Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
How are you supposed to attract people to your businesses when you get anxious just talking to people?
Being an introvert is tough at any time. But, when you need to communicate on behalf of your business, it can be especially hard to muster the confidence that the world seems to require of you.
The longer we operate in the world of business, the more often we seem to find ourselves in challenging situations. This is just the nature of business — as things grow, more challenges appear.
Networking events, sales calls, webinar presenting, social media interactions, emails, conference presentations, client meetings…
… almost every aspect of operating in business requires us to communicate with people!
And, if you’re anything like me, it can sometimes be hard to muster the required energy to keep pushing your business forward, whether we run our own business or we work in someone else’s.
Is there hope for those of us who aren’t naturally comfortable with communicating?
Can you succeed at these interaction-heavy tasks even if you are an introvert?
What it feels like to do business as “an introvert”
It’s sometimes hard to explain what it’s like to be an introvert in this largely extrovert-oriented world.
Here’s a relevant example from a non-business situation: shopping in a supermarket.
A persistent problem in the life of an introvert
For my whole life, trips to the supermarket have been beset by a persistent problem — What should I do if I can’t find the item that I’m looking for?
Let’s say I’m looking for a can of coconut milk.
I can’t find it on the first shelf I assume it would be.
So, I make another guess and walk halfway across the shop to check another shelf. No luck.
Undeterred, I start walking up and down every single aisle of the supermarket, scanning all of the shelves to see if it’s there. I get from one end of the supermarket to the other. Still no coconut milk.
Maybe I missed it in one of the aisles?
I now have 2 basic options:
- Leave with no coconut milk, which I really need for the recipe I’m cooking.
- Ask a shop assistant, of which there are many around the supermarket (I’ve already passed at least 3 during my search).
I choose a third option. I go onto my mobile phone and search to see if this supermarket usually stocks coconut milk. It does.
On some days, I will then muster the courage to go and ask a shop assistant.
On other days, I will leave the supermarket with no coconut milk. Perhaps I will visit 2 or 3 other shops in an attempt to find a can without having to talk to anyone.
A waste of time?
The above example is a very common situation in my life.
If you’re surprised by the description of my supermarket trip. If you were reading it and thinking “Just ask someone where the coconut milk is kept!!”, I’m going to bet that you are more of an extrovert or that your introvert aspects don’t show up in this situation.
You might think that my approach to shopping is a huge waste of time and energy.
And it is!
I can spend 45 minutes shopping for something that should only take 5 minutes!
But, it’s also similar to what it’s like when we do business as an introvert.
We have to make an extra special effort whenever we have to talk to someone. Even if all we want to say to them is “Do you have any coconut milk?” we have to push ourselves to communicate.
In business, of course, communications are often more challenging than simply asking for the location of a recipe item.
On some days, that extra effort is just too much for us to handle!
Over the years, I’ve got much better at asking shop assistants for help. But, I will still check multiple places in the supermarket myself before I ask someone, even if the assistant is stacking shelves right next to me in the first place I check.
It still takes me time to muster the courage and energy to talk to that person. Even at 33 years old.
Over the years, I’ve also become much better at communicating in difficult business situations.
After all, a large part of my business involves standing on stages and talking to many people! (which I totally love doing).
How supermarket shopping relates to business
The similarity with business here is that if you are an introvert – or you’re introverted in some situations — you will likely go out of your way to avoid that challenging interaction.
Do you need to do more presentations to spread the word about your business? Perhaps you’ll put it off for months or even years.
Do you need to conduct more sales conversations to qualify prospects? Perhaps you think: “Can’t I just qualify them through an online quiz?”
Do you need to make cold calls to companies to try to book sales meetings with them? No f*@%ing way!
Communications that might be easy for extroverts are difficult for introverts.
But communications that would be difficult for extroverts (e.g. sales calls) are often extremely difficult for introverts.
Sometimes, they are so difficult that we would rather just let our business tick along at a less-than-perfect level of growth or income just because we don’t want to put ourselves through it all.
Does introversion really exist? A brief look at the research
Let’s be clear before I start telling you about solutions… I’m not a huge fan of the idea of “introversion.”
