Stepping Outside Her Comfort Zone Pays Off

A student in my executive communications class is a well-spoken but introverted professional who works for a large healthcare organization. She’s been working hard on her public speaking skills, and it’s beginning to pay off for her career.

Paula serves as a subject matter expert on a five-person executive project team within her company.  They are tasked with research on Healthcare Reform and get together regularly via video conference to report to a dozen senior management executives located throughout the


state. Last week, Paula surprised her whole team by offering to be the spokesperson and deliver the report on the bi- weekly

conference. She admitted to me that she’d lost sleep the night before – rehearsing what she would say (somewhat productive) and fretting (not at all productive.)

When the moment came for her to speak on the video conference, she had five minutes to deliver the group’s findings. She felt prepared because she’d taken the time to list her main points on paper (a great technique for introverts, who feel less comfortable speaking without notes.) No one on the conference could see her notes lying flat on her desk, and they barely noticed when she glanced down discreetly for her next point.

The only moment that she wasn’t prepared for came when her video conference image went from thumbnail (comfortable and inconspicuous) to full screen as she became the main speaker for her five minutes.  She answered questions from the group about what she’d said and felt at ease, even without consulting her notes. She delivered flawlessly and was happy to return back to thumbnail size when someone else took the virtual floor.

Paula felt a surge of confidence after her speaking part, but the conference wasn’t over. The extended group had an interactive discussion about a particularly thorny issue, contraceptive coverage for employees of religious organizations.  Paula had prepared some thoughts about how to solve the issue, but never felt comfortable jumping into the discussion.  The participants threw out lots of ideas, but none seemed to provide a comprehensive solution, and so the video conference ended without a resolution.

After the conference, Paula received a called from her company’s Medical Director, praising her contribution on the video conference.  Paula, feeling empowered, offered her opinion on a solution to the contraceptive conundrum. Why not, she thought – mine can’t be any less helpful than what we’ve already heard.

She asked if he had time to listen to her thoughts, and he did. “Why not?  No one else could figure it out,” he said.  She presented her solution and when she finished, he responded with dead silence. Oh no, she thought, was he even listening?  Did I make an incorrect assumption?  Did I blow it?

It turns out that he was just processing. He startled her a moment later by shouting, “Brilliant! You nailed it!” The rush of relief Paula felt was only tempered by the thought that if she’d spoken up during the conference, everyone else would have heard him call her brilliant too.

Many introverts never take the leap that Paula did, but her process can work for them as well. Here is what she did right:

  • She volunteered well in advance so she could control the time and place she presented.
  • She prepared in advance and put notes down on paper so she would remember her main points under pressure.
  • She used her notes in a way that made her feel confident, but wasn’t obvious to her audience.

It’s not easy for introverts to break into lively discussions, and it’s not unusual for them to prefer to present their ideas after the group breaks up. Paula may have also chosen to send a detailed email with her solution to her boss or to the group, but she took advantage of the opportunity for a discussion when it came up.  A great follow up would have been to email a summary of her solution to him after the call; that way, her ideas can be forwarded to the group under her name. Her senior team member’s pleased reaction to her will certainly make her feel more confident about expressing her thoughts in the future. As they hung up, he said, “Paula, you really know your stuff.  You need to speak up more often in meetings.” I have the feeling she will from now on.

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