Public Speaking for Introverts: Tip #1 (Courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell)


gladwell 225x300 Public Speaking for Introverts: Tip #1 (Courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell)

I have a really complicated relationship to public speaking. The mere prospect of giving a lecture used to make me want to throw up.  Literally. Once during law school, I got so nervous that I had to bolt for the restroom on the way to class. (I can’t believe I’m admitting this to the entire blogosphere.)

But I’ve come a long way since then. In my negotiation training business, I’ve done lots of speaking to some fancy corporate audiences,  like Merrill Lynch and the Dove Soap people and One Hundred Women in Hedge Funds.  The best part is when people tell me afterwards that they negotiated a successful raise or business deal on the strength of something I taught them.  It feels great to be so useful – and that feedback makes all the anticipatory anxiety worth it.

On this blog I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned along the way – and also what I’m about to learn. Because I’m about to embark on my biggest public speaking challenge yet. I’m giving myself a year to work on becoming the best and bravest speaker I can be.  I call it my Year of Speaking Dangerously.

My book, “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” will be published next year, and I want to go out and share the ideas in the book as passionately as I can. I’m curious to see how powerful a speaker I can be — and how zen I can feel onstage — if I really set my mind to it.  It’s like training for an Olympic event, except that instead of protein shakes and weightlifting, I’ll be getting all the public speaking practice and media training that I can.

And I’ll pass on everything I learn to you.

For today, here is Tip #1, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell: Public speaking is not an act of extroversion!

I struggle a lot with the following question:  If public speaking requires brio and dynamism, and if I am naturally soft-spoken, then how can I be an effective speaker – and still be my authentic self?

So I try to look for examples of low-key yet masterful speakers. I’ve always been drawn to Gladwell.  He dazzles sold-out crowds of London theatregoers,  but if you watch him in action, for example here, he’s clearly an introvert, with a very calm and cerebral style. So I think he’s a great role model for people like me (and you? – what kind of speaker are you? I’d love to hear.)

Then I came across this fascinating interview with Gladwell. “Speaking is not an act of extroversion,” he says.  “People think it is. It has nothing to do with extroversion. It’s a performance, and many performers are hugely introverted.”

He goes on to say that when he speaks, he’s simply inhabiting a role, “a storytelling role that I don’t inhabit when I’m not on the stage. I’m not the chatty one at the dinner table or at parties. I don’t actually go to that many parties.”

Gladwell is also known to prepare every single word of his talks beforehandevery single word — even though they appear spontaneous.

I think this is liberating – that it’s OK to pretend a little when you’re up on stage. Who cares if you’re not a natural storyteller?  You can craft your stories beforehand, practice them, and share them — for the brief moment that the spotlight is on you.  Then you can step offstage and go right back to being yourself.

But in the meantime, you had the chance to change a whole audience full of hearts and minds.  And there’s nothing more authentic than that.


How about you? I’d love to hear your public speaking stories.

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  1. Tweets that mention Public Speaking for Introverts: Tip #1 (Courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell) -- on 27.01.2011 at 07:41

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tim Stock, Victoria Gamble. Victoria Gamble said: This is a gr8 tip! RT @timstock: Public Speaking for Introverts: Tip #1 (via Susan Cain) [...]

  2. Linda Stoll on 27.01.2011 at 09:23 (Reply)

    I just discovered your blog via Adam McHugh’s blog … as a confirmed introvert, I look forward to reflecting on your observations and views … in peace and solitude.

  3. Chris Gambill on 27.01.2011 at 20:01 (Reply)

    Thanks for that insight. A lot of people, in my role as a pastor, have a hard time believing I am an introvert when the primary context they see me in is speaking and leading from the platform. I’ve seen this truth in my own life that speaking has nothing to do with being an introvert or extrovert. Speaking in front of a large crowd is easy to me. Interacting with a small group in a social setting is a bit more challenging.

  4. Susan on 28.01.2011 at 15:06 (Reply)

    Thanks, Linda. I look forward to chatting with you here.

  5. Christy on 28.01.2011 at 15:32 (Reply)

    My experiences in public speaking have mainly been in preaching classes, as well as the few bits of college and seminary teaching I have done for internships. I much prefer the teaching style to the preaching style, because I find that teaching is more of a straight-forward conversation, while preaching seems more like a performance, and I don’t like to entertain (except I do like acting…). But I have found that I am a good preacher, and this is because I am a good writer. For one preaching class, we were required to memorize one of our manuscripts and give it without any notes. It was a narrative sermon, so I wrote it like a story and memorized it like a script, and I was told later that it was one of the best sermons most of the students had ever heard. I still didn’t *like* giving it, but exposure to such forms of public speaking have made me less nervous about doing so. I have confidence in my ability to write a good, theologically accurate, interesting sermon or a teaching segment, and that makes it less of an ordeal.