I’m not a fan of most systems for labelling and categorizing human beings. In general, I think that labelling humans is unhelpful and fosters a distorted understanding of the complexity of each human existence.
Even so, I talk about being an introvert because it’s a shorthand that people tend to understand. It’s a quick way for me to explain away a particular set of behaviours and “personality traits”.
But, does “introversion” actually exist according to the research?
Introvert, extrovert, ambivert
The concept of introversion/extroversion was introduced by psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920s. He also introduced a middle term of “ambivert.”
The basic definitions of the three terms are:
- Introverts get exhausted by social interaction and need solitude to recharge.
- Extroverts get anxious when left alone and get energy from social interaction.
- Ambiverts exhibit both introvert and extrovert tendencies depending on the situation.
By this definition, most of us are actually ambiverts. We’re good in some situations but less so in others. According to some psychologists, ambiverts make up between 50%-67% of the population.
Is there a neurological basis?
As a trained researcher — by which I mean I have a PhD, though it isn’t in psychology — my first question when dealing with any topic like this is to ask…
But, does this actually exist?
In the case of psychological research, I propose there are two signs that something “exists”:
- If there is a measured neurological difference between people who have been objectively identified as introverts and extroverts.
- If an objective measure of large populations has been tested that places people clearly into one of these two categories.
A neurological basis for introversion
As far as I can tell, there is some neurological basis behind introversion and extroversion. Specifically, the two groups have different responses to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that mediates pleasure in the brain.
Extroverts have more dopamine present in their brain and they become more energized when they receive the dopamine boosts caused by social interaction. Introverts are more sensitive to dopamine than extroverts so can become overstimulated in social situations.
Introverts, on the other hand, seem to be more driven by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine than extroverts are. Acetylcholine is triggered when people “turn inwards” and are in a calm environment.
But, neither introverts nor extroverts are wholly “dopamine-driven” or “acetylcholine-driven.”
Both groups — and the majority of people who are ambiverts — respond to both neurotransmitters to varying degrees depending on the person and situation.
What about my second requirement? That there are large, objective population studies into whether introversion-extroversion exists.
I’ve found it harder to find any satisfying research into this one.
I’ll admit, I’ve not done a huge amount of research into it. I would likely have to interview some people who did their PhDs on introversion-extroversion if such studies exist. There is a massive amount of research on the topic!
Most of the existing research that I’ve found takes it as a given that introversion-extroversion “exists.” They use standard tests for measuring these traits (e.g. the Myers-Briggs test) and then just perform their further research with that as their starting point.
These tests inherently sort all participants into the “introvert” or “extrovert” category. As a result, I’d argue that they are not good measures of whether or not the traits actually exist. But, please do let me know if you disagree as I’m always open to learning more.
Why it might be unwise to call yourself an introvert
So, introversion may exist to some degree.
Does it make sense to call ourselves introverts?
Some psychologists warn that thinking of yourself as an “introvert” or an “extrovert” can actively limit your possibilities to grow.
If we think “I won’t push myself to do this scary business communication because I’m an introvert” then we are actively limiting ourselves.
Personally, I think that it can be helpful to recognise if we tend towards introversion or extroversion. In particular, it’s helpful to know if we are more introverted because the whole world seems to be geared up for people who find it easy to be social.
As a result, a lot of business advice is aimed at people who find social interaction easy or even energizing.
We should recognise our own tendencies. But, we should not use them as justification for holding ourselves back from making ourselves better.
“Fake it till you make it” and other irritating advice
If you are an introvert — or you have, let’s say, “introvert tendencies” in business situations — what should you do about it?
How can you change what you’re doing so that you can thrive in difficult situations?
If you ask this question to others, you will often be hit by a barrage of advice.
I’ve found that there is a lot of useless advice out there. Much of this advice comes from people who clearly don’t know what it’s like to experience “introvert moments”. They often give vastly oversimplified advice that may have a grain of truth in it but is ultimately unhelpful.
