Let me put that in writing
September 7, 2012 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I can't think properly when people are looking at me! Please help.

I'm a fairly quiet person in general, easily intimidated by people, and I usually prefer to "blend in" and not stand out in any way. When called upon to do so I'm told I can be a good speaker and give engaging presentations, but if anyone asks me anything I'm not expecting or otherwise throws me a curveball I get derailed pretty much immediately: I either say something totally inane and then realize it and try to backtrack furiously, or I start thinking and staring off into space (or directly at the asker) for what feels like minutes at a time, and then, since I don't really "think in words", have trouble articulating exactly what I mean. I am currently in college and have been doing internships and working with professors and such, leading to embarrassing moments where I totally drop the ball in front of them, and then once they leave the room my brain starts working again and I'm furiously typing out an email detailing exactly what I should have said out loud five minutes ago.

Everyone I've talked to about this has told me that I'm still young, as I get older/more experienced it will get better, etc and I'm sure it's true, but I want it to happen faster! Does anyone have any tips or things I could do to try and help myself along?
posted by btfreek to Human Relations (20 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Toastmasters does a lot of training in both delivering practiced speeches and off-the-cuff speaking as well. It's a very structured setup, and may not be to your tastes; I find the structure kind of off-putting myself, but I can't deny that in a year, it's helped me loads with my ability to speak in front of an audience, impromptu or not.
posted by Hakaisha at 4:27 PM on September 7, 2012

Sounds like a confidence problems, self-consciousness, shyness, etc.

Try this: imagine yourself to be 7 feet tall and the other people to be teeny-weeny creatures and you might feel more confident.

You could also consider going to Dale Carnegie.
posted by Dansaman at 4:29 PM on September 7, 2012

According to writer Susan Cain, this is par for the course for introverts, and for some people, extemporaneous speaking is not something they will ever get better at no matter how hard they try. You could explain the situation to people and ask them to email you questions after the presentation or to come to you for a one-on-one discussion afterwards. Of course, in college this is not always possible. The other option is to try to anticipate all questions as best you can--try giving the presentation to a friend and have them ask questions so that you can have answers prepared beforehand.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:43 PM on September 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm afraid that the short (and probably disappointing) answer is that this is the kind of thing that tends to go away with much practice and some cognitive restructuring. Meaning, getting yourself out there and reprogramming, in a sense, how you are thinking about that situation as you do it. I suspect that deep down, you anticipate a type of danger inherent in the situation (to reputation or whatever), and the nerves that you feel lead to the type of responses that you perceive yourself giving.

There's a lot to this, but a couple of things to keep in mind: doing it over and over in front of people, in both safe and challenging environments, changes the way that you think about things, and eventually the way that you feel about it. You know how they say that familiarity breeds contempt? Well, in a related way, you do learn to not care as much how you are perceived in front of people as you become familiar with it, and as such, you treat it less formally in your own mind, which reduces the perceived threat. Couple this with the realization that people are not perceiving you as critically as you perceive that they are, and you can feel a bit more relaxed. Here's a cognitive trick that helps with this: when you perceive someone feeling a bit nervous when giving a speech, are you hyper-critical, or do you cut them a bit of slack? Chances are it's the latter, and you can trust that those in the audience are doing the same, as well. Thus, the reality of the situation is likely different than your nervous perception. Getting in touch with those realities rather than your first-person (and often inaccurate) perception is part of the trick, but you need to slay the dragon directly to get at it.

There's more that can be said, but it's something that goes away with time and practice. It's hard to sell a quick-fix, because it rarely works like that. But you can trust that many people have traveled the same path as you (myself included), which starts with palm-sweating, nerve-wracking jitters in front of even small groups, to the point where you are giving sustained presentations to large groups while sleeping like a baby the night before. Perhaps understanding that this is possible will help you speed up the process a bit for you; but keep at it. It's definitely worth it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:44 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to add that I had a hard time with this exact problem when I was doing my honors thesis in college, but by the time I had to do my thesis defense, I had given the same exact presentation so many times that I knew it backwards and forwards and I knew what questions were going to be asked. You can try to spend extra time studying the material so you are extremely familiar with it.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:46 PM on September 7, 2012

I was not a good speaker, choked, flushed, twisted guts -- big anxiety, sometimes bordering upon or leaning into panic attacks. Very, very uncomfortable. Mostly I've gotten beyond it, and here's how -- when it happens to me, I cop to it, just as soon as I notice it, say something like "I am not a good public speaker, don't you hate to get choked up when speaking in front of people? I hate when this happens to me, it's so annoying."

By copping to it, it seems to let all the pressure off, it's like somehow I'm trying to hide from people that I'm frightened maybe, but then copping to it just sinks it, the fear dries up like alcohol on a hot summer sidewalk, FSSST !!! and it's gone.

