‘The majority of my students had never heard a politician speak like Barack Obama; with clarity, dignity, focus, passion, humanity and authenticity. A man desiring that his words awaken and inspire.’ – Patsy Rodenburg, Voice Coach
Barack Obama knows how to speak in public. Dozens of examples spring to mind. At the DNC in 2004, winning the Nobel peace prize in 2009, and his eulogy for a victim of the Charleston shootings in 2015. Whatever you think of his politics, the guy can whip up a crowd.
To many of us, his talents seem unattainable. This is especially true for introverts, who can get tired easily by big crowds. Surely, all great speakers must be natural extroverts. They all lack fear around crowds. They all have a natural affinity for self-presentation. Look how comfortable they all are. Extroverts, surely.
But Barack Obama, one of the great public speakers of our time, is an introvert. Nelson Mandela: introvert. Gandhi: introvert. How can this possibly be?
Trust Your Technique
Most people think that public speaking requires bravery. That you feel the fear and do it anyway. In this mindset, extroverts have a unique advantage: they feel less social anxiety. Extroverts are less sensitive to adrenaline, one of the chemicals released when you go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. They feel less fear, so are more likely to do it anyway.
But introverts, especially sensitive introverts, can be highly susceptible to social anxiety. In a bravery contest, they’re hampered by their overactive nervous systems. They feel more fear, so are far more likely to fly than fight.
The best speakers are not the bravest. They are the ones with the best technique. They employ pauses and range, handle beautiful rhetoric, and keep themselves calm under pressure. They can control their breathing, command their body language, and project their voice. They are musicians with total control over their instrument.
Public speaking is not a bravery contest – it’s a motor skill. It’s a physical process which you improve by practice. Like driving a car, or tying your laces, or learning to paint. And when you see it like that, the introvert’s advantage comes to the fore.
Sense and Sensitivity
Introverts are good at thinking. They can think deeply and determinedly, and their thinking can bear interesting fruit, like Isaac Newton’s apple. In social situations, they’re more sensitive to the people around them. They notice subtle social cues, and can quickly pick up on small changes.
They’re often very concerned about how they’re coming across to other people. ‘Does that person like me?’, ‘Did I just say the wrong thing?’. They often have a heightened awareness of their own body in space. ‘Am I standing weird?’, ‘Why won’t that person let me in to the circle?’.
This internal monologue can be exhausting. But this heightened sensitivity is the introvert’s advantage. They are highly likely to notice areas of improvement in the way that they speak.
Extroverts tend to improve at public speaking by habituation. In other words, they get up on stage so often that they get used to it. Over time, they get less affected by the adrenaline rush, like a zookeeper shedding their fear of spiders. But throughout this process, they are unlikely to refine their speaking technique. They may feel more comfortable speaking, but they might not become a better speaker.
But the highly sensitive introvert can become a highly adept speaker. They assess their speaking in real-time, adjusting to how the audience responds. They tune in to how their audience feels, and can manipulate their technique accordingly. And if they notice something wrong, they can practice until they get it right.
But there’s one thing missing: how do you know if you’re getting it right?
To stop you seeing public speaking as a bravery contest, you need a growth mentality. In other words, don’t despair about your weaknesses. Identify them, and research how to improve. But to identify your weaknesses, you need to know what you’re looking for.
Did it feel good?
It’s odd to say, but speaking in public should feel good. That means you need to manage your adrenaline reaction so that it doesn’t overpower you. You can do that by practising various techniques.
The first is diaphragm breathing, a technique proven to lower stress, calm muscle tension and oxygenate the brain. It also happens to give the voice an extra kick of resonance, which is useful. You can practice diaphragm breathing before you get on-stage. Or, as actors do, you can integrate it with your speaking so that the act of speaking keeps you calm.
Try this exercise. Place a hand on your belly. Breathe out, deflating your stomach towards your spine. Wait a moment, then relax back to normal. You should feel your belly inflate, and breath passively flow into your mouth. Try this a few times, and notice yourself relax.
Was it fluid?
In my video on the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, you can see the tension in her muscles when she speaks. The tension in her body creates tension in her audience. And audiences don’t like to be made tense.
Good public speakers move with fluidity. They tend not to use jerky motions in their head and neck when they speak. Their relaxation transmits itself to their audience, and the audience feels relaxed.
You may have noticed from your speeches that you tend to shift your weight around uncomfortably. Perhaps you’re not sure where to put your hands. Maybe someone’s given you feedback that you seem nervous on-stage when you thought you had it under wraps. Sounds like you need to work on your fluidity.
Try practising something that requires fluid motion, such as Tai Chi, Yoga, or some Pilates. Try being aware of your motions as you reach out for your pen, adjust yourself on your seat, or scroll downwards on your device. Notice if you make any jerky movements which might transmit tension.
How was I standing?
Modern life is famous for its postural carnage. Heads craned towards devices, we ravage our spinal column with unnecessary burdens. Bad posture can lead to tension. And tension, as we’ve seen above, makes an audience uneasy.
Posture can also play a role in body language. An upright, open-chested presenter has a stronger impact than a closed-off, shoulders-rounded speaker. Staying upright, with your head back and chest open is generally good advice.
An odd, but very effective piece of advice, is to focus on the knees. Often, we lock our knees when we stand up to speak. This locking creates tension in the hips, which transmits to the belly muscles, restricting one’s breathing. Try to soften the knees, as though you were able to move freely at any time. No need to squat like a sumo wrestler, but keep them a touch softer than usual. Notice the freedom of movement it gives you.
Was it monotone?
Is there an extrovert in your office? Are they bubbly, excitable, and charismatic? It’s likely that they use a wide pitch range: a lot of variety in the tones of their voice. In study after study, a wide pitch range is correlated with impressions of charisma. If you’re using a narrow, monotonous pitch range, you’re likely to be seen as dull.
Try speaking with energy. Use your face to express what you’re saying – it’s rather hard to keep a monotonous pitch when your eyebrows are going haywire. Try this exercise:
Imagine your child has come home and says ‘I had a really great day at school today!’. You say ‘really.’ Say it as monotonously as you can. Notice your facial muscles relax. Notice the flat pitch. Picture how sad the poor kid would be.
Rewind. ‘I had a really great day at school today!’. ‘Really?!’ Say it with energy, enthusiasm and interest. Notice your eyebrows raise up. Notice your pitch go higher. Picture how excited they’d be to tell you their story.
Practice alternating between the monotone ‘really’ and the interested ‘really?!’. ‘Really.’ ‘Really?!’. Try adding a little more of the latter into the way you speak.
Did I make a connection?
Emotional sensitivity is a fantastic advantage. With the stage lights on you, you’ll be able to feel, moment-to-moment, what the audience is experiencing. You’ll have the chance to tell them something that they didn’t know before, and hold their hand every step of the way.
All people, and especially introverts, are capable of extraordinary empathy. Great speakers can feel as though they’re talking directly to you. And that’s because they are. They can see inside your head, and know what you’re thinking, and know how to answer your question even before you do.
Introversion Is an Opportunity
So remember, it’s not a bravery contest. Try some techniques to calm the breathing. Get good at controlling your nerves. But when you’re up there, don’t miss your chance. Your introversion gives you the chance to be the best speaker you can be. Don’t throw it away.
|Psychology Today: Is Obama an Introvert?
|Introvert, Dear: 5 QUOTES FROM NELSON MANDELA ABOUT BEING AN INTROVERT AND A LEADER