Can an introvert fake charisma on stage?
December 14, 2014 9:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm an introvert, and have made peace with that. Over the years, I've gotten much better at relaxing around people, but if I have to be honest with myself, I completely lack charisma. I'm in academia, which requires a lot of people-time: teaching, giving talks, and networking. How do I practice becoming a more engaging speaker?

I've been told I give good talks and lectures, but I also find that it's easy for me to lose enthusiasm and disengage the audience when they don't start off looking engaged. I guess I'm good at reflecting audience enthusiasm, for better or worse. For example, conference talks are great. Smaller classes where all the students want to be there -- wonderful! But put me in a large "colloquium" where half the audience members are there out of obligation (with some openly napping), or even worse, a required early-morning lecture where 50 students have reluctantly rolled out of bed and don't even enjoy the subject, and I completely tank.

I've seen speakers who can work the most disenthused crowds, and I want to be them. I'm also an underrepresented gender and ethnicity in my field, so having people skills is doubly important. I know it won't happen overnight; I just want to start taking baby steps. What can I do?
posted by redlines to Human Relations (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Just today I was talking to a comedian friend of mine about being an introvert and a performer. Our consensus is that you can do this.

While I'm not a performer or speaker, I have a very social career that requires me to constantly be interfacing with huge groups of people. I'm also an introvert. My solution is just to relish my alone time and give my batteries plenty of time to recharge.

FWIW I don't notice any real connection between "people skills" and introversion, aside from exercising those muscles feeling like a bit more of a chore than it might for some others. My guess is that you know what you need to do, you just need to make yourself do it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:04 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

For me, part of it is faking it a bit until you build some natural enthusiasm. I sometimes feel as if I need to break the ice to get us both motivated. A couple of things that help for me in front of larger crowds (as I have more natural motivation in front of smaller, more intimate groups):

1. Pretend, if you can, that you are having a conversation with a smaller group of people. Focus on the first couple of rows, as if they are in a small seminar or in your living room. As much as I can, I like to engage the audience with some questions and answering, a bit more Socratic. If you are lucky, you'll have a few people in the audience who will help facilitate a larger group discussion with you. It's more visually engaging with the audience, and it can help give the rest of the room the perception that there's a good reason to be interested in what you are saying.

2. Practice hand gestures that are not overdone, but serve to emphasize points. For some reason, using hand gestures in moderation give me a bit of energy as I'm working through material. I've also notices that they tend to capture peoples' attention a bit more than just standing there. I think because it looks somewhat visually interesting if done right, but it also suggests that you, as the speaker, are also a bit naturally motivated by the material. People are much more interested in hearing if it seems like the speaker cares.

If you can get really excited about the material, at some level, it's not about winning them over based on propositional content any more. John Wesley used to say, “Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles just to watch you burn.” If you can't do that, definitely a bit more moving around can suffice to build energy for both you and the audience.

As a final note, putting on a good performance or presentation does not have much to do with introversion or extroversion. Some of the best presenters I've ever met have been introverts. In part, it's because you control the show up front. That can be a relaxing thing once you get into the zen of it, which allows for more natural energy to come out that isn't tied up with being nervous or concerned with how you are coming across.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:09 PM on December 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

it helps to treat it as a performance, and like any live performance, live feedback from the audience can really buoy the presenter. but when it's a dead crowd, so to speak, falling back on the specifics of your performance (certain beats for jokes, quips, standby comments to fit the mood of the room, the presentation itself) helps a lot to at least approximate the charisma you describe.
posted by cendawanita at 10:09 PM on December 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

First, disconnect "introvert" from "lacks of charisma, lack of practice with creating an engaging public speaking style." Introverts are not necessarily shy, or socially awkward, or uncharismatic, or united in being bad at/disliking public speaking.