It doesn't work all the time, but mostly that's when I'm so caught up that I don't remember to do it, and then stand there stymied, yet again. But knowing I have this tool makes it easier to begin with, and each time I use it the fear of public speaking seems to deflate just a bit more.

You're in good company, or at the very least you've got an awful lot of company -- public speaking is something that many, many people truly do fear, public speaking is. I hope you're able to get past it, just the fact that you're reaching for help is a good sign that you will.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:13 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you take classes in debate, forensics, etc.? I did in high school and I'm always glad I did. Also, acting classes, improv, etc. are also very helpful, even if you're not planning on being a public speaker or performer.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:19 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wish I had helpful advice but I just wanted to say I'm the same way, always have been. I'm an introvert and I think slowly and in writing, not in my head (if that makes sense). I failed my oral PhD exams the first time around because of this exact problem and as an academic, I've never given a conference paper because I know I couldn't handle the questions. (Hell, I can barely even process the question if I can't see it in writing, let alone come up with an answer. In college I wrote down EVERYTHING my profs said because that was literally the only way I could follow the lecture. Otherwise it was in one ear and out the other.)

All I can say is try really hard not to beat yourself up about it, and just do what you can to compensate after the fact by sending an email ("After giving your question some more thought..."), arranging a follow-up meeting, etc. Any yes, Toastmasters or any public speaking training (or even assertiveness training?) would probably help, too. Although I get that this really isn't a public speaking problem, per se. I teach, I give toasts, and I do fine; this is more of an introversion issue, I think.
posted by désoeuvrée at 5:41 PM on September 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

I have actively developed a "work voice" that is lower, more formal, and slower than how I usually talk. Practicing it was a self imposed rule starting around your age, and I found that it kind of mitigated the short circuit you're talking about. Gave me something else to focus on other than dontfaildontfaildontfail.
posted by skrozidile at 5:46 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've had that problem (well, still do). I've learned to say "Let me think about that for a moment," and then commence to do just that. It takes the pressure off of you to come up with an instant response and it doesn't make the asker worry that you've checked out (though those "minutes at a time" you refer to probably don't last more than 10 or 20 seconds). Answer to the best of your ability, then tell them you would like to think about it a little more and that an email will follow shortly. If you remember to breathe and not apologize, you will simply come as a thoughtful and thorough, not slow or inane or however you are perceiving yourself in this situation.
posted by fairfax at 7:18 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm the same way. It does get better with time and practice. The solution is, therefore, to practice more - and college is a great place for just that. Start gradually, joining a discussion club, or any other organization where you *have to* answer questions and state your opinions, with a structured environment that would allow you to prepare your statements beforehand. As you do it more, it gets easier and you learn to think faster even when other people are around.

Practice in your mind, too. I've had probably thousands of hours of mental practice, trying to think before every event (or even potential event) of all possible questions I could be asked and what I could say. To this day, I often find myself walking down the street and realizing I've been silently explaining the day's events to imaginary interlocutors.
posted by Ender's Friend at 7:49 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have some thoughts/ commentary about the subject and a tl;dr in the form of tips at the bottom.

I have this exact same problem! I find that I can speak really well- if I have time in advance to organize, structure, and detail my thoughts. Off-the-cuff, though, I forget salient points, jump around from fact to fact, and can't describe things very articulately. What's worse, as soon as I'm alone, at home, I can talk to myself (or my pet) and be incredibly articulate and ordered in my speech.

I think that it is partially a pressure thing- but I don't think that you should get too wrapped up in thinking that it's neccessarily a confidence problem. I'm sure increasing your confidence will help, but I find it happens to me even around people I like and trust. Increasing confidence and limiting anxiety will definitely help, but it's not the whole picture.

I think an important thing is that classic "think before you speak". If someone asks you a question or is expecting you to speak, there seems like there's a lot of pressure to respond immediately- but there's not, really. People will understand if you need to take a moment to order your thoughts and if you sometimes need to pause while you're speaking to make sure that you articulate well- this is something that many people need to do. After all, this is why there is such a thing as prepared speeches, standard greetings, and catch-phrases.

I find that speaking slower also helps a little.

Something else that I'm prone to doing is to use hand gestures or sounds to try and convey my meaning, assuming that other people will understand me (because, if they're close friends, they will). I find that this is a bad habit to get into, because it makes me mentally "lazy" and unpractised at actually articulating myself. Forcing myself to "use my words" (and recruiting close personal friends to hold me accountable to that), has helped me a bit.

I also believe that a lot of this problem comes from sppending a lot of time around the written word instead of the spoken word. They are related but different types of thought, and they don't neccessarily translate as well as you might expect.