Some common irritating advice is:
- “Fake it till you make it.” — The rationale is that if you pretend to be confident, you will become confident. While there is a lot of truth in this, the advice usually glosses over just how draining it is to “fake it” continuously. Sometimes we have the energy to “put on a confident face”, other times we don’t. The advice-giver usually has no idea how much energy it takes for an introvert to do this, which means it’s not very helpful.
- “You don’t talk enough. Just talk more.” — I’ve often been given this advice on days when I feel like I’ve been communicating and chatting a lot! Maybe I’ve only said a few things in a conversation, but I feel like I’ve been connected and engaged the whole time. As a result, it can feel like the advice-giver hasn’t even noticed my contribution. Telling us to “just talk more” can put a lot of pressure on us.
- “Just send 100 messages a day and you’ll get better at it.” — You can replace this number with whatever example of business communication you have to do (e.g. 10 phone calls a day, 1 presentation a week). The idea is that communication will get easier when you commit to a huge number of interactions… which is probably true, but you might also be completely floored in the process! There’s no such thing as “just” sending 100 messages for an introvert. At the end of those 100 messages, you may no longer have energy left for any other work.
One thing that is so irritating about such advice is that it is basically true!
There is a lot to be said for pushing yourself through the difficulties and getting more used to challenging communications.
Everything I’ve done in my life to become a better communicator has involved a certain amount of “just do it.”
But, there’s also a huge internal struggle that goes into doing this.
We burn up a lot of energy in the process.
And we must burn that energy if we want to improve… but we also have to be careful and kind to ourselves.
The real reason business communication feels hard for introverts
Not too long ago, I put myself through a particularly gruelling set of activities over the course of 3 months to “push myself out of my comfort zone” and take my business to the next level.
Over those 3 months, I delivered at least one webinar every week and I was trying to make 20 cold calls to tech companies every weekday.
This was extremely draining!
I don’t think I ever managed to put in all those 20 cold calls per day (the most I managed in a week was 10 on one day and a few on other days). I could spend my entire morning preparing myself just to make those few phone calls. Afterwards, I was exhausted and demotivated.
On the days when I ran my webinars, I spent the entire morning physically preparing for the event. Afterwards, I spent the afternoon crashed out and struggling to get more work done.
Is it worth it?
In hindsight, I really value the progress I made during those months. I pushed myself further than I had ever pushed myself before and all that activity did actually move the needle for my business in some ways.
Pushing myself through those difficulties also made me stronger and more confident.
The problem is that it wasn’t just those 3 months…
Afterwards, it took me almost 6 months to recover!
During those 6 months, I still worked hard within my “comfort zone” content strategy work for clients. I was still coaching my presentation and voice clients. My business was booming thanks to all the marketing work I’d put in.
But, the wind had been taken out of my sails.
I didn’t really want to talk to anyone (apart from my clients who I love communicating with).
I even questioned whether it made sense for me to keep doing what I was doing…
Why it feels so hard
All that intense communication that I’d forced myself to do was extremely hard. I needed a lot of time to recover before I was really ready to put myself out there again.
And that’s the real reason that business communication can feel hard for introverts…
Because it is hard!
Because it takes all of our energy!
Because there is no such thing as “just do X” and you will magically become comfortable with doing it!
If we want to consistently improve how we communicate on behalf of our businesses in a sustainable way, we need to change how we approach these difficult situations.
A counterintuitive way to communicate confidently about your business
How do we change ourselves to become more confident when we communicate about our business?
One highly effective strategy that I have used in various parts of my business is this…
Develop a new persona for yourself.
This might seem like a strange thing for me to say. After all, I’ve just told you that the advice to “fake it till you make it” is annoying and unhelpful.
Wouldn’t “putting on a persona” be the same as “faking it”?
But, no, they’re not the same.
The problem with “faking it” is that we feel like we’re trying to pretend to be something that we’re not. We are still trying to “be ourselves” and we struggle hard internally to “also be confident” even when we don’t feel it.
When we put on a persona, there’s an extra level of protection. We don’t need to feel confident because the persona is confident.
Suddenly, hard communications become a little bit easier.
What you can learn from professional performers
I grew up around actors.
I was the only introverted engineer in an extended family of actors and acting teachers.
