Introverts and public speaking

It was interesting that Karen O commented, on my post yesterday, about my being brave to do Toastmasters considering how introverted I am. I had just commented, at the Toastmasters meeting yesterday, that getting up to speak in front of the group is actually easier for me, as an introvert, than interacting with people in the group directly.

I started wondering just how common that perspective is. Looking through web pages about introverts and public speaking quickly confirmed that I’m not alone. As one introvert put it, speaking to an audience of 20 is really a 1:1 interaction – one of me and one audience. At a party or other get-together where I have to converse with those same twenty people, I’m going to feel overwhelmed, because that’s an awful lot of people to talk with.

When I was younger I thought being an introvert meant being shy and not liking people. That’s a common misperception, among introverts and extroverts alike. It’s true that some introverts are shy and/or have poor social skills, but that’s not what makes them introverts. Because social interaction takes more effort (literally – it tires us introverts out), introverts may not develop good social skills. But an introvert with good social skills, even great public speaking skills, is still an introvert.

When I was in college I was required to take a course in public speaking. I was rather indignant at such a requirement. Since when is public speaking a skill everyone needs to develop? That was even worse than making me (try to) learn to play volleyball or basketball. But I was also a straight-A student, and I set about getting an A in Intro to Public Speaking.

(Actually I think I got an A-, and that was partly because I convinced the instructor to give me an A on my final speech to reflect how much I had improved. And that private “speech” to convince her probably took as much nerve as getting up in front of the class to give prepared speeches.)

Still, I couldn’t imagine getting up in front of a group and speaking every day as part of my job. Yet I wanted to be a teacher. My senior year, I talked to one of my professors, and discovered – to my great surprise – that he had been painfully shy in his youth (he said he had been teased a lot for his big ears). He wanted to teach, however, so he learned to get up and talk in front of a group. If he could do it, I decided, so could I.

I initially aspired to be a college professor, and I might have done well if I had pursued that goal. But after getting my masters degree, I was tired of studying minutiae that probably mattered only within the halls of academia. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I got a job teaching high school Spanish, planning to eventually move on to teaching college. I knew that many Spanish majors in college planned to be high school teachers, and I wanted to be able to teach them based on my own experience.

I quickly discovered that teaching high school is at least as much about classroom management as about teaching the subject. I could teach Spanish, but only if the students were listening, and they usually weren’t. By the end of the year I was completely demoralized and it was years before I dared get up in front of any group to teach anything. But when I did, I discovered that getting up in front of a group and talking no longer intimidated me.

Since then I’ve taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, led Bible studies, and even preached at the church where my husband was pastor. (Yes, our denomination allows women to preach.) Put me in a crowd and I struggle to create openings for conversation (or wait for someone else to come along and get the ball rolling). But give me a topic to talk about and time to prepare, and I can get up in front of the group and speak with only minor butterflies in the stomach.

I’ve read some accounts that say introverts can make better public speakers than extroverts. I don’t know how much this is introverts trying to prove something to an extrovert-dominated world (estimates are that 75% of the population is extroverted), or how much it is public speaking coaches trying to reassure introverts that it is worth paying the coaches money to learn this skill. But some of the points do make sense.

Introverts know they have to work at learning to speak in public so they may put more effort into developing the right skills, while extroverts think they can just do what comes naturally. Introverts think things through before speaking, and may prepare more thoroughly, and make fewer off-the-cuff gaffes. Introverts are used to listening a lot (which includes “listening” to body language) and may be better at picking up on how the audience is responding.

I know that some of the speakers I have admired most and learned the most from are introverts. Of course, some of that is a matter of preference. My husband, very much an extrovert, often is not impressed by the speakers I am impressed by, and vice versa. Certainly his speaking style is also quite different from mine. One isn’t better or worse than the other, they’re just very different, and probably each is better suited to certain situations and topics.

I think now that public speaking is a great skill to develop, and I’m glad my younger son just had the opportunity last week to give a short speech in school. Like most things, it’s probably best learned by starting young. I doubt I would have initially welcomed learning it, at any age, but I would have learned. And I would have discovered that yes, introverts can be very good public speakers.

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One Response to Introverts and public speaking

  1. Karen O says:

    Very interesting, Pauline, & it does make sense now that I think about it. I’m an introvert, too, & have spoken before the congregation in church, & was Women’s Ministry Leader for four years.

    Through the years, I have, with God’s help, learned how to “chit chat”. The only problem is if the other person is unresponsive to my efforts.

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