PUBLIC SPEAKING IS THE NUMBER ONE fear
of many people. Why? Is it dangerous? Snakes can be poisonous;
they can kill you. It is easily understandable why people might
be afraid of snakes. Same goes for the fear of heights. You can
fall from heights and seriously harm or even kill yourself. But
what is there to fear about telling a group some information
they want to know?
Answer: They might reject you, think less
of you, or ridicule you. You might show nervousness or in some
way embarrass yourself. It is the same fear (greatly magnified)
that we have meeting a stranger. What will they think of me?
Will they notice I'm nervous? What if they don't like me?
Social anxiety disorder an extreme
version of shyness is the third largest mental health
problem in the U.S., behind depression and alcoholism. And yet,
most people don't know anything about it. We've heard of depression.
We know more than we want to know about alcoholism. Why
don't we know anything about social anxiety? Because the nature
of the problem keeps it hidden. "Can you see a movie-of-the-week,"
says psychologist Thomas Richards, "about a very shy person
who rarely leaves the house except to go to work, who has no
friends, and is afraid of answering the door at times?"
Who would watch a movie like that?
The authors of Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety
and Reclaim Your Life said that after their first book was
published Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety
and Phobia a television talk show called them and
said, "We want you on our show if you can bring several
articulate, outgoing social phobics with you." What the
heck were they thinking? Social anxiety disorder doesn't get
much coverage because anyone with the problem is trying to avoid
the public eye.
Although a lot of people are socially phobic,
even more are simply shy. Philip Zimbardo, author of Shyness: What It Is, What to Do About It,
says that there may be as many as eighty-four million shy people
in the U.S. Shyness may seem in some ways a rather mild problem,
but shyness makes it more difficult to make friendships and date,
it can prevent a promotion if a person is unwilling to speak
to groups, it causes physical discomfort and mental anguish,
and shyness is associated with other problems: alcohol abuse
and depression, for example. And besides all that, being shy
is no fun.
I was told since I was a kid that I was
shy and I believed it. But I didn't want to be shy. I didn't
like feeling insecure around people. I didn't want to be afraid.
I wanted to be free.
So when I was twenty years old, I decided
to get over it. I joined a program to train me to give group
presentations (to sell audiences on a seminar program). It was
an intensive six-month program. At the same time, I got a job
selling disability insurance door-to-door to business owners.
I was in dead earnest; I was going to get over my shyness as
quickly as possible.
I had a miserable, adrenaline-filled three
and a half months. I went too far too fast with too few tools.
I got in over my head. My anxiety was getting worse, not better,
and I failed to make money with insurance sales.
The pressure to make money intensified,
and so did my level of anxiety. It was extraordinarily difficult
to make myself get out of the car and walk into another store
to talk to a business owner who was already tired of dealing
One of my most vivid memories is sitting
in my parked car, crying like a baby. I was twenty-one years
old. I was five minutes late for an appointment, even though
I had been parked there for twenty minutes. I just couldn't seem
to make myself get out of the car and go in. And I hated myself
for it. I felt like such a weakling, such a pathetic loser.
I was talking to a friend of mine about
it one evening after another miserable day and she tried to talk
me into quitting. "You're not cut out for it," she
"But damn it," I said, "I'm
doing this to get over it! That was the whole point! If
I backed out now, I would have gone through all this misery for
My friend was also shy and she handled
her social anxiety by simply avoiding situations that made her
feel anxious. I didn't want to take that route. I didn't want
to live my life imprisoned like that.
I eventually had to quit the sales job
and get a job where I could make some money before I went completely
belly up, so I found a job as a waiter. It wasn't as difficult
as leading a seminar or selling insurance, but at least I was
standing in front of strangers talking and making money. Later
I took the Dale Carnegie Course in Public Speaking and Human
Relations. Then I joined a Toastmasters Club (a club for
people who want to learn how to give public speeches).
It turns out I am not really shy. In fact
I'm not shy at all. But I do have a pair of adrenal glands that
react very strongly and one of the most common things they react
to in my everyday life is people.
My feelings of insecurity were the result
of the feedback loop created by my own adrenaline. Here's how
it worked: Start out with a world-class, fast-firing adrenal
system. Meet a stranger. Adrenal glands kick into gear. Feel
afraid and then start worrying that your fear will show and they'll
think less of you because of it. Result: More adrenaline.