It often surprises people to hear, but [a lot of actors are introverts.] Sure, a lot of actors are also extroverts but the idea that people have about actors is that they are all extroverts. People think they love attention.
In reality, it’s pretty common to speak to an actor off-stage and find them quiet and unassuming. Then, they go on-stage and blow you away completely because they’re so dynamic, confident and energetic.
This is also true of a lot of other professional performers including stand-up comedians, singers, clowns, street performers, magicians, and drag queens/kings.
Although people are familiar with the idea that actors or drag queens are “playing a character”, they are often surprised when I say that stand-up comedians are “a character”.
As an audience, we assume that stand-up comedians are the same off-stage as they are on-stage.
In reality, they aren’t the same at all.
Stand-up comedians are using a persona. This persona is a version of their real personality. Sometimes it’s very close to their real personality but often there are significant differences. It’s a “heightened” version of themselves.
To craft their persona, performers find parts of their own personalities that align with who they want to be on-stage. They then heighten those aspects of themselves.
This is partly why stand-up comedians are so funny. They are a caricature of a person.
The great news for us is that you can also apply this same idea to difficult business communications. You can choose which aspects of your personality you want to heighten in those communications.
What a business persona isn’t
When I talk about personas and acting and performance, there’s almost always someone who says “But I don’t want to come across as false I don’t want to look like I’m ‘acting’.”
There is a very common misconception that “acting” means “not natural.” This is total nonsense, but it’s a pervasive myth.
If you think about it for a moment, it clearly cannot be true that good acting and performance comes across as “false.”
As humans, we hate it when someone appears to be “pretending” and they don’t behave in a natural manner. If it were true that acting and performance was unnatural, we would also cringe whenever we watched performers doing their thing. However, instead, quite the opposite is true. We spend many many hours of our lives watching actors acting in movies, theatre, and TV shows.
We love watching people performing!
As long as our persona is drawn from real parts of ourselves — which is how all good performers create their personas — people will see your persona as being a natural part of you…
… because your persona is a real version of you.
What your crafted business persona(s) might look like
Every time I encounter a new, difficult situation in my business, there is an opportunity for me to create a new persona… if a new one is needed.
Over the years, I’ve discovered various versions of myself that I can harness depending on the specific business situation that I’m in.
To other people, these versions of me probably look quite similar to each other — though, I’ve often had comments from people who have only met shy, “Introvert Alex” in social situations and are surprised when they see me performing on stage as Presentation Alex. These two personas are the extreme ends of my personality.
Here are my business personas:
- Presentation Alex — When I’m speaking from a stage, I am pretty high energy. I stride around the stage, I chat to the audience, and my delivery constantly changes and adapts to the particular material I’m delivering. Presentation Alex requires a lot of energy but that’s okay because the longest I’d ever use him continuously is in a workshop for a few hours.
- Coaching Alex — When I’m coaching my presentation clients, my energy is more calm and focused than it is when I’m on stage. My entire concentration is placed on the client and I listen and respond intently to what they are doing. I sometimes switch to Presentation Alex when I need to demonstrate something, but otherwise, this is mostly a receptive persona.
- Leader Alex — The longer I operate in business, the more often I’m required to take leadership roles. This requires a different level of energy from the previous two personas. As a leader, I am more of a facilitator than a speaker or coach — my prime focuses are “moving things along” and making sure that everyone gets a chance to contribute. Leader Alex is similar to Coaching Alex in energy, but “he” ultimately tends to make decisions whereas, as a coach, I encourage the client to drive the decisions.
- Networking Alex — I developed Networking Alex when I discovered that bringing Presentation Alex to a long networking event (e.g. a conference) would burn me out completely after just a few hours. I explain in the next section how I created him.
- Sales Alex — I still consider this to be a very fledgling persona. Sales Alex is not as well developed as, say, Presentation Alex, but he’s getting there. There is an odd dynamic in sales conversations because you are driving towards a particular outcome, usually in a very limited timeframe. It requires a persona that is both receptive but also assertive.
