“All great literary men are shy. I am myself, though I am told it is hardly noticeable.”
— Jerome K. Jerome, early 20th-century British author and humorist
I’m no great literary man, but like my hero, Jerome, I am a shy person.
It may seem contradictory that a person who writes about himself and sometimes speaks before groups would describe himself as shy, but think about it. Who better for a shy person to interview than himself? It’s a much less stressful way of gathering material than going out and asking personal questions of others.
How do you know you are a shy person? You know you’re a shy person if you understand Woody Allen’s line: “I’m not antisocial. I’m just not social.” You know you are shy if on the way to every appointment, you secretly hope the meeting has been canceled, which would allow you to go walk around the library for an hour instead. You’re shy if you still say, “Excuse me,” when you burp and there’s no one else around.
Many famous people have described themselves as shy, from Abraham Lincoln to radio host Garrison Keillor. Shyness isn’t a disability. It’s a presence of mind. In fact, shy people appreciate conversation and social interaction the same way a country kid like me enjoys visiting big cities, the same way a person who can’t make good deviled eggs appreciates good deviled eggs. In other words, you don’t take things for granted. Shyness is good. The world could use more of it.
One of the fictional sponsors of Keillor’s weekly variety show is “Powdermilk Biscuits … made from whole wheat to give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”
That’s what shy people do: Find the strength to get up and do what needs to be done — whether it’s teaching a class, making sales calls or inviting someone to homecoming.
Forcing myself to learn about public speaking, when I’d much rather be picking green beans in my garden or writing at my laptop, has taught me a lesson or two. I’m grateful to longsuffering listeners who politely feigned interest while I figured a few things out.
Conventional wisdom says a speaker should imagine members of the audience in their underwear and it will make the speaker somehow less nervous. This is incorrect. Nothing would make a shy person more nervous than walking into a room of people clad only their skivvies. After all, we never got invited to those sorts of parties.
Instead, I say a speaker should imagine himself in his underwear. That way you are likely to keep the talk short. If you’re wearing briefs, you’ll be brief. Brevity is the soul of wit and of any after-meal talk. The longer you go on, the more opportunity for the audience to see the emperor has no clothes, so to speak.
For small or informal groups, know your material, don’t read it. Just being present and making eye contact with listeners is as important as what you say. However, if the text is more important than the speaker — as in a sermon, keynote address or business presentation — by all means read from a thoughtfully prepared manuscript.
Keillor once was asked how he memorizes his weekly monologue, which is 15 or 20 minutes long and delivered without notes. Keillor answered by saying he doesn’t memorize it, he just knows it. You should know your material or you shouldn’t be there.
Rehearse. Audiences have great compassion for a speaker who is nervous or unpolished, but making a sincere effort. Listeners have little patience for a speaker who clearly is unprepared and thus wasting the audience’s time. Come up with something appropriate for your listeners well in advance, then practice like heck in the shower, in front of the bathroom mirror, while driving the car or mowing the grass. Especially rehearse the opening and closing.
Finally, invite questions at the end. This may seem scary at first, but it turns a one-sided talk into a conversation. Listeners get to direct you to the subjects they came to hear about, increasing your odds of making a connection with the audience, which is the whole point. It takes away some of the pressure of wondering: “What should I talk about?”
So try that, fellow shy people. And don’t forget to eat a big breakfast of Powdermilk Biscuits. I am sure it will help.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.