

You can either go through the anxious process of deliberately trying to avoid something that’s not going to go away. Or you can accept it, and understand that it’s only going to get better if you face up to it. And know that the earlier you start doing it the better, because the longer you wait the more pressure you’ll feel.

Have a script, but don’t write it down
What’s everyone’s greatest fear about public speaking? That they’ll get up on stage and forget what to say. That their mind will go blank, and they’ll stumble and mumble and totally screw the whole thing up.

To compensate for this what most people do is write a script. If you just write it down and memorize it then you won’t have to think on your feet, and your speech will just be muscle memory. It will be like popping a CD into a stereo and pressing play.

I don’t recommend this approach. When you actually write a speech word for word then you end up trying to memorize it down to the letter. This makes your delivery feel stiff and lifeless.

Instead, what I like to do, is put together a Powerpoint with only one or two lines of text per slide. Then I immediately start to practice.

Instead of just reading off the bullet points, I elaborate on each one and fill out the talk off the top of my head. On the first run through the presentation is really rough and broken up because I don’t yet have a good handle on what I want to say.

I run through it again and again over the course of a few hours. I take breaks every few sessions to let things sink in and percolate in my head.

By the end, I’ve basically memorized the presentation. I know what’s on every slide, I know how to transition between slides, and I never have to pause or look ahead to know what I’m going to talk about next. The general flow of the talk is perfectly memorized, but the exact way I talk about each bullet point changes slightly each time (because it’s never written down.)

I like this approach because it gives you the benefit of having your presentation in muscle memory without the stiffness of having memorized it word for word.

The sharing mindset
Whenever I feel uncomfortable about a presentation, it’s invariably because there’s a slide with something on it that I don’t really believe, or that I’m putting in to achieve a certain result or reaction from the audience. Sometimes I get stuck on phrasing things a certain way so that my listeners will think a certain thing.

A lot of times, I’ve found this happens when you practice your presentation for someone else and they say, “Hmm you don’t want to say it like that because insert esoteric misunderstanding that a low percentage of your audience might have.

My advice, especially when you’re starting out, is to ignore things like this. The most important thing is to be comfortable with your material, and to feel like you’re genuinely sharing how you feel about whatever subject it is you’re talking about. The last thing you want to do is to be constantly on edge, trying to make sure that you phrase things in just the right way.

When you let go of the minutiae, and just try to honestly share what you know it lowers the stress level of a talk immensely.

Be careful with Powerpoints
There are some times when you’re going to need a Powerpoint. Sometimes it’s nice as a security blanket so you know you won’t forget what you’re going to talk about. It’s especially useful when you’re giving certain kinds of presentations because it allows your audience to take notes more easily.

But the worst thing you can possibly do is put 10,000 bullet points on each slide in 10 point font and then proceed to read each line word for word.

No one is going to be able to see what’s on the slide. And not only are they not going to see it, it’s going to look so monotonous that they’re not going to care about what you’re saying.

Focus your slides.

Put a little bit of information on each one, and make the font size is huge. That will keep people from squinting, and make them more engaged.

Get the worst one out of the way
I read a Seth Godin blog post a few months ago called Worst one ever. It was really helpful when I was prepping to do that Bloomberg spot last week. Here’s what he says:

“Forty years ago today was my first bout of speaking in front of an audience. (And as I remember it, I approached it as a fight, not an opportunity.) I was distracted, nervous and not particularly well received.

It was an epic fail. Friends and relatives agreed that I wasn’t engaged or engaging, certainly a performance not to be repeated.

I ignored the part about not repeating it, but I definitely learned some valuable lessons about confidence and engagement.

Just about anything worth doing is worth doing better, which means, of course, that (at least at first) there will be failure. That’s not a problem (in the long run), it’s merely a step along the way.

If you’re not willing to get your ‘worst one ever’ out of the way, how will you possibly do better than that?”

The point is that you can’t get better if you don’t have something to improve on. If your first talk is bad, it doesn’t mean that you’re a “bad” speaker. It just means that you have no experience and that you should spend time working on ways to get better.

In the worst case scenario, you got your most awful speaking experience out of the way. Things only get easier afterwards.

The only cure for insecurity is experience
After a blog post full of tips to help you feel better about public speaking, my final advice is that mental tricks to make yourself feel more comfortable only go so far when it comes to public speaking.

Ultimately, the only cure for insecurity is experience. You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable.

And you should start now. Because you’re either going to face up to it and get better at it, or run from it your whole life.

Discuss this post on Hacker News | This post was republished on Lifehacker.


12 Aug 2013, 3:39am | 27 comments

  • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Pretty solid advice. There is no substitute for a great pitch, for an introvert, for believing what you say!

    • DanShipper

      You got it!

  • Ian Lurie

    I have to differ a little bit with this post. I’m a lifetime introvert. But public speaking rarely makes me nervous – I love it.

    That’s the difference between an ‘introvert’ and the completely normal butterflies most people get when speaking in front of a large group.

    The reason I point this out: Even if you’re an “extrovert,” there’s zero shame in being nervous about public speaking.

    The points in here are great!

    • DanShipper

      Yeah, the feedback I’ve gotten definitely points to this being a general human problem, not just one limited to introverts. Thanks for sharing!

