Susan Cain Helped Introverts Find Their Voice; Now, She'll Teach Them To Embrace Public Speaking

Susan Cain made a splash with "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." Now, she plans to help introverts overcome their fear of public speaking. Here are her tips for taking the stage successfully.

"Now I'm speaking for a living," Susan Cain says, "which is so ironic for someone like me."

Someone like her, in case you haven't heard, is an introvert: No, not a recluse, hermit, or antisocialite, but a person who prefers low stimulation to high, deep conversation to shallow, and solitude to groups--observations she presented in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. The book, now in paperback, struck a major chord, landing her in the #4 spot on The New York Times best-seller list and a lauded spot on numerous best-of lists, as well as making her a favorite on the speaking circuit.

So now the lawyer-turned-consultant-turned-author finds herself holding not only the intimate conversations she's always treasured but doing the public speaking she's always feared. But as she shares with Fast Company, the two have more in common than you think. With this understanding, the speeches that used to rattle her--cut to swigging Bailey's in a bathroom to loosen up--she now handles with aplomb, as evidenced by her TED Talk, which has been viewed by 3 million people.

One of Cain's next projects--in between starting a new book and continuing the present tour--is to put together an online public speaking and communication class for introverts. Emphasizing authenticity over showmanship, she hopes that the course will help her readers share their minds with the world, incorporating some of the principles sketched out below. (While the launch date is to be announced, you can sign up to learn more on her website.) The class, she says, will be an outgrowth of her life experience--that of a person who has been terrified of the stage of decades.

If you're terrified, too--like this reporter--then her insights as to why desensitization is a positive, showmanship is overrated, and even hackneyed advice can be crucial to success.

It'll take some getting used to.

Lifting from the playbook of psychologists, Cain likes desensitization as a way to get comfortable with the microphone. Just like a flu shot gives you a weak strain of a virus to help your body build resilience, you can inoculate yourself against knee-quakes by taking in small chunks of fear that are more readily handled. To that end, Cain advises against beginning with, say, a TED Talk. Start small, like with Toastmasters, the international public speaking organization that helped her ease into speechmaking.

Cain notes that the fear doesn't come from having to communicate, but from context. We've each had countless experiences practicing what it's like to communicate with somebody one-on-one--so it feels more or less okay--but getting up on stage feels so foreign. Desensitization, then, is a process of familiarization.

You can't change your stripes--so don't try.

"As an introvert," Cain says, "I had the notion that to be an effective public speaker you have to be a super dynamic person."

After studying the craft, she realized it wasn't true: You don't need to be a comedian, you can be soft spoken. Public speakers, she realized, could be equally quiet and compelling.

It's a matter, Cain says, of personal style--the way you connect one-on-one will be the same way you connect from the stage. Are you funny or warm? What's happening when you hit it off with someone? Take note, because the way you relate to a friend in conversation will be the same way you relate to your audience.

"Whoever you are in real life is going to be the stage you," Cain says.

Think dialogue, not monologue.

In the same way that part of being a good conversationalist is listening to your partner, attentive speakers listen to their audiences.

"You can actually read audiences," Cain says, once you get enough experience. A thoughtful speaker will feel the moods and reactions of the audience, making that monologue you set out to give much more of a dialogue. And that defuses a lot of the stress.

"It's not 'I'm really uncomfortable and I've got to go up there and do a dog and pony show,'" she says, "it's that I have something to say and I really want you to hear it and I really want to know what you think."

The importance of passion.

While she says it's "hackneyed" advice, a passionate connection with the topic will motivate you through your jitters and other barriers. Cain uses herself as an example: She can speak so much about introversion because she cares so much about introversion. Because she really wants her audiences to gain a nuanced perception of the topic, she cares less about their perception of her.

"When you're more focused in getting your message across than you are worrying about how people are viewing you," she says, "that's huge."

To hear Cain tell it, quality speakers advance the relationship between their subject and their listeners.

"Be in service of the idea, in service of the connection with your audience," she says. "That's what you're there for."

Share your public speaking advice with us in the comments section below!

