Public speaking tips for introverts. (Like me.)
“Hello! We’re producing an event in New Mexico. We’d love to fly you down there to teach a writing class, if you’re interested.”
Me? Fly?? Teach??? Class???! This was quite a few years ago, and — aside from a smattering of small 1-hour workshops here and there — I’d never done any public speaking or teaching. Not like this. But it’s something I’d been dreaming about.
I grazed over the rest of the details in the email, practically shaking with excitement. I typed back, “Oh my goodness a thousand times yes!” or something to that effect. Fairly quickly, the details got sorted out, my flight was booked, and it was… really happening. My very first “real” speaking engagement at a “real” event with people purchasing tickets and whatnot.
For about a week, I felt so excited, like I was prancing on clouds. But after initial exuberance wore off, I began to feel… doubtful and anxious.
“I’m not a ‘world famous author’ or anything like that. What if I’m not really qualified to teach this kind of class?”
“What if I’m boring? What if I forget what I meant to say? What if I run out of things to say?”
“What if I talk too quickly? What if I talk too slowly? What if I say ‘um’ constantly?
What if the event producers regret inviting me?”
And so forth.
To manage these anxieties, my strategy was to over-prepare. I was scheduled to teach a 3-hour writing class, so naturally I compiled approximately 300 pages of notes (haha!) to ensure that we wouldn’t run out of things to do. I rehearsed endlessly, pacing in circles around my bedroom, trying to pummel every detail into my brain. And of course, the night before the event, I had bizarre dreams about people yelling angrily at me. Fun times!
Then at last, it was time for the actual class to begin. It was much cozier than I imagined it would be — just me, and a lovely group of people, all gathered around a big wooden table with comfy chairs and couches arranged around the room.
The class started. We got through about 3 of my 300 pages of notes, did a couple of writing exercises, shared a few stories, and just like that, it was over. The time soared by.
As we wrapped up, everyone was smiling. Nobody was mad at me. Turns out, I was a pretty decent teacher after all.
That experience bolstered my confidence. In the years that followed, I wound up teaching classes, workshops, and retreats in 18 cities around the world — and also on a cruise ship, crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
I’ve discovered that I love teaching. And I’ve also discovered that it’s possible to be a captivating teacher, presenter, and storyteller even if you’re a very quiet, introverted person… like me.
1. Be completely yourself.
If you have a soothing, soft-spoken voice, use your natural voice — don’t try to force yourself to sound “peppier” or “more like Tony Robbins.” Just be yourself.
If you want to begin your class with a few moments of silent meditation, or by reading your favorite poem to set the tone, do that.
If you’re more comfortable having everyone sit in a circle rather than in rows of chairs, rearrange the room.
When you feel at ease, then your students feel at ease, too.
2. Start with small groups.
I’ve spoken to groups of 400 people, 50 people, 20 people, 8 people, 6 people…
Big groups are fun. But personally, I prefer the intimacy of a small group. 6-8 people is my favorite size. I like being able to see everyone’s faces. I like knowing everyone on a first-name basis.
If you’ve never done much public speaking or teaching before, I definitely recommend starting with a small-group setting. It tends to be more relaxed, cozy, and introvert-friendly.
I often say to folks, “If you can host a small dinner party with 6 people — and make those 6 people feel welcomed, appreciated, and comfortable — then you can probably teach a small workshop or seminar, too.”
3. Build confidence with podcasts, webinars, and other online appearances.
Public speaking, presenting, teaching… these are skills, and like any other skills, the more you practice, the more confident you feel.
A great way to practice is to do some type of online speaking engagement — like a podcast or webinar. You can sit at home in your pajamas. You can clutch a comforting mug of tea. You can refer to your notes if you feel anxious. Nobody’s physically in the room with you, so nobody’s going to see you sweating or nervously tapping your feet.
You can speak into your microphone and pretend that you’re having a conversation with “just one person,” not dozens or hundreds of people. Much less intimidating!
4. Trust that you are qualified enough.
A mentor once told me, “If there’s a path, and if you are 3 steps ahead on that path, then you are qualified to teach the people who are 3 steps behind you. You don’t have to be 1,000 steps ahead of them. Just 3.”
If you know how to change a flat tire on a car, then you can probably teach someone else how to do that, too. If you’ve been blogging for 2 years, then you can probably teach someone how to set up a blog and publish their first post.
You don’t necessarily need to be “the world’s foremost expert” or “world famous” or “the recipient of a Nobel Prize” in order to be an inspiring and effective teacher. You just have to know a few things that your students don’t know yet, and be willing to share. That’s all. If you can do that, then you are qualified enough.
5. Don’t be afraid of silence.
Once, I attended an event where the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was speaking to a crowd of thousands in a packed auditorium. He spoke so softly. He laughed so softly. Sometimes, moments would pass and he’d say nothing at all. The auditorium was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. It was a magical experience.
I realized, “Being quiet, being introverted, being gentle, allowing silence to elapse… these qualities can make someone a very powerful public speaker.”
When I’m teaching, I try to build some “silence” into every class. I might give my students a writing exercise to do, and then set a timer for 5 minutes, and let them scribble away in silence, or with peaceful music playing in the background. I’ve learned that we don’t need to fill every single moment with talking — me talking, or anybody else. There can be spaces of nothingness, time for people to think and reflect. Often, those spaces of nothingness are more valuable than anything I could possibly say.
Public speaking doesn’t necessarily mean fireworks and flashy presentations on a projector screen and pacing across the stage with a microphone in your hand. It can mean candlelight flickering around the room, and moments of silence, and intimacy, and hugging everyone goodbye on their way out the door.
There are many types of speakers, and many types of events and classes, and many different ways to leave an impact on your audience.
Ultimately, if your intention is “to help, inspire, and uplift the audience — to make their day a little better than it was before,” then your intention will shine through.
Even if you fumble a few things, even if you’re not completely “perfect,” your intention will come across. That’s what your audience will feel and remember about you.