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Author's profile photo Caroleigh Deneen

Letting Your Shy Quiet Shine at Speaking Engagements

This month, I celebrate my 5 year anniversary as an SAP employee. When I reflect on these years, I am proud of the things I can do with confidence now, which I would have once shied away from. I give SAP a lot of the credit for that, as one thing all of my managers have had in common is challenging me to get out of my comfort zone and push myself in directions that may not feel natural, and giving me plenty of opportunities to do so. It’s part of SAP’s culture and commitment to nurturing professional growth.

As a shy introvert, the types of things that don’t feel natural to me are rather extensive — as in anything that has me the center of attention in a group setting. So this year, when that gentle push was towards a speaking engagement, no one was more surprised than me when I accepted. Yet accept I did, with the encouragement of Audrey Stevenson, Gali Kling Schneider, and my husband, to give a talk at the Gamification & Digital Engagement Strategies for Business Results conference in Chicago in October.

This post is not about putting a spin on my experience. I regretted accepting as soon as I sent the email to do so and I wanted to back out every day. I didn’t back out. (My husband stopped me.) I went through with it, and I can honestly say I’m glad I did it!

Not because it was a Hollywood ending and I overcame all my hang-ups and presented like a polished expert even though it was my first time. But because it was not a disaster and I learned so much by doing it. Yes, it could have gone better, and so here I am to (knowledge) share, in case I can help another shy introverted professional considering your first ever speaking engagement. Before you let yourself shy away, this is my pitch to challenge yourself instead.

Obviously, start with your own best practice research, there is so much available from the seasoned speakers who have been at it for years.On top of that, here are a few tips specifically meant to help your shy quiet shine.

  1. Trust your content
  2. Prepare extra material
  3. Say something they’re not expecting
  4. Connect virtually with other speakers and attendees before the conference
  5. Read Quiet, by Susan Cain and Presence, by Amy Cuddy before you go

Let me set the (speaker’s) stage for you. There were several speakers before me, so I tried to enjoy their presentations instead of counting down the minutes before I was going to be the one up there being stared at by all those people. I was holding up reasonably well, at least I don’t think I had betrayed my nervousness to attendees yet.

Until the speaker before me showed up. Can you say senior executive from Amazon? Polished, at ease, funny.

I shrunk in my chair.

Trust your content
I panicked. In the course of his presentation I second guessed everything that was in mine. I made the rash decision to slash, on the fly, the talk track I had rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. Being adaptive is one thing – it’s perfectly reasonable to read the room and the audience and adjust accordingly. That’s smart. Speaker panic is different. It’s rash. It’s impulsive. It’s driven by fear.

No one who went before me spent much time sharing their background or focus areas in their current role. So just like that, I decided to slash those two slides from my presentation. This despite the best practice research I had done to prepare. People want to know about you. They want to hear your story, and you can tell it better than the person introducing you whom you’ve barely met.

Then I worried the SAP Fast Facts I included would feel too much like marketing and flew through them instead of explaining why they were relevant – all those complicated transactions, driven by really sophisticated software help tell the story of why technologists rely on this community.

Prepare extra material
Of course I timed myself when I rehearsed my presentation. I had it timed to the minute. I hadn’t accounted for panic slashing over six minutes of material. That panic cost me substance in my presentation, and I ended up finishing earlier than my allotted time. I felt like I was cheating attendees out of learning time they had paid for. Realistically, most were probably happy to start lunch a few minutes early. However, next time, I’ll anticipate panic and make sure I have a few extra slides ready to go, flagged for skipping if I surprise myself.

In addition, I’ll prepare a few questions to ask the audience in the event of extra time. I did get some very thoughtful questions from attendees, which I was able to handle well, just not enough to make up for my content slashing.