The whole thing cycles in a self-feeding loop.
Public speaking was merely an exaggerated
example of the same thing. What I was so worried about was that
I would be too afraid. I was concerned I might appear so nervous
that I'd forget what I was going to say or my hands would shake
or my voice would quaver. They'd be able to see and hear that
I was afraid and think I'm a weakling, a chicken, an irrational
person. I was afraid of my own fear.
The self-feeding loop is one of the two
main sources of shyness. The other is a lack of know-how. People
the science of charisma
Ronald Riggio, the author of The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, How To Get
It, How To Use It, conducted experiments to discover what
charisma is and whether or not it could be learned. He found
that charisma is not a mysterious, indefinable character trait,
but a set of six skills. Some people learn these skills because
they've had a good example. They got lucky. If you weren't that
lucky, you can learn the skills on your own.
One of the six charisma skills is what
Riggio calls "emotional sensitivity." That means being
capable of seeing and hearing emotion in other people. Some people
don't do this very well. If you are shy, you are probably very
good at it. You know what people are feeling. You can see it
and hear it. You're "sensitive" to it. You're more
aware of it than the average person. Riggio found that when emotional
sensitivity isn't complemented by the other charisma skills,
it produces shyness.
Here's how it works: Bill meets a stranger,
which is naturally a little tension-producing for anybody. Bill
can see and correctly interpret the slight tension on the stranger's
face and body movements, body posture, etc. If Bill had the skill
to put the other person at ease, everything would be fine. If
Bill hasn't developed that skill, the stranger's awkwardness
makes Bill feel awkward. He makes less eye contact, he pulls
back, and he doesn't reveal too much about himself. Perhaps he
appears nervous or standoffish. The stranger's awareness of Bill's
tension makes the stranger feel even more awkward. And round
and round goes another feedback loop.
Bill walks away wanting to avoid social
interactions with strangers. They are too uncomfortable. And
of course, by avoiding those situations, Bill is creating another
feedback loop: If he kept putting himself in those situations,
he might eventually learn the skill of drawing out the other
person, carrying on an interesting and relaxing conversation,
helping the other person feel at ease, and so on. Since Bill
avoids all those opportunities to practice, he doesn't develop
the skill. In fact, his situation may well get worse, because
his anxiety level may increase with each new encounter since
he has so actively avoided those circumstances. Starting off
more anxious makes the encounter even more awkward, which makes
Bill even more determined to avoid that kind of discomfort in
the future, etc. What a mess!
If you're in a bind like this, what can
you do about it? Simple. Step one: Stop thinking of yourself
as shy. In many ways, you are what you think you are, and
labeling yourself as shy only makes you more nervous and withdrawn.
Think of yourself as simply lacking know-how.
Second, gain the skill you need: Social
competence. People-skills. Says Riggio:
the higher a person's charisma potential,
the less likely he or she is to be shy. Surprisingly, a great
many of our famous charismatic people at one time (usually in
their childhood and adolescence) considered themselves to be
shy. Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, and Gandhi were all once
shy individuals who forced themselves to overcome this handicap
by developing their social skills.
Right now I'm reading How I Overcame Shyness : 100 Celebrities Share
Their Secrets, which is a little book of famous people who
wrote to the author about how they overcame their shyness. There
are letters from actors, politicians and well-known people
Charlton Heston, Michael Jordan, Ed McMahon, Monty Hall, Buddy
Hackett, Merle Haggard, and the list goes on and on all
of whom were shy or still consider themselves to be shy, and
some of whom consider their shyness to be an asset, just like
Ronald Riggio thinks social sensitivity is an important factor
Without the development of several of the
other factors, social sensitivity just makes you extra nervous
around people and leads to self-criticism. That hits the nail
on the head as far as I'm concerned. Developing my skill in the
other factors has made a big difference in my life. I have gone
from feeling very shy to being comfortable in most social situations.
Riggio has broken charisma down into six
skills. I broke one of his skills into two, giving us seven skills
altogether. All of them can be practiced and improved. The more
skill you have in these seven areas, the less shy (and the more
confident) you will feel. In this case confidence is directly
related to competence, as it should be.
