How I almost died on stage

I still remember that moment. Adrenaline was rushing through my body. I was alone, backstage, behind the heavy, black curtain. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear. All those people getting in the room, quietly speaking to each other, trying to find a comfortable seat, in the first row maybe, just in front of the stage. Just in front of me. For the first time in my life, I was about to speak to an audience of 100 unknown people. Me, alone, on stage, talking for more than an hour. No fancy widget to help me. No music, no video, no slides, no scenic effect. Not even a microphone. Just me, my voice, and the stories I knew. I was there to entertain those people. Me, the introverted guy that always had a hard time doing small talk with people I didn’t know. The guy that was wrongly declared shy more than once. Why did I make me do this? “Are you crazy?” my body asked me. “This is way out of your comfort zone. You’re going to die! Run away!” I was so nervous I considered listening to my body. Just for a split second.

But then I went onstage. And it was great. I loved talking to all these people, sharing fun stories with them. The warmth of the spotlights on my face. The smiles on the audience’s faces. They were all listening to me, enjoying the moment, just like I did. The adrenaline rush was feeling so good now. As soon as it was over, my body asked “It’s already over? I want to do this again!”

That’s how I became a storyteller, and I’ve been one for the last 10 years. I didn’t know it at that moment, but that was a pivotal moment in my life.

The nerd that had to talk to strangers

I was not a born storyteller. Far from it. Actually, I started as the typical nerd. In my late teens, I started studying computer science. I loved it. I was spending most of my life in front of computers, playing video games and programming stuff. It’s not that I was shy. I was (and still am) an introvert: I’d rather spend time alone, in front of my screen, or reading a book, than socialize with tons of people. And I’d rather spend time with a small circle of friends than in the middle of a big crowd.

I loved computers so much I became a PhD student. And all of a sudden, things became more complicated. I had to speak to people. I had to present my research results to colleagues. Not only to my supervisors, but to unknown people too. Researchers, from around the world, that were interested in what I was doing. All of them sitting in front of me, listening to me, while I had to talk to them. I had never done that, and nobody taught me how to. That’s one of those things we all have to do in our professional lives, but almost nobody ever teaches us. So, at first I thought “I just have to talk about my work, I wrote an article on that topic, let’s just talk about the content of the article, create a few powerpoint slides to help me remember the important steps, and I’ll be done. I don’t need to rehearse, I know what I’m talking about, I’ve been working on it for several months!”

Oh boy, was I wrong.

My first presentation was awful.

Trying to improvise my speech from my badly-done powerpoint presentation didn’t work.

I was mumbling, looking at my screen rather than my audience, and even I was bored by my own presentation! The good thing was I didn’t get a lot of questions at the end of my speech, because nobody actually cared. Everybody was working on his laptop, preparing his own presentation, reading his e-mails or browsing the web.

I was disappointed, but it was all my fault. I hadn’t worked enough on this presentation. I thought knowing the subject I was going to talk about would be enough, but it was not.

And I didn’t really know what to do. I asked collegues and advisors how they did it, and they gave me a lot of techniques:

  • don’t put you hands in your back!

  • don’t put your hands in your pockets!

  • make eye contact with your audience!

  • don’t look at them in the eyes, look just above their eyes!

  • imagine they are naked!

  • don’t read your slides!

  • don’t learn your speech word by word!

  • make beautiful slides with fancy transitions!

  • don’t make too many fancy transitions!

  • make a final slide with “questions?” written on it in bold letters so that people ask you questions!

  • speak louder!

  • don’t speak too loud!

  • and many others.

Some of these pieces of adivce were great, others were bad. They were more or less all contradicting with each other. Anyway, even if I improved a little, I was still a poor public speaker. Something was missing, and I didn’t know what. I was frustrated.

I actually observed something else that i didn’t like: my presentations weren’t great, but a lot of those I was attending were bad, too. People suffered from the same problems I had, but what were they? All of this was unclear.

The storytelling revelation

A few years after my PhD, I attended a show. A storyteller. A friend of mine brought me there. “It’s great! you’ll love it! It’s like theatre, but even better!” I was not convinced, but followed her. And she was right! I loved it! The way the women on stage brought us in her own world, only using her words, with nothing else, no music, no scenic effects, and we were all captivated for an hour. How did she do it? I wanted to do the same! I was fascinated. At the end of the show, I asked the storyteller for some advice, and a few months later took some storytelling lessons. It had nothing to do with my job, but it made me better at it.

Storytelling taught me how to be a better public speaker, how to do better presentations, how to give better lectures to students. And soon, public speaking became a passion. I took theatre classes, I took improv classes, I became a radio host. Nowadays, I also give improv classes. All these fields taught me very different things, regarding body language, tone of voice, how to structure a presentation, how to recover from a mistake, how to deal with non-working material, and many other things most of us take for granted.

Why I think introverts can make great speakers

Actually, I think introverts make great speakers. Even better than extroverts, if you ask me.

  • We introverts need to think before we speak. And that’s not only a good thing in public speaking. It’s a core requirement. The more you think, the more you prepare, the more you rehearse, the better.

  • We introverts don’t like to be interrupted when we speak, and we don’t want to interrupt others. In day-to-day life, this is a curse. Extroverts keep doing it, interrupting us, interrupting each other, and we don’t have enough time to think and don’t want to interrupt them back. That’s why we are the quiet people. But when you deliver a speech, a class or a powerpoint presentation, people won’t interrupt you. You can speak up and say whatever you need to deliver your message.

  • We introverts don’t like small talk, chit chat and gossip. That’s another reason why we seem quiet, and sometimes asocial. That’s why sometimes we think “I don’t like to talk.” But when we deliver a speech, it’s not about gossip, it’s about important business issues, some serious matter, or at least something that we care about. And we are good at it.

That’s why I think introverts can make great public speakers. But it doesn’t come naturally to most of us, and that’s why I started The Introverted Speaker. My goal is to empower introverts to speak in public and deliver greatly. To discover their inner speaker, and let them share their ideas while engaging their audience, in a world that sometimes seems to be made for extroverts.