What I mean is that something that looks great in writing and reads great in your head wouldn't neccessarily make good conversation. If you don't believe me, try reading metafilter comments out loud; as a spoken conversation, it doesn't work that well.

Spoken conversation is less linear, typically less structured and formal, less internally-referential or self-referential, and differently faceted- there's no visual component to help make different or stronger connections or to structure the communication.

Instead, verbal communication is supplemented with body language. It's inherently more flowing, less deliberate, and sort of "sloppier" than the written word. It's also briefer, quicker, more interactive and dependant on a larger variety of stimulus at one time- the environment is constantly changing, and everything that is said is dependant on those contexts, whereas the context of written words tends to be far less dynamic. You need to be able to impart similar information in far less words. That might make you feel like you're leaving a lot of important things out, but because it's spoken rather than written, that's ok. Much of what is said will be forgotten- that's why it's important to figure out the most important or interesting points and relate those; the rest will largely be forgotten. But nobody's going to refer back to your answers to figure out their response the way that they would with writing; they'll respond immediately, based on how what you say makes them feel. You're not expected to get every detail correct or even to relate every detail that you would in, for example, a prepared speech, during conversation.

I guess all of that is a long way of trying to say that your brain has more to process in a verbal conversation, and that the things that it needs to process are constantly fluctuating, so- verbal communication is more difficult, especially if you're especially sensitive to stimulus. Add to that not having had much practise, and it gets even trickier. That's not to intimidate you- more to encourage you; it's totally understandable to have this trouble.

I think, as others have suggested, practise is going to be your best bet here. The more you engage with the spoken world, the easier it will become.

tl;dr- here's some friggin' badass Tips!

Brevity. Figure out the (maybe three) most interesting or important points and state them with a little description or connecting info for clarity.

Be present and external rather than past and internal.

Think before you speak and don't be afraid to take breaks/pauses.

Don't beat yourself up if you forget something or get it mixed up; people aren't memorizing what you're saying, they're deciding how you make them feel. (Unless you actually are in a test, then prep.) Nobody is expecting perfection. Likely nobody is going to attack you because you forgot a few points of your story or explanation or because it's a little different each time you tell it. This stuff is normal.

A little prep beore you go out might be helpful, but too much might make you come off as stiff and artificial.

It's not minutes that you're pausing for, even though it feels that way. It's seconds. I promise. If it were minutes, someone would jump in to fill the gap of silence.

It's ok to say- "hang on, there's something I want to say about this, just let me figure out how to word it". People do it all the time.

Practise. Force yourself to try and figure out a way to explain your thoughts even when it's hard and embarassing. People understand.

Try to avoid referring to books, movies, or songs unless you are absolutely positive that your audience will be familiar with what you're talking about, or you'll get a bunch of blank stares and feel embarassed. Especially if you find halfway through that you can't rember the author/title/full quotation/lyric/whatever.


Speak slower.

And don't worry if you make a mistake! Happens all the time, even to brilliant speakers. It's ok.

Thanks for asking this question- typing out a response forced me to think through the issue, which is one I've been having trouble with myself.
posted by windykites at 7:53 PM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

1) If you come up with a good answer after the fact, share it with the asker. Not like "OH GOD I'M KICKING MYSELF FOR NOT THINKING OF THIS I FEEL SO DUMB" but like "So I was thinking more about your question today and this occurred to me and I wanted to share." This is a totally normal thing to do. It doesn't make you look bad. It makes you look like a thoughtful, conscientious and persistent person.

2) Don't bullshit. If you have no idea, say "I have no idea." Get in the habit of doing this. What you'll discover is that sometimes you honestly, no bullshit, KNOW how to answer questions -- and then you can come out with the answer with confidence. But one way or another, at the moment you open your mouth, you should be confident you're telling the truth, whether the truth is "No because of clever reasons X, Y and Z" or "I'm gonna have to get back to you on that."
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:03 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

All good advice. Especially, just do it more. Only one more tip I know is a trick for dealing with that question that has the blood roaring in your ears so you've almost lost your train of thought. Have a phrase prepared that you can say while you regain the context of your speech which prompted the question. Such a phrase might be: " OK, let me see if I have this clear, you are asking how I view x, (or how I determined y or whatever restatement of the question you can make.) Then say, is that right? About half the time, the questioner will complete or clarify the question and you have time to regain your footing. If they say "that's right" then you have the same range of options -- "Let me get back to you on that," or "I'd like to answer more fully than I can right now, may I get back to you? Whatever phrase you have already memorized. Have a few of these to stall for a moment to recollect your place or to postpone the answer until later. Don't overlook the possibility of saying, I just don't have anything else right now, or I'm afraid my time is up but maybe we can talk more later.