Say something they’re not expecting
Each speaker was introduced by our conference facilitator. Part of the introduction included asking us to share something important to us that people wouldn’t know from our bio. As a mother of four, who left four little ones behind to get to this conference, of course, it’s my family. We’re supposed to be authentic, right? So that’s what I said, my family. The problem was, it had already been said by one of the “Dad” speakers. In addition, as one of the few female speakers at the conference, it was just came out so cliché. My children would have understood.

What my resume doesn’t reflect is that I’m actually an aspiring cartoonist that loves using illustrations to communicate complex issues. The illustration in my presentation was one I had drawn, and I didn’t even mention that. The illustration in this blog post is also one of my own. That’s much more interesting at a gamification conference than I’m a mamma who loves her kiddos.

Connect virtually with other speakers and attendees before the conference
I don’t know if every shy introvert feels this way, but interacting with large numbers of new people makes me want to run away. I’m not sure that is ever going to change. However I do know something that helps – connecting virtually first. Being recognized when you walk into a big room of anxiety reduces the stress tremendously.

Remember how in October we were in the middle of the community go-live? So stepping away for an extended period to enjoy my first trip to Chicago wasn’t really feasible. I flew in late in the afternoon the night before my session. I flew out just a couple of hours after my session. No time for networking except the morning of, at breakfast.

I had a list in advance of the other conference speakers, I should have reached out! We were using a twitter hashtag leading up to the event, I should have been mingling there. We had an app setup by one of the vendors to foster event-based communication and coordinating, I could have used that to connect with attendees in advance.

Social media doesn’t come naturally to me, but there is no doubt that virtual introductions are easier for me than in-person introductions. I could have leveraged that to make the in-person introductions easier.

Read Quiet, by Susan Cain and Presence, by Amy Cuddy before you go
I don’t think I would have the courage to share so openly about my experiences as a shy introvert if it wasn’t for Susan Cain, and her eloquent exploration of what it’s like to be one in a “world that won’t stop talking.”

This book changed my life because after I read it, instead of feeling broken, I felt validated. Instead of focusing on getting better, I started focusing on doing better – using techniques to help me find the initiative to do the things I want to do, but which my natural instincts hold be back from.

Now, I start meetings that way, sharing with new colleagues so they know if I’m quiet it’s because I’m listening.

Getting there and being fully there are two different things, and that is why I also recommend reading Presence, by Amy Cuddy. She shares research and techniques that help me every day bring my best self to challenging situations. Understanding how body language affects how others see us, and maybe more importantly, how we see ourselves, is empowering. Yes, of course I was power posing in the bathroom before my session.

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      Author's profile photo Matt Fraser
      Matt Fraser


      This is brilliant, thoughtful, and useful, and even though this is written rather than spoken, I see you using your own advice in the presentation (and of course, I love the illustration, just as I love all of your illustrations).

      Now I recall how you set me at ease during our video interview, um, how long ago was that? Two years? Yes, I think it was almost exactly two years ago. And you did that every month, with someone new each time!

      Bathroom mirror power posing, for the win!


      Author's profile photo Caroleigh Deneen
      Caroleigh Deneen
      Blog Post Author

      Ah, how timely a reminder of the good old ABAPer's Carol! You were a such a natural. Were you secretly hoping it wouldn't survive the migration!

      Yes, 25 member of the month interviews, thanks to the encouragement of Jeanne and Audrey, who let me approach the interviews in my own way, so that I could push through the nervous.

      Author's profile photo Jelena Perfiljeva
      Jelena Perfiljeva

      Caroleigh, what a delightful blog! Being an introvert too, I can relate a lot. Thanks to my mom pushing me from age 12 to participate in the school's political scene I can at least stand on the stage without fainting. Public speaking is not something I particularly enjoy but I feel it is an important skill to have. After all, if you want your message heard you have to speak up. 🙂

      I admire that you challenged yourself and took this so seriously. It always seemed silly to me to actively learn presentation (we can all point and talk already, can't we? 🙂 ) but you are right - presentation and public speaking are just the skills and can be acquired even by the shiest introverts. Your practical suggestions are very helpful. And getting "speech-blocked" by a star presenter - been there!

