My heart is beating faster than usual; other people are talking about things I want to hear, but I’m not listening to them. I’m totally focused on what I need to say, and saying it right. Just as I’ve got it perfectly worked out – what to say and how to say it – the moment is gone. ‘Okay, thanks for all your ideas and questions. Let’s move on….’
I have always been a shy person. Hiding behind something is often preferable to talking to a group of strangers, and public speaking is a nightmare. Over the years I’ve got much better thanks to job interviews, university presentations and going to quite a lot of weddings, but I still find being shy a challenge. Since I’ve been involved in campaigning on extreme poverty, it’s become more of an issue.
How do you network with like-minded people when you’d much rather just melt into the crowd?
How can you speak up about poverty, when you find it hard to speak up at all?
Here’s my advice to other potential campaigners who suffer from shyness or feel awkward talking in large groups.
1. Let social media be your friend.
I love being a member of Effective Altruism London and Results London, but although I enjoy their socials I can find the prospect of talking to lots of new people daunting. Luckily, both groups have active Facebook pages. This has meant I have had the opportunity to share ideas and debate issues without the pressure of speaking in the moment – I for one know I am far more articulate in writing than in person. Building up a presence on social media can also help when you meet members of the group in real life; you recognise each other’s names and what you talked about online, and instantly have a topic for conversation. It’s also useful for those times when you miss opportunities to bring up a topic or idea, and ten minutes later are kicking yourself; you can just say later over social media ‘Hey I enjoyed our conversation about x, here is a really good article with more about y’. A lot of people complain about social media stopping our real conversations, but I believe it’s often invaluable for kick-starting them.
2. Set yourself small challenges.
If you’re going to a talk or lecture, challenge yourself to ask one question. If you’re leafletting door to door, challenge yourself to knock on one door and hand over the leaflet in person. If you’re going to a meeting, challenge yourself to have conversations with three new people. You can repeat these challenges until they are no longer daunting, and then step them up. Remember that building your confidence talking to people in any area of your life will support your campaigning skills. Consider telling your manager at work that you want more opportunities to practise your communication skills, even if this is the last thing you want. It really does only get easier with practise, and being proactive about your development can only cast you in a positive light.
3. Don’t be too self-deprecating….
While it can actually feel less embarrassing to bring up your shyness yourself and make a joke of it, you can take this too far. Think especially carefully about telling people you aren’t used to public speaking before a speech or presentation, or apologising for stumbling over words; you are actually inviting people to focus on this rather than what you are trying to say. Also consider your lasting impression; if you give a bad presentation, you give a bad presentation, but do you really want to cast yourself as someone who always gives bad presentations? It’s harder to build your confidence and improve when you’ve constructed an identity as a shy person and told everyone that’s what you are.
4. …But do confide in a trusted few
Recently one of the campaigning groups I’m involved with asked for a volunteer to co-chair meetings. I wanted to do this (and felt it would be a good challenge for me), but was also worried about the prospect of having to speak to the whole group at every meeting. It helped a lot to just tell the person organising the meetings exactly how I felt; that I wanted the challenge, but it would be a challenge for me. That way we could both make an informed decision about whether someone who already had more confidence would be better for that role, or if this was a really good opportunity to help me develop. It can also be useful to talk to friends about your worries; they should be able to support you and build your confidence. Just being told ‘I thought you spoke really well today’ can be a big confidence boost.
5. Don’t give up.
I’m still shy. I’m still calling myself a shy person (which I just advised you not to do), and my progress becoming a more confident campaigner is still slow; but the progress is there.
Ultimately campaigning is about doing something bigger than yourself, and in that sense, shyness isn’t really an issue as long as you keep going.