"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.
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.
"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.
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."
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."
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[Image: Flickr user Bjørn Giesenbauer]