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Bjørn Giesenbauer]

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12 Comments

  • Rich Day

    Concerning the topic of getting over the fear of public speaking put forth by Susan Cain. Desensitization is correct in my experience. I am also an introvert, but found myself in a public speaking role as a minister early in my life. One of my first sermons saw me so nervous that after I had the people stand as I read my text, I started my sermon, not even noticing I had not allowed them to sit back down! But I was speaking 3 times a week in those days, and I so clearly remember the transformation from intense fear, to manageable fear, and finally I arrived at the point where I was as ease, free from nerves, even to the point where I also could enjoy the topic. It is simply the need that we all have to learn trust, but in this case, to learn trust in front of a crowd. Whoever you are out there, and however strongly you feel this particular fear, if it is important to you to get through this, I promise you that you don't need a miracle, but just the simple process of desensitization. It will happen for you, just as it did for me. And as you go through this process, please give yourself a break, OK? I mean give yourself oceans of self compassion, you deserve it. You are OK. You are beyond OK, you are in fact heroic to stand through your fear to say something important. I cannot imagine there would be a better person to give a public speaking course to those with a fear of it than Susan Cain

  • Hardik Vaidya

    Here are some of my thoughts on Public Speaking:
    1) Practice as much as you can in front your bedroom mirror,your bathroom mirror,any reflection where you can see yourself as if you're presenting to someone.
    2) Be honest with your mistakes,even when you become a pro. Ask for feedback from the people who matter to you.Keep improvising.
    3) If you are a beginner or still in the initial stages of learning the trade,you will suck royally.But,that is the beauty.From there,with practice,there's only going up!
    4) Forget about making a large scale impact. Design your talk to make just one person in the room absolutely speechless.Irony is,it'll automatically spread.

  • Lisa McLoughlin

    Thanks for the Susan Cain update.

    As an introverted person who needs to start engaging in different kinds of public speaking; I look forward to reading her new book.

  • Sharon-Ann Alofokhai

    I really love this talk. The truth is that solitude holds a lot of hidden treasure...

  • manilacitizen

    Getting used to is one thing. If those who fear speaking don't actually have enough speaking opportunities, I guess they'll remain hidden and their potentials unrealized.

    (I wonder if we, who are posting comments here, are introverts who liked the article or the extroverts who like posting comments.)

  • Anna Butler

    Some great tips for public speaking, but the reality is MOST people are afraid of public speaking - not just introverts. According to some stats, at least 75% of the population fear speaking in public.. yet 50-75% of the population is made up of extroverts.

    Nor should introversion be confused with shyness or lack of confidence. Many introverts are very confident, socially adept people, who simply prefer to sit back and observe. 

    As an introvert myself, I'm not big on making chit-chat with random people and prefer email over the phone, but get me in front of an audience talking about my profession and I'll perform with the best of them. 

    (Interestingly, speaking publicly is in someways easier than one-on-one interactions because you've had the chance to research and prepare what you're going to say and you're in control of the conversation.)

  • Penny Haywood Calder

    Great points about connecting. 
    People that are all style and no substance don't get that far - I'm glad that the myth about only 7% of the message being conveyed by the words has been exposed. What you have to say does matter. So does deep steady breathing to calm down and power the voice.
    Plus three cheers for giving Toastmasters a mention. Their positive and constructive approach has made a real difference to everyone I've seen that gets stuck into the speech projects within a few months - and I've been watching that happen for over 10 years. Coming from a writing background, I suffered from panic attacks during some speeches, but not now. I have found Toastmasters to be a safe place to practice with positive feedback. It has been invaluable to me in my PR business, and now I am an emerging professional speaker.

  • Hjclark

    Some additional "tips." DON'T prepare--nor rehearse--too much. That increases the chance of a "memorized" line or paragraph will trip and fall, along with you. TALK to your audience as if it was one person at a coffee table. ASK QUESTIONS of the audience (getting them involved changes the entire atmosphere for you and for your audience.) DON'T EVER BE AFRAID OF MAKING A MISTAKE--in what you say or how you say it. If you're afraid, you WILL babble or mispronounce a word and the

    The myth of "perfect speeches" is simply that...a myth. The reality of great speeches is honesty and confidence...as well as something meaningful to say.

  • Camille Boivin

    What a brilliant way to connect leaders with reflection! I am reading Susan's book in JAmaica and feel so inspired . Any way I can help as a Toastmaster, neuro linguistic program communication entrepreneur in women's leadership . Camille Boivin from Sister leadership or email me at camille@sisterleadership.com
    Hurray for us!!