By Margery Myers, Principal
As an introvert who has been in very public-facing roles for most of my career, I’ve spent much of my adult life “putting my extrovert on” in order to show up as a leader in business. Showing up as a leader is really about demonstrating executive presence, and executive presence is fundamentally about confidence…not the confidence you have in yourself, but the confidence you inspire in others so they’re willing to follow where you’re leading.
What I’ve learned from both personal experience and from coaching other executives is that executive presence is harder for introverts than extroverts. From quickly establishing rapport to speaking up in meetings, many of the subtle interpersonal behaviors that signal leadership just come more naturally to extroverts. But that doesn’t mean that introverts need to “act” to demonstrate executive presence. And they shouldn’t because one of the elements of executive presence is to be authentic. So how can introverts show up as a leader while still being themselves? Here are three techniques introverts can use to comfortably command the room:
Prepare to Speak Up
One introverted client of mine was frequently in meetings with the CEO and others members of the Executive Committee. He was frustrated because less knowledgeable people in the room would get kudos for expressing ideas he had thought of, but kept to himself because the ideas seemed so blatantly obvious. He didn’t want to be “one of those people who talk in meetings but have nothing to say.” He also didn’t feel like he was quick on his feet when the conversation veered off in different directions. So, he stayed silent except when asked a direct question. As a result, people perceived him as less confident, more deferential, and therefore, more junior.
As Susan Cain notes in her excellent book Quiet, introverts like to reflect before they speak. They’re not about “faking it until you make it.” The good news was that just by looking at his calendar, my client could find out the topic of the meeting in advance. Then, we used two simple tools to help him prepare. The first, “Audience Agenda,” helped him understand what really mattered to his audience—and more important, why it mattered. Once he had shifted his mindset, we used another tool we call “Quick Prep” to identify the key questions the Executive Committee might have and answer them in bullet point fashion. The whole exercise took about 15-20 minutes, and he walked into the next meeting armed with relevant points to contribute seemingly “off the cuff.” It wasn’t long before the senior executives were eager to hear what he had to say because in their minds he had earned a seat at the table.
What made all the difference was preparation. Introverts learning to “put their extrovert on” must recognize that for them, winging it doesn’t work. Reflecting and collecting their thoughts ahead of time does.
Tell A Story
One of the best parts of our “Speak Like a CEO” Boot Camp is always the morning of the second day. That’s when everyone gets up in front of the group and relates a story about themselves. As people tell their stories, their demeanor changes. They become looser, more animated…more themselves. There’s a palpable sense of bonding between the storytellers and the listeners, who are all leaning forward in their seats, phones down, laughing, sometimes crying, barely breathing as they wait to hear what happened next.
Storytelling is a vital tool for introverts because it’s a way to connect emotionally without feeling emotionally exposed or inauthentic. I still remember the audit executive who was quiet and reserved during one Boot Camp—that is, until he got up to tell his story. He had the entire room in stitches as he vividly described what it took to get rid of a decades old, obsolete form that everyone still insisted on filling out every day: the person whose job it was to collect the forms at the end of each day, the collection cart rolling up and down the aisles between the endless columns of gray desks, the vault whose sole purpose was to hold the dusty stacks of dutifully completed forms. Everyone in the room laughed hysterically and kept repeating the story to each other afterward. And the quiet audit executive? He was the star that everyone wanted to talk to for the rest of the Bootcamp.
See Eye to Eye
One Sunday night, I was folding laundry while half watching the movie Avatar on TV. Suddenly, it struck me that the characters in the sci-fi blockbuster greeted each other by saying, “I see you.” I started thinking about what it means to “see” someone…or more specifically, what it means when you do—or don’t—make eye contact. So I decided to try an experiment. The next time I was at the grocery store, I purposefully made eye contact with the cashier while checking out, instead of absent-mindedly exchanging pleasantries while looking down to sign the digital receipt. The effect was literally, well, electrifying. By “seeing” her, I was acknowledging her importance. A big smile lit up her face, I couldn’t help but smile broadly back at her, and when we both said, “have a nice day,” we meant it.
As I continued my experiment in different situations, I realized how powerfully eye contact sends the message: I think you’re important enough to acknowledge AND I think I’m important enough to acknowledge you. When that visual connection is made, it immediately establishes a personal connection and creates rapport. For introverts, who typically need time to warm up to strangers, making eye contact is a simple yet tremendously potent way to demonstrate executive presence.
Being an introvert in an extroverted world can be a challenge but it should NEVER be about changing who you are. It’s about showing people who are you in a way that feels right for you.