      As a long time conference attendee, I can assure you it is much better to end the speech earlier than to go on and on way over time. Now I can only hope some SAP executives are reading this too. 😉

      Author's profile photo Caroleigh Deneen
      Caroleigh Deneen
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Jelena. Great reminder about the power of early encouragement and exposure. I am indeed also sharing these experiences with my kiddos, so they can be more like you than me, getting comfortable on the stage early on:)

      Author's profile photo Mynyna Chau
      Mynyna Chau

      Hi Caroleigh, this is a very inspiring and encouraging piece to read!
      Thank you for sharing your experience and recommendations. I will definately have a look at the books!
      I hope we get to see more of your illustrations 🙂

      Author's profile photo Audrey Stevenson
      Audrey Stevenson


      No matter how many times someone has spoken publicly to large groups (I've done so a few times now), there are gems that all of us can take away from reading your blog post. It was a great read.

      I really appreciate you going to the conference in the first place to speak, as I could not do so at the time. Knowing your tendency to be "less extroverted" than I, I was surprised and DELIGHTED when you said Yes. I had all confidence in you and your knowledge of the subject matter.

      I absolutely love how you challenged yourself to take that step to be a speaker, how you made it a learning experience for yourself, and how you've now made it a learning experience for others as well by posting it here.

      P.S. I'd put in a shameless plug here for your wonderful illustrating talents Caroleigh (i.e. your 2017 calendar), but I'd probably get an Alert Mod. LOL

      Author's profile photo Caroleigh Deneen
      Caroleigh Deneen
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Audrey! Without your confidence and referral, this wouldn't have happened. Professional growth can't help but be nurtured by colleagues like you, who share opportunities, perspective and encouragement:)

      Author's profile photo Sean Fesko
      Sean Fesko

      Hi Caroleigh,

      Really loved this piece! You're not the only one who wants to run when confronted with meeting lots of new people! I'll have to check out the books you mentioned, and I'm definitely implementing your "panic slides" idea. I had never thought of having extras ready. Now I need the confidence to use them if I go too fast in my panic!


      Author's profile photo Xavier Hacking
      Xavier Hacking

      Great post Caroleigh and thanks for the Amy Cuddy book tip (I've read Quiet a while ago already).

      By the way: If I could draw like you, I would use those illustrations all over my presence. In my blogs, all my presentation slides, documents etc. It's really an unique identifier nobody has.


      Author's profile photo Colleen Hebbert
      Colleen Hebbert

      congratulations on getting waaaay outside of your comfort zone.

      I think it's great that you were able to share something about your skills/experience/knowledge that wasn't "just" a mum with kids. It goes to show that they're not mutually exclusive. You can be and excel at being both.

      Getting up at your first conference is hard. No matter how much your know your topics you can't guarantee who your audience will be (mine pet fear is that no one turns up to my sessions as there's a better offer). But hey, if you're talking to packed room or an intimate gathering in a ballroom you know they are choosing to be there and hear what you have to say

      Trust your content is good but I also expand that out to "Back yourself" - you know your content and have put the hard work in. Take that leap of faith that you can get up the front and have a monologue-style conversation with a group of people about something you find interesting and want to share.

      Still, a few presentations on I get worried I'm going to stuff up. Hats off to you and hope you keep pushing yourself outside of that comfort zone

      P.s. so happy you share your cartoons with us and thank you for the goat.

      Author's profile photo Florian Henninger
      Florian Henninger

      A good read and a wonderful cartoon. Thank you for sharing it.

      Author's profile photo Joachim Rees
      Joachim Rees

      Hey Caroleigh,

      thanks very much for sharing!

      I'm sure this is encouraging for so many who can relate to your feelings and fears!

      It's always good to be reminded that different people have different strengths and that trying out something new (even if you fear it) is usually very rewarding!