How I mastered public speaking: 3 tips from an introvert

Those awkward silences aren’t as awkward as you think.

  • Carsten Lund Pedersen

Credit: John M Lund Photography Inc

How I mastered public speaking: 3 tips from an introvert

Those awkward silences aren’t as awkward as you think.

18 February 2020

Carsten Lund Pedersen

John M Lund Photography Inc

I was just about to give my first conference presentation as an early career researcher. As the audience got seated, I could feel my nerves acting up. I had prepared my talk weeks in advance and rehearsed it over and over again. But that all seemed like a distant memory.

"Your argumentation is flawed. Your presentation is boring," my inner critic was yelling.

In research, I thought I had found a career where I could analyze data, conceptualize theories, and write papers, either in solitude or with a small handful of collaborators. What I had not foreseen was just how substantial the public speaking aspect of the job is.

Public speaking does not come naturally to me. It can be particularly daunting to speak to a room full of scholars with far more experience than I have.

But there really is no way of getting around it. These days, around 50% of my time as an academic requires public speaking, whether I’m teaching or presenting at a conference.

Being introverted does not preclude you from being a great public speaker. If you remember these three simple principles, you might find the confidence to get out of your own head and take control of your nerves.

You might even learn to enjoy it.

1. Public speaking is a skill

Most people aren’t born with a talent for public speaking – it’s a skill that must be learned.

It’s important to do practice runs and regularly self-evaluate in order to improve. I also make an effort to ask friends and colleagues for their advice. I’ve even had stage presence training from an opera singer.

What I learned from the opera singer is that your posture affects your tone of voice – it’s important to stand up straight and project.

I also learned not to be afraid of having quiet moments during my talk, as they can help the audience to better process your arguments.

I’ve used many great resources to help build my confidence, such as Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which reminds us that, "There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas."

Communications consultant Garr Reynolds’ blog, Presentation Zen, has practical advice and inspiration for how to plan your presentation, such as how to construct your elevator pitch, how to ensure that your talk has a sound, clear structure, and how to distil the “so what?” factor to keep audience engaged.

2. Public speaking is a performance

Generally speaking, a key difference between extroverts and introverts is that introverts tend to become overstimulated by too much external 'noise' and attention, while extroverts seem to thrive on it.

I’ve found it useful to think about my presentations as a performance with a clear beginning and an end. I know I can give it my all for that limited amount of time.

Giving your body cues for when to switch ‘on’ and ‘off’ is important.

A few days before my talk, I’ll pay a visit to the room I’ll be speaking in, rehearse the speech, and make sure I get a proper night’s sleep beforehand.

Once I leave the conference hall or lecture theatre, I consider the 'performance' over. To wind down, I like to talk a walk for 30 to 40 minutes as a way of signaling to my body and mind that they can now relax.

3. Being introverted is a strength

Introverts are often described as over-thinkers, and this can be both an asset and a challenge.

While we tend to be our own worst critics, our need for regular introspection can force us to be very well prepared for each presentation. I like to meticulously think through the message and context of my talks, and analyze the target audience several weeks in advance.

For example, if I’m talking about my research to my academic peers, I’ll focus on emphasizing certain theories and methods, and getting to the technical details. If I’m talking to practitioners, I often need to focus on the practical relevance of my work.

I also try to pre-empt any criticisms my audience might have about my arguments and prepare counter-arguments – just in case.

The most important thing is giving yourself the opportunity to practice.

Say yes to every opportunity to speak as an early career researcher, because what they say is true: it does get easier over time. Even for the most introverted of us.

Carsten Lund Pedersen is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.