The shutdown and business-as-usual related to the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging in lots of ways. But like a lot of introverts, I’ve also experienced some really positive outcomes.
For example …
- The ability to work from home continuously, surrounded by my own comforts — which has lowered my stress
- The peace and quiet of working largely by myself and in isolation — which has amplified my focus
- The lack of distraction from the live stimulus of an office — which has increased my energy
But as we're inching back toward office life (Showcase currently meets in-person one day a week), I'm facing the adjustment, albeit gentle, back to extravert-oriented business as usual.
Introverts make up almost 57% of the world population, according to a recent Myers Briggs Company survey. And if there ever was a perfect industry for an introvert, it's probably the software development industry. It attracts its fair share of people like me because the nature of the work requires focus and independent thinking. However, even in a software company, some roles demand more face time than others.
As the Boss - some say World's Best - and lead salesperson, my particular role involves connecting with and selling to complete strangers outside our company, and I spent many years working on "being outgoing" so I could do my best in this role. Now that we’re coming out of work-from-home life, I’m sensing I need to brush up on those skills again.
Author Susan Cain (who wrote the enduringly popular Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking) recently wrote a timely article for The Economist *, about being comfortable speaking to groups at work.
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Cain highlights the example of the tennis player Naomi Osaka, who recently left the French Open due to the contractual requirements for her to face the media. Osaka’s story is a great one in its own right, but I like how the author uses it as an example of something many of us struggle with at work: speaking in public.
While Osaka says she is protecting her mental health by refusing to participate in post-match press conferences, it may have been a good move for other reasons. One of my favourite books, Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith, notes: “Successful people are generally good at anticipating environments where their best behaviour is at risk.” Maybe in addition to being thoughtful about her mental health, Osaka made a decision based on self-awareness too. Perhaps her self-awareness is one of the reasons she was able to become a champion tennis player in the first place.
While I couldn't claim that my sales presentations are 'French Open for Salespeople' level yet, I’ve learned to work with the strengths I do have. I’m honest, transparent, and probably more straight-forward than the average salesperson. You won’t find me up on stage in front of thousands of people at a conference - but in a room with a handful of people, I can make a decent impact. Like Osaka on the tennis court, this environment brings out my best.
With this in mind, I wanted to take a closer look at Susan Cain’s top three suggestions in her Economist article — through the lens of getting back to sales and business presentations post-lockdown.
1. Expose Yourself to That Which You Fear in Small, Manageable Doses
Public speaking anxiety is the most common phobia — it's ahead of death, spiders and heights!
But for many, it’s a skill we can't do without.
If it’s hard to speak up in meetings, but you know it’s important to your job, Cain recommends starting small. Perhaps decide on one meeting per week you’re going to speak up in. Or commit yourself to doing one short presentation per month.
Doubt you can even do that much? Doubting your ability to speak without your voice shaking isn’t a sign of weakness. It could, in fact, be a sign you’re going to grow in important ways. In Think Again, Adam Grant advises, “Harness the benefits of doubt. When you find yourself doubting your ability, reframe the situation as an opportunity for growth. You can have confidence in your capacity to learn while questioning your current solution to a problem.”
The same advice applies to leaders already confident in their speaking skills, too. Cain suggests that employers create work environments where employees with public-speaking anxiety can flourish. If you don’t think you can do that — think again. The workplace has been an extrovert’s playground for far too long. Introverts have important things to contribute, too, and it’s up to leadership to give them more opportunities. Cain’s article has some excellent ideas for leaders.
2. Work Up to More Challenging Situations
Cain’s advice is to build on small, dependable successes that will train your brain that the source of its fear isn’t as scary as it had thought.
In this step, we’re rewiring our brains to calm down the fight-or-flight instinct when the scary situation comes up. I think this is the most important step, because the confidence you gain from this practice compounds and lasts.
The more you expose yourself to the scary situation (public speaking, holding a sales conversation, giving a presentation … ), the easier it is the next time — until eventually the situation feels easy. And that ease doesn’t disappear overnight. For me, I’ve been out of the face-to-face sales game for a year and a half now, but I am confident of my ability to get back into the groove once office visits become the norm again.
3. Speak From the Heart
Cain’s advice is to learn to speak from the heart, out of a desire to share valuable information and insights.
I feel like this one is probably the least challenging for most sales people. You can't get too far in a sales career without generally being armed with valuable information and insights for your potential customers.
Speaking from the heart - as far as that means bringing with you some vulnerability and humility - may be a bit harder, but my experience is that genuine humility does help build a connection in sales meetings.
Just remind yourself, it's ok to be wrong sometimes. It's ok to change your mind if you get new information. And it's ok if people disagree with you. They're all opportunities to build a real relationship with a customer.
Going into lockdown and making all the necessary changes to work from home seemed to happen lightning fast. Coming out feels a lot more gradual. As we slowly get back to the office, I think it’s ok and even worthwhile to take some of the lockdown lessons back with us.
As Naomi Osaka models, we must take our mental health seriously, and be self-aware of what situations bring out our best … and worst. If getting back to holding in-person meetings in a room full of coworkers or strangers makes you anxious, Cain’s article has some good advice to start with. And if you choose to work on your fear of speaking in public, know that you’re not alone. Many of us introverts are finding our way alongside you.
A message from our sponsors: Public speaking definitely goes easier when you have a striking visual aid to refer to, so if you need a bit of backup you can always crack out a beautiful interactive Showcase presentation to hide your introvert nerves.
Main image: Alison Courtney