- Social media Alex — For years, I rarely posted a comment on social media and I certainly didn’t post status updates. Whenever I did post a comment, it would easily take me 30 minutes to write just one response. More recently, I have become more strategic about social media for my business. I need to post regularly and engage via comments. As a result, I have had to develop a new persona online which sounds authentic and chatty, and also allows me to post 30-50 insightful and considered comments per hour.
- Phone call Alex — I’ve always been terrible on the phone. Throughout my life, I would always leave phone calling up to someone else. But, my business has required me to become better on the phone. As a result, another persona has emerged for phone calls.
- Introvert Alex — Let’s not forget my “introvert self.” This version of me is the one that I most consider as being “myself.” It’s the version of me that I revert to when I’m tired, ill, or just not feeling great.
Is Introvert Alex “the real me”?
I’m not sure.
All of my other personas also feel “real” and they are all authentic reflections of my personality. But, they all have a time limit because they expend energy.
Introvert Alex is what I revert to when that time limit runs out.
My “persona” approach is similar — though not identical — to the idea of creating an Alter Ego, which Todd Herman has written a very useful book about. My approach to creating your personas involves less “invention” and “borrowing” than Todd’s approach. Mine is more focused on finding aspects within your own existing personality that you can harness within your persona. But, both are very powerful approaches and it can be useful to have both in your toolkit.
How to build a new persona for yourself
Okay, so you know that you need to build a new persona for a particular business communication.
How can you build that persona?
The way I work with my clients is to look at what strengths they already have. I look at what they are already capable of doing and help them to heighten particular aspects of themselves.
Together, my client and I will explore existing aspects of their personality through how they use their voice and body.
We identify what qualities they will need in a particular business situation. I’ll then use a variety of different voice frameworks and techniques to help them to become comfortable working with their “new persona.”
For example, here’s how I developed my Networking Alex persona…
When I realised that Presentation Alex was too high-energy for long networking events, I needed to create a version of myself that would work more effectively in networking situations.
To do this, I went to various events and practised showing up to each one with different types of energy. I practised different methods of introducing myself and different ways of keeping the conversations going with new people.
To my joy, I found that I already had 2 “versions of myself” that I could harness in these situations. These were — in a way — “personas” that I had already used before in my life — though, at the time, I didn’t think of them as being personas.
Networking Alex is built from these 2 existing versions of myself:
- He has the energy level that I used to use when I worked as a waiter and bartender in the catering industry. This is an energy that I can sustain over a long shift while also doing a lot of high-energy work. Also, it gives me the ability to give all my attention to one person but also break off that conversation easily and move to another person, which you do all the time when you are a bartender or waiter.
- He has the questioning power of my “journalist persona” which is the version of me that shows up when I’m interviewing sources for an article. This gives him a great energy for really learning about people’s businesses and making a deeper connection with them. It makes Networking Alex always interested in finding out more about the person I’m speaking to, which is a great trait for networking.
It’s impossible for me to say exactly how you will be able to develop your own persona for your chosen business communication because I’m only writing about the process. I would need to see what you are already capable of and understand the situation you are developing the persona for.
But, hopefully, this gives you a snapshot of the general approach.
How to truly stand out in your industry with a clear business voice
What’s the benefit of using a persona in your business?
Apart from the increase in confidence that it gives you, it can also be a powerful way to help you stand out in your industry.
People are drawn to businesses that have a clear, strong, confident “voice.” When we communicate with a distinct voice that really shows who we are, we give people the opportunity to understand who were are and what we stand for.
Being an introvert often means that our voice is diluted. We find it difficult to really “assert our personality” because we are struggling so much with our inner world.
One great thing about a persona is that it is clear.
Your persona has defined lines. It has a start point and an end point.
When I get on stage to give a presentation, Presentation Alex is there.
When I get off stage, I can either revert to Introvert Alex if I don’t have to talk to anyone. Or, if I have to do networking, I can harness Networking Alex, who uses up less energy than Presentation Alex.
If I were to stay as Presentation Alex during a long networking session post-event, I would burn myself out quickly.
Start by building one persona and then work from there.
With a reliable toolkit of various business personas, you will find it much easier to operate in challenging business situations… even if you’re an introvert!
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