People always suggest Toastmaster for things like this, and really, a group like that is perfect, because what you need is practice and experienced critique, not a sudden switch to being extroverted.
posted by rtha at 10:11 PM on December 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

in other words, practice helps a lot. when you have the muscle memory down, it helps because it's one thing off of your mind as you roll with the actual mood of the room and adapt. panic because of a supposed missed cue can dissipate one's energy, I find.
posted by cendawanita at 10:11 PM on December 14, 2014

Can you take an acting class, maybe as an audit? That was one of the most useful things I've ever done, as an introvert and shy person. Less the "acting," more the "safe place to practice extroverted things where everyone is doing ridiculous things so I can be less self-conscious.
posted by Alterscape at 10:17 PM on December 14, 2014

If you're talking about lower-level classes - I remember one lecturer who scored major points with our (hyouuuge) first-year (required) class by (it would seem) anticipating that many had only begrudgingly signed up. She opened the class with, I think it was, "I know a lot of you are here for the credit, and that's fine with me. I want to make sure you get that credit, though of course I do hope you enjoy some of what you learn along the way". (Students at break: relief! She gets it.)

People appreciated that she was incredibly efficient - she distilled an incredible amount of material into very well-organized PP slides (available the morning before class, so people could follow along). Goals and expectations for each section were also very clear. She'd check in on the class after each module within a section, too. "Is it clear? I want to be sure you understand. We don't move on if not."

So, that was kind of her attitude, "I'm going to shepherd you through this stuff (which I care about a lot, but understand you might not). We're in it together". I don't know if that's quite your style, but it endeared her to a good portion of the class (judging by ratemyprof) and did actually help people understand things.

She didn't pretend to be a stand-up (thankfully - this student at least finds this approach annoying) or waste people's time with derails. She spent most of the lecture delivering the material, mostly while smiling, though she did pepper dense sections with the odd joke now and then to lighten the atmosphere. But she didn't see her job as substantially about entertainment us, as far as I could tell.

And that's it, bam, recipe for a happy and engaged class: clear, well-organized lectures; clear expectations; and a few well-time jokes (but no faffing). Probably 90% of more than 200 showed up.

In other words, most students don't really care about being in the presence of a great orator or comedian. They want to know the things they're there to learn, and they want things to be clear. (If you put the focus more on the delivery, you may feel less self-conscious, too.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:25 PM on December 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

Actually, better than acting classes might be improv classes. I did improv in college, and I attribute my current skill with public speaking (and job interviewing, though that's a whole other kettle of fish) to that experience. Once you can stand on stage with no preparation and make an audience laugh, any other speaking seems easy.
posted by Itaxpica at 10:28 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd like to point out that, by your description, you apparently have the skills and personality to delivery an effective presentation. Your issue - such as it is "your" issue and not, strictly speaking, the issue of the uninterested people in your early-early classes etc - is that you want to connect with them just as fully as the persons you already teach well. The point I'm trying to make is that you are not trying to fix a deficiency in your own skills. You are trying to learn new skills to help you reach the people who aren't interested in your topic. It's a subtle but Important distinction.

I think this falls under "advanced toastmasters". You're going to have to face the fact that if you get dealt these kinds of audiences where people are asleep or uninterested, you're simply not going to reach some of them, no matter what. Pragmatically, one thing might be to simply see if you can avoid teaching these kinds of classes. I don't like to pander to my audiences, but another thing might be making coffee and tea available? Drink your coffee with everyone else and see if you can get a discussion rolling with 2 or 3 or more people, and use the momentum into the actual class period? And - your own enthusiasm and animation will have an effect: if you're bright-eyed and smiley and eager to start the day, that is often infectious.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:50 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Consider joining your local Toastmasters club. You will get many chances to work on your on-stage presence, in front of people at various levels of engagement (depending on the club and day). Other members will give you specific, actionable feedback as far as what you're doing right and what could use some polish.
posted by pmdboi at 12:13 AM on December 15, 2014

I think you genuinely have to like people to get them to like you/want to know you/have charisma. If you stop fearing people as being a drain on your energy and let down defenses, it's much easier.
posted by discopolo at 4:34 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

You may enjoy the book "The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism" by Olivia Fox Cabane. It's surprisingly useful and doesn't have a lot of fluff.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:15 AM on December 15, 2014

I think that the secret of giving good talks isn't so much to develop charisma but rather to tell good, engaging stories that are relevant to the subject at hand. Try to start the lecture with a good story, and then illustrate important points with more stories. People love stories, and they hold the attention of the audience. See this blog post for more information about story-telling.
posted by akk2014 at 5:33 AM on December 15, 2014

I guess I'm good at reflecting audience enthusiasm, for better or worse.

