You can’t hide forever. Somewhere along the line, you are going to be given the opportunity to present in public.
While some people can speak off the cuff about any subject, others of us need to know our stuff before we feel comfortable taking the stage. So as an introvert who speaks publicly for a living — on stage, in workshops and in the media — I thought I’d share some of my tips for those who want to shake off the shackles of shyness and take the mic.
Preparing yourself for the event is key to confidence, and that means thinking about how you want to present yourself as well as what you want to present.
What to wear
Feeling comfortable on stage means wearing clothes that make you feel confident. There are two aspects to this: what message are you sending to your audience and what message are you sending yourself?
In regards to your audience, there are a couple of lines of thought. Some people say you should dress like your audience (so business attire for a corporate crowd, casual for holistic health), because this makes them feel like you are one of them. The downside is you may blend into the wallpaper.
The other approach is to make a point of dressing differently to signal you are not like them. Jeans and t-shirt at corporate events are an example of saying, ‘I’m a free thinker who is outside the constraints of your world’. The risk is people feel you are disrespectful or simply too different.
Me? I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I dress enough like my audience that I signal credibility (I understand your world) but then add some personal quirk like an unusual jacket, dress, pant or piece of jewellery to convey that I have a unique perspective on their world. After all, you are presenting because people think you have something different to offer, so it makes sense to indicate this.
When it comes to sending a message to yourself, wear something in which you feel good. To the degree it helps your message, dress as an authentic expression of your personality. Don’t like power suits? Don’t wear one. Try to avoid clothes that make you fiddle or worry about sweat stains, and if you are active on stage like me, consider shoes that are quiet and stable — you’ll find stunning heels lose their appeal once you’ve fallen off the stage.
Structuring your presentation
Structuring your speech or presentation is another key to confidence. The best way to convince people you know your stuff is to make it sound like it’s coming off the top of your head — and that takes work.
For some, scripting holds appeal because it offers a safety net. The problem is, unless done well, it can make you sound robotic and dull your delivery. By clinging to a script you risk getting hamstrung by prescriptive words and sequences, freaking out if you lose your place. I found this when I tried stand-up comedy — I was so focused on remembering to land on the right word at the right time that I couldn’t relax into it.
Instead, I use slides to cue my story. It means I have a lot of slides (that’s my safety net) but I move them through quickly, providing visual interest for my audience. I have enough of an idea about what I want to say regarding each slide but it’s not so prescriptive that I sound like a robot. Plus, if I forget what I was going to say I can move on — my audience doesn’t know what I was meant to say anyway.
The extent to which you rehearse is up to you. I tend to work on my slides so much that I rarely rehearse, except to understand timings. I personally find it more difficult to rehearse to a small number of family or friends than present to hundreds of strangers because it feels more exposing.
If you are adamant you want to script your presentation, rehearse to the point it sounds natural. I’d recommend watching a variety of TED talks to see how scripted presentations can be done well, using cadence and intonation to inject energy into the story.
On stage, you will be the centre of attention. That means if you hate being the centre of attention, you need to shift the attention.
To reduce the attention on me I use lots of visual slides — it gives my audience something to look at that isn’t me and means I have an excuse to break eye contact if it is getting too intense.
Make sure to make your slides interesting. Text-heavy slides will bore your audience and trap you into reading what’s there, dulling your delivery.
Props are an excellent way for introverts to divert attention from themselves. They create immediate interest and a jumping-off point for storytelling, as well as make your presentation more memorable. People still remind me of the day I strapped an ugg boot to my head, for example.
Be smart about your choice of prop. Small props are hard to see, flimsy props make your shaking hands all the more pronounced and your prop has to have a point, rather than a distraction.
One of the blessings I have found in being an introvert is my attunement to others. The upside is I can connect with people in the audience and ‘read’ the energy of a room. The downside is I can lose confidence if I feel they are not with me. How can you tell? Body language. Watch for distant eye gaze, fidgeting, incessant chatting, crossed arms and looking around the room rather than at you.
This is your cue to mix things up. Change your pace — speak more slowly or quickly and include pauses for effect; change your volume — move from louder or softer to punctuate points; and change your position — move closer to them, cross the stage and add some deliberately expansive gestures.
Now that the presentation is done be aware that you will have used up a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy. Look after yourself. For most introverts, retreating to a quieter space by yourself or with a small number of people will be more restorative than moving straight into large scale networking. Also, don’t feel you have to meet the masses. You have just distinguished yourself as someone who has the confidence to stand on stage and share ideas, so know that people will seek you out if they want to find out more about you.
You may find adrenalin will carry you for a while before you crash later. If you have to return to work straight away, be aware that you may feel drained and/or unable to concentrate for a time so have a coffee or tea and choose lighter tasks until your focus returns.
Get to it — there’s no downside
Still unsure? Remind yourself that unless you are performing surgery on stage, there are no lives on the line here. Public speaking is simply an experience and you really have nothing to lose. Vulnerability in presenters is attractive, cockiness is not, and I guarantee that people will forgive, indeed love, any ‘mistakes’ you happen to make.