  6. Christy on 28.01.2011 at 15:35 (Reply)

    P.S. I came from Adam McHugh’s blog, too.

  7. Eric on 30.01.2011 at 10:28 (Reply)

    I lecture for a living (I’m a college professor) and though I’m fairly introverted I don’t struggle as much with it as you might think. I’m definitely not as dynamic and engaging as other lecturers but I’ve tried to cultivate my own style and make that work for me. The key for me is preparation. If I’ve prepared adequately and don’t have to wing it, things go well. If I haven’t, my lectures don’t tend to go well.

  8. [...] your fear. Feeling like you’re taking charge may liberate you.  As I’ve explained here, I recently launched my Year of Speaking Dangerously,  in which I will train myself, in the style [...]

  9. [...] if you like, you can give me your feedback. This is something I would never have done prior to my Year of Speaking Dangerously. Invite thousands of people to critique me: are you [...]

  10. Wed., Feb. 16, 2000 | Rejournaling Me on 16.02.2011 at 20:23

    [...] (a book deal before a blog - very cool!) and is going to be spending a year learning to be great at public speaking as an introvert. This entry was posted in Countdown, Moppit and tagged blog recommendation, [...]

  11. Tom on 07.07.2011 at 10:35 (Reply)

    Like you I am an introvert who faces the approach-avoidance conflict with regards to public speaking. I did join Toastmasters in 2000 and belonged for several years which led to me teaching on the college level as an adjunct professor for a few years. Over the past few years I’ve gotten away from my pursuit of being in front of an audience, but I still have the desire to perform and be in front of an audience. I think my biggest struggle has been to be more animated when speaking. I tend to be very reserved and lack emotion which does not translate well in public speaking. I agree with Malcolm Gladwell that it would help to see it as playing a role. I’ve even thought of doing stand-up comedy or acting which I think would allow me to be more uninhibited on stage. When I was speaking, like Gladwell, I would prepare and practice thoroughly and practically memorize every word. As I got more experienced, I still prepared but was not as vigalently. I would love to speak on the topic of introversion as it’s become a passion of mine. I am a clinical social worker by profession so any topic related to human behavior interests me.

  12. [...] latest step in my Year of Speaking Dangerously was to make an appointment with the lovely Gina Barnett, a respected consultant who works with many [...]

  13. Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It | NBC, Inc. Daily Meetings on 30.01.2012 at 16:15

    [...] your fear. Feeling like you’re taking charge may liberate you. As I’ve explained here, I recently launched my Year of Speaking Dangerously, in which I will train myself, in the style [...]

  14. My TED Talk - By Susan Cain on 03.03.2012 at 07:22

    [...] it is, the latest installment in my Year of Speaking Dangerously — a TED talk in Long Beach, California. Hope you [...]

  15. Dan Schilling on 20.03.2012 at 21:12 (Reply)

    Concerning public speaking… I’ve done some public speaking over the years, and here are some observations and suggestions.(By the way, I’m a lifelong introvert, now learning (thanks to Susan’s book) that it’s perfectly normal.
    1)Be prepared-have more material than you need, and assume that you will leave out some chunks,intentionally or otherwise. Preparation also means practice. My point during practice is to identify any problems in organization, and timing.
    2)Tell stories-state your points, but give them life with examples. People perk up when you tell stories, and dry up when there are none.
    3)Slow down, and lower your voice. Which is the exact opposite of what we do when we are nervous.
    4)Speak to the individual. This is concept that came out of my experience at a radio station. I volunteered there, and would do the early morning Sunday shift, reading weather reports, announcements, and playing classical CDs. I thought about how we speak differently to our mothers, girl(or boy)friends, authority figures, children. We also speak differently to individuals, and crowds(audiences). But we shouldn’t—because we’re ALWAYS speaking to an individual. Everyone listens as an individual, not as part of an ‘audience’. So, I spoke to an individual across the radio-one on one, and came across( I believe) as more sincere, comfortable, relaxed. Fix your gaze on one person on each side of the audience, and you can do this.
    That’s all….hope it helps…Dan S.

  16. Giant Comfort » Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It on 27.11.2012 at 13:21

    [...] your fear. Feeling like you’re taking charge may liberate you. As I’ve explained here, I recently launched my Year of Speaking Dangerously, in which I will train myself, in the style [...]

  17. Claire Duffy on 29.01.2013 at 01:23 (Reply)

    I know you know this, but, as a speaker coach I meet many people who say your book has changed their lives. One of them has talked about it here:

    On their behalf, thank you.

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