You may be overstating your ability to read audience enthusiasm. Many people (especially senior academics) look bored when they're actually listening. And for every napper in the audience, there may be two other people who are interested in the material.

I know when I'm giving a lecture, as opposed to seminar-style teaching, focusing on the faces of the class/audience can throw me off kilter and make me lose my train of thought. I usually just don't look at them too carefully, and certainly don't make eye contact. During questions, obviously, engaging and making eye contact is important-- but during the lecture itself, you are presenting material that you presumably know well and have organized into a coherent narrative, not having a conversation.

If you are generally getting good feedback and people learn from your lectures, you're already ahead of the game, so worrying during the talk itself is only going to handicap you. If you find yourself getting negative feedback or the Q&A session reveals that no one actually understood your point, that's something to address in preparation for the next talk, never during a talk itself.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:40 AM on December 15, 2014

(I should add that I don't recommend staring at the floor, but something like looking at various foreheads in the audience)
posted by oinopaponton at 5:49 AM on December 15, 2014

Susan Cain's book Quiet has some great advice about how introverts can prepare to excel at doing traditionally extroverted tasks. Also, it's a great book for understanding introverts and how we tick.
posted by onlyconnect at 6:31 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I fake charisma just to keep my job, to say nothing of promoting my work as a science fantasy author. I do it by cultivating a persona suitable for situations where I need to be outgoing and charismatic. When necessary, I summon it and take care of business. Afterward, I let it go and revert to my true self.

There's no reason you can't do the same, even if you can't find your way to the Velvet Room. :)
posted by starbreaker at 6:44 AM on December 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've seen speakers who can work the most disenthused crowds, and I want to be them.

This, exactly. Listen to speakers you admire. Sit in on an 8am intro-level lecture of a professor who you think is doing a great job with their class. Spend time with your extroverted friend as she works through a room full of people. When I have to give a talk, I pretend that I am these people, and for an hour, that's good enough.
posted by aimedwander at 6:55 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a fellow introverted academic. I really enjoy public speaking, because I control the timing and flow of information.

I think you might be happier if you focused less on engaging the tough crowds, and more on making your own presentation crystal clear. Projecting competence and confidence matters as much as projecting enthusiasm.
posted by yarntheory at 7:46 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think that usually in even the earliest required lecture, or the biggest most right-after-lunch-during-naptime colloquium, there are usually still interested listeners. In your shoes, I would quickly scan the crowd, find a few alert, open faces, and consider them your "small class." It needs to be at least a few people, not just one, so your eyes will still move around the room. This should both ensure that you reach the most interested listeners, and also help you to hit your usual small class best public speaking tone.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:31 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

The most important thing for public speaking is, as almost everyone has said above, practice. Getting a space to do that is important if you want to improve.

Being well rested and practiced on the material is also fairly basic.

That said, there are a number of strategies that really help me:

Know the audience. Know what they expect, what they are interested in. Empathy is a really important part of speaking, to be able to read the room properly.

Know what you want to say. Every talk should have a message you are trying to convey, whether information or to change minds (or both) or something else.

How you fit what your audience needs from you together with the story you have to tell is where the magic happens, and where a talk succeeds of fails. Fundamentally, what a member of the audience needs to understand is: how does this help me? How does it improve what I know?

Your message needs to be structured (mostly) linearly, with enough breadcrumbs for folks to follow your thoughts. Clarity, repetitions and echos, a well chosen set of examples all can help the audience understand what you're trying to say. I tell the people I train to talk to think about this with every paragraph/slide they want to show: what does this chunk say? how does that fit your narrative? does the audience need it?

Practice is essential, but you also need to understand your goals for speaking and what the audience requires of you too. For an academic/technical talk, an organized narrative and understanding your listeners' needs are essential.
posted by bonehead at 9:09 AM on December 15, 2014

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