  • WirelessPuzzle

    This is all good advice but I don’t see anything related to introversion except one word in the title. I’m not sure what introversion has to do with public speaking, except that introverts probably shouldn’t schedule a bunch of speaking events in a row (but surely they know that).

    Perhaps it should be “Public Speaking for Newbies”? Or perhaps “Public Speaking for Shy People”?

    • DanShipper

      Looking back, that probably would have been the better title. It seems the introvert vs extrovert distinction isn’t particularly useful for public speaking. I’ll keep it in mind for the future :)

  • Inbae Ahn

    “Have a script but don’t write it down”… is my new public speaking mantra. Thanks Dan!

    • DanShipper

      No problem! Hope it works for you

  • http://www.HubSpot.com Dharmesh Shah

    Love, love, love this post. It gets to the heart of what many people go through.

    One of the big lessons I’ve learned (as an unqualified introvert myself) is that your humanness and vulnerability is actually a plus. Don’t let other people tell you how to be more smooth or more “on message”. Be honest — and solve for the audience. If you get that right — nothing else matters.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • DanShipper

      Glad you liked it Darmesh!

  • http://www.jonathoncolman.org/ Jonathon Colman

    Great post, Dan, and as @ianlurie:disqus mentioned, the tips are extremely useful. But I also agree that this is more about shyness or anxiety and less about introversion.

    Here’s a good post by Susan Cain (author of Quiet) about the conflation of the two ideas: http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/2011/07/05/are-you-shy-introverted-both-or-neither-and-why-does-it-matter/

    • DanShipper

      Thanks for sharing Jonathon. I’ve actually been meaning to read that book for a while now. Very interesting article

  • Nabiha Zeeshan

    I can still recall the first time I took to the stage. Excellent post. I strongly agree with your point about removing anything that you’re uncomfortable voicing. You can’t convince others unless you’re convinced yourself.

    This is why my trainers always recommended me to write my own speeches. Even if I wasn’t so good at it first. You can always get help but as Dharmesh points out, your humanness will only make your presentation genuine. Don’t echo someone else’s thoughts when you have your own :)

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  • lrreiche

    To deal with my terror of public speaking, I joined Toastmasters International. Although I never gave any of the programmed speeches, I still gained immeasurably from the organization and the support of the people there.

    The absolutely best advice I ever got concerning public speaking directly addresses my particular fear (being presented as some kind of expert and proving my ignorance): “They (your audience) *want* you to succeed; they’re just glad it’s not them up there!”

    It’s only your insecurities making the relationship seem adversarial. Get out there and get that ‘worst one ever’ out of the way; it’ll only get better!.

    Lance ==)——————
    Itinerant Engineer

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  • Spook SEO

    Great tips Dan! What usualy gets me going is when I know the topic at the back of my head and I believe in the principles that I’m about to talk about.

    In cases when I don’t know anything about the topic (or am vaguely familiar with it) I take the time to learn and convince my self to believe the ideas. Once I have that squared away, I almost always end-up speaking like a ninja (just exaggerating :)).

  • Najee Chua

    Not kidding, this is totally golden.
    I’m scared of crowds. Speaking on stage made me always feel like throwing up.

    Fast forward 8 years later and I’m working as a marketing manager for an events company. I’ve been told that I’ve a ‘gift’ for communication, public speaking. How weird is that?

    Running through your script without writing it down is definitely the way to go. In front of a mirror, too, so you can take note of those little tics that you can maybe tone down.

    Although, you could probably say that even with a lot of experience, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll stop feeling all the jitters. xD I’ve been at this public speaking thing for 3 year already and I STILL get butterflies. And yes: don’t be afraid to make a fool out of yourself. People don’t scrutinize you as much as you think they do.

  • grinblo

    I LOVE this post. I identify with your pre-speaking fears completely. I’m still working through my insecurities before going on stage, and happy to report that each time it get _a little bit_ better. At this point, I’ll take what I can get. Another inspirational post about this for me was written by Whitney Hess. It’s called Speak and Be Seen. She goes through a lot of the same issues but also talks about her own first, ill-received talk. http://whitneyhess.com/blog/2013/03/12/speak-and-be-seen. I think the most important point you (and Whitney) have made is that you have to practice and keep going, despite the horrible physical and mental stress, otherwise it will not get better. Thanks for sharing!

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  • wazoo

    Great post Dan, and some good tips!
    I have to dig a little deeper to “get out there” and talk as you say. I’m a half-introvert, but my only issue with public speaking is that I find I stutter my phrases somewhat. I try not to sweat about it, but I immidiately feel that I’m taken a little less seriously with each one. :(

  • Iain Upton

    Bit late in the day, but I’m impressed Dan. When I was 22 I had not worked any of this out. Bit more experienced now, and I agree with everything you said; I might just add one thing – I memorise my opening line, so that my first word is not ‘umm…’ starting on an unconfident note

  • Sam Diomede

    This was such a great post that I just might refer to it every time I give a presentation. I’ve learned as well that once you can trust your knowledge and think of the throughline of your presentation, riffing becomes easier. The key is confidence in your knowledge and that you have something valuable to share. Thanks for this inspiring post!

  • http://curefearofpublicspeaking.com/ Fear of Public Speaking

    Such words of wisdom. You can either run away from it or embrace it and tackle it. It’s this change in mindset that Tom Woods’ speaks about in his blog over at Fear of Public Speaking. It is well worth reading if this post resonated with you. Welcome done Dan!

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