You don't have to answer every question. I attended a philosophy lecture once that included the coolest non-answer, also the most outrageous sounding, ever. When asked a well thought-out (and, I thought, relevant) question, the visiting éminence grise looked down his nose and pronounced, "I am not interested in that question." It found it so funny that it actually contributed something to my own self-confidence. (His remark wasn't actually all that odd in the context of philosophical scholarship because philosophers often work on some questions but not others but I have always treasured his response for the boost it gave me.)
posted by Anitanola at 8:43 PM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hmmm...I had this problem, and for me it was linked to anxiety and depression. I would get caught in my brain thinking "they are looking at me, I am blushing, they are noticing that I am blushing and that I cannot verbally respond"...this loop was incredibly embarrassing and you can see (and probably know from first-hand experience) how it is a downward spiral.

So, I went to therapy and worked on anxiety and depression. Was on medication for about a year, which truly helped get over the initial deer in headlights reaction I was having. Overall, meds and therapy helped me get out of my own head in terms of the extreme self-consciousness that was going on.

I also have a tendency towards thinking I need to be perfect (though I obviously know I am far from it), and was very, very hard on myself every time this scenario (feeling like I didn't know what to say, people staring at me, I'm turning red, I hate this, I look stupid, etc) came about. And, oh man, it was so much worse when people would comment on it. Anyway, I worked being ok with not knowing. Many folks have provided statements to help buy time, which is super helpful too. But it is also ok to not immediately have an answer. I often say "I'll need a little time to think about that/look into that, and I will get back to you."

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. It is hard and if you are like me, you beat yourself up an awful lot about it. Keep in mind that we are our own worst critics, and it is very likely that the other person is not thinking about it to the degree, or in the same light, that you are.
posted by retrofitted at 9:46 PM on September 7, 2012

Here is part of the reason that practice helps: if someone asks you a question and your mind becomes a dark, blank pool, and you say, "Hold on, let me think about that for a moment" and then you sit there quietly and wait for your thoughts bubble up from the deep, you will find that they will surface eventually. And when you open your mouth and try to start explaining, at first the words will be awkward and jerky and will not fit properly in your mouth. But if you keep going--because where else can you go except forward if you've decided you're not turning back?--you will find that the words come more smoothly, even though words are not your native language. And you will find that people are willing to wait for you, and that they do not look at you like you're a strange small animal when you take a moment to speak. And so the next time it happens, and you find yourself again with a mind like a blank, dark pool, you will know that all you have to do is wait, and the words will come to you eventually.
posted by colfax at 2:40 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, sorry to double post, but I thought of something else: it sounds like you are getting put on the spot in a math/science type setting. A setting at least where you are interacting with people mostly through presentations. As a practical tip, take some discussion-based classes, like English or History or Philosophy, and practice formulating your thoughts there. There's less immediate pressure in a discussion class, because it consists a lot more of people spit-balling and thinking outloud and trying to formulate a clearer idea through arguing about it with someone else. The people you're talking with are also not necessarily the professor. This is different than the presentation model of interaction, where you're expected to be a temporary expert on something. If you're not used to it, a Philosophy class can seem pretty chaotic and like nothing is being accomplished at first, but if you stick with it and accept that it's possible to make progress that you can't always see at the time, you'll find after a while that you're having an easier time thinking on your feet.
posted by colfax at 2:48 AM on September 8, 2012

When I had to give speeches or presentations in school I just made sure that I knew what I wanted to say really well - not to say memorizing a script or anything, but just being familiar with the content and the outline of what you want to say. Also anticipate questions that people might ask so you can have answers prepared, or have answers to similar questions so you won't have to come up with your answer in front of everyone.

If you pay attention to the other speakers (especially in a setting like a college class where people are forced to give presentations and probably do not want to give them for similar reasons) you will notice that almost everyone shows some nerves. You might just be paying closer attention to the really good speakers and overlooking the hiccups in others.

I would strongly disagree with the idea that you would never get better at this because you are an introvert - I also do not think that is what Susan Cain's message is supposed to be. I'm sort of a mix between introvert and extrovert and - used to be a total introvert (trust me, I was the one in class who never said anything EVER) but now I have to be an extrovert in some areas of my life and I have adapted and that's that.
posted by fromageball at 5:19 AM on September 8, 2012

My intention was not to be discouraging, nor to imply that you will never get better at extemporaneous speaking. However, SOME introverts don't ever get better at it according to Susan Cain, as I said in my first comment. The point is the problem is not necessarily yours, but society's for expecting introverts to be extroverted, so don't feel too down on yourself because of this.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:14 PM on September 8, 2012

Give yourself permission to take your time. Rushing yourself adds a lot of pressure. Everybody knows that some people talk more slowly or deliberately than others.

Therapy would probably be extremely helpful as well. This seems like a pretty straightforward form of anxiety.
posted by callmejay at 8:51 AM on September 9, 2012

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