I awoke one January morning from uneasy dreams to find myself transformed. For seven blissful years I had spent my time reading, writing and researching a book about introversion. But the publication date had arrived, the idyll was over and my metamorphosis was complete. I was now that impossibly oxymoronic creature: the Public Introvert.
Having never given a single media interview in the first 43 years of my life, I appeared that day on “CBS This Morning” to promote my book, a critique of our overly loquacious culture. Then I shuttled uptown to my publisher’s office to continue talking — for 21 radio interviews.
My book is about the power of being quiet. About the perils of a society that appreciates good talkers over good ideas. And about the terrible pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves and never to be visibly anxious. I believe all this passionately — which puts me in an interesting pickle. Promoting my work requires doing the very thing my book questions: putting down my pen and picking up a microphone. Now, in what I’ve come to think of as my Year of Speaking Dangerously, I’ve gone on national TV to talk about being the kind of person who dislikes going on national TV. I let my friends talk me into having a big book party, even though my book advises introverts to stay home on New Year’s Eve if they feel like it (I usually feel like it). And in February I took the stage at the 2012 TED conference before an audience of 1,500 people to critique a society that favors the kind of person who craves an audience.
For me, TED embodied the paradox that lay at the heart of my book tour. On the one hand, TED stands for everything I love. Its mission is to promote “Ideas Worth Spreading,” and how many tranquil evenings have I spent at my kitchen table, listening as thinkers of various stripes delivered eloquent soliloquies from deep inside my laptop? TED takes scholars and turns them into rock stars.
On the other hand, this approach emphasizes the need to be a rock star in the first place. TED presenters share their brain waves from a backlighted, red-carpeted dais while giant cameras glide overhead, capturing their every gesture from multiple angles and projecting them onto Jumbotron megascreens. Implicit in the stellar production values is the notion that people might pay less attention without them.
At TED, a mere speech delivered from the lectern won’t do. You have to visibly emote your idea, preferably without notes — a prospect I found terrifying. My first instinct was to make my case with facts and data. But I knew I had to animate it with drama and humor. So I talked about the time I went to summer camp as a 9-year-old with a suitcase full of books, only to discover that reading made you uncool. I described my discomfort on the first day of camp when the counselor taught us a cheer meant to instill group spirit: “R-O-W-D-I-E; that’s the way we spell rowdy! Rowdy! Rowdy! Let’s get rowdy!” I even performed the cheer — onstage. In front of 1,500 people!
I talked about my lifelong fear of public speaking, and about how I’d spent a year training in the style of a marathon runner to be the best and bravest speaker I could. (Some introverts are perfectly comfortable with public speaking; I’m not one of them.)
My year of preparation unfolded in three stages of accelerating dread. First, I joined Toastmasters, a worldwide organization whose members meet weekly in local chapters to practice public speaking. Toastmasters was founded in 1924 by a man named Ralph Smedley, who declared that “all talking is selling, and all selling involves talking.” This slogan is a little off-putting to someone like me, but I still found it invaluable to practice speaking in a supportive, low-stakes setting.
I also scheduled a two-hour crash course with TED’s speaking coach, who gave me voice and breath exercises. In one exercise, she asked me to inhale, open my mouth dentist-wide, and say “ah” in order to transform my naturally soft and high-pitched voice into a low and sonorous tone. This felt not only ridiculous, but also impolite, and she had to remind me repeatedly to keep my mouth propped open. In fact, all of the recommended techniques felt rude, which is no doubt why I was there in the first place. (In the end, I grew to enjoy the mysterious new sounds emanating from my belly.)
These measures helped — but not enough. My performances merely went from nervous and embarrassing to nervous and mediocre. As TED drew nearer, my butterflies turned into gut-wrenching knots. I spent a few sleepless nights during those final weeks thinking: I’d rather die than get up and give this talk. Was it feasible to call the whole thing off?
The week before the conference, I canceled everything on my calendar other than bath time with my kids. Instead of writing and reading and working, I hired an acting coach, Jim, and rehearsed all day, every day, Monday through Saturday. We started by sitting on a sofa in the back of the high school auditorium Jim had secured for our sessions. I told him, a bit weepily, that I didn’t want to be a performer. I explained that I love to chat one-on-one, curled up with my heels kicked off. But standing on a stage freaked me out. Jim, a former stand-up comedian and Shakespearean actor, somehow understood.
“O.K.!” he said, clapping his hands, “We’re going to spend our first day running through your TED talk right here on the sofa. Take off your shoes. We’re just chatting.” And so we did.
The next day, I began practicing onstage, Jim offering minor direction: Breathe before you start. Smile when you feel tense. When I stumbled over my words, he sent me off to rewrite my talk. But mostly he just sat in the “audience,” smiling up at me and nodding his head, encouraging me to speak as if this were any old conversation, the kind I’d enjoyed all my life.
The day before the conference, Chris Anderson, its curator, and June Cohen, the executive producer of TED Media, gathered this year’s roster of about 60 presenters in the darkened theater for a welcome and briefing. I expected an assembly of larger-than-life figures with stentorian voices, but it felt more like an awkward gathering of intellectuals at a faculty breakfast. I probably wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how to get onstage without falling down or throwing up. My fellow orators hadn’t come to TED to exude charisma (though plenty of them did just that). They were there to say what they thought, too.
In my case, when I finally took the stage, I talked about performance itself. In our extroverted culture, you’re never supposed to betray social unease or look as if you’re trying too hard. And I was trying very, very hard. It felt liberating, though wildly incongruous, to declare these things publicly.
I’m told my talk received a standing ovation. My husband keeps asking what it felt like, after all the Sturm und Drang. The truth is I don’t know. I have no memory of the moment — I was too numb. That was someone else up there: my metamorphosed incarnation, the Public Introvert.
But I’ll go on playing this new oxymoronic role. Partly because I believe it’s healthy for all of us (extroverts included) to stretch occasionally beyond our temperaments. Mostly because, for the sake of a book on the value of quiet, I’m willing to make a little noise.
Susan Cain is the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”