The seven skills (and ways to develop them)
1. Reading emotion: You are probably
already quite an accomplished maestro at this skill. People who
aren't can acquire this skill by observing people, trying to
guess what emotion they are feeling, and then find out if the
guess is correct. Over time, the ability to guess will improve.
2. Transmitting emotion: This is
the ability to communicate your own emotion nonverbally with
the tone of your voice, your face, and your body language. Studies
have shown that most people are not nearly as good at this as
they think they are. The best way to improve your emotional expression
is to try to convey more feeling when you're conversing with
people. If you want to improve quickly, practice in front of
a mirror or videotape yourself.
3. Hiding emotion selectively: This
is the ability to not show emotion, or show it, as you
decide. Some people are not very good at hiding their emotions
from others. These people have less charisma because sometimes
an expressed emotion is inappropriate. Showing the wrong emotion
at the wrong time can cause discomfort in others or make people
lose respect for you (having no emotional control is a sign of
immaturity and lack of self-discipline). Emotions are contagious,
and some are unwise to spread, particularly anger and awkwardness.
4. Noticing social subtleties: This
requires you to pay attention to others, to interactions, to
subtle clues. People-watching, and generally taking your attention
off yourself are good aids in training.
5. Knowing social rules: This is
knowledge of things like who goes through the door first, how
to introduce yourself to others, etc. things you might
find in a basic manual on etiquette or manners. These will be
different for different cultures and subcultures. Pay attention,
study, and ask questions. A good person to ask is a socially
competent older person.
6. Role flexibility: This is the
ability to play different roles with different people and knowing
what works best with different people. This requires that you
notice social subtleties, pay attention to social rules, and
gain flexibility in the way you express yourself.
7. Verbal expression: This is the
ability to use words to express yourself clearly and interestingly.
You can improve your skill by paying attention to what makes
some people interesting and others boring, and by practicing
what you learn. Increasing your vocabulary also helps. Reading
and writing help too. Spending more time expressing yourself
verbally is very important conversing, giving speeches
simply try to improve your ability to express yourself
Notice which ones you do well. But then
notice your weaknesses. The best way to use this list is to ask:
Which one of these skills are you weakest in? And then
work on that one. Make it a strength of yours.
After you have developed some degree of
competence at that skill, work on another. I did this very thing
and I'm quite comfortable now meeting strangers, putting them
at ease, and carrying on conversations. It's fun. The last thing
people would think about me now is that I'm shy.
I haven't changed much. I've just gained
some know-how and practiced it. I have enough basic know-how
(because of books and tapes) that I have a certain amount of
competence. I see opportunities to improve, to practice, to learn
in every encounter. It's like a game I enjoy playing. I don't
mean "manipulation." I mean the challenge you get when
you play a computer game or a good tennis game using your
skill to reach a goal you want. In this case, I want the other
person to feel comfortable, I want to feel comfortable myself,
I want us to have a good time together, I want to learn something
valuable, and maybe even teach something valuable. I want this
encounter to make a difference to both of us. I want it to be
a memorable meeting. I want us to make an emotional connection.
I know these may seem like big goals to
you and an awful lot to try to accomplish in one conversation,
but if you want the fun of a challenge, you have to keep increasing
your goals as your skill increases. At first you may have the
goal to simply put the other person at ease. Start where you
are and build skill. All you really need is the motivation to
Motivation is a fundamental key to any
accomplishment. If you want to develop greater people-skills,
it is only your ability to stay motivated that will keep you
trying week after week. And one important thing that'll keep
you motivated is becoming sensitive to the benefits of social
Richard Lucas and Ed Diener, the lead authors
of a study involving six thousand college students from forty
countries, found that when people are extroverts, it's not because
they are more sociable than introverts, it's because they are
more sensitive to the rewards of social interactions.
Introverts and shy people get just as much
enjoyment from social interactions, but they aren't attuned to
it. They don't recognize all the rewards they get from it, so
they aren't as motivated to try to be social. Conversing with
people is really one of the most fun things there is on this
planet, but if you don't realize that, you won't seek out social
interactions or try to get better at interacting with your fellow
Start now paying attention to the tremendous
personal rewards of conversing with people, and work to improve
your people skills.
Shyness is officially passé. We
have renamed it emotional sensitivity a key component
to the development of charisma.
To cure your shyness, develop
the other traits of charisma.