The Origin of Social Shyness
Margot Krasne, a behavioral and communications specialist, and author of Say It with Confidence, explains that some forms of shyness are inherited but, more often, shyness is reinforced through society and culture. In some cases, social shyness is a minor problem. In other situations, it can be debilitating, keeping individuals from achieving their true potential in their jobs and social lives.
Signs of Social Shyness in Public Speaking
When presenting in front of large groups, shyness manifests itself in a variety of ways. One example is the avoidance of eye contact; this may be not looking people in the eye at all or doing so for only short moments. While in some cultures avoiding eye contact is a social norm, in societies where eye contact is viewed as a sign of respect, avoidance may be perceived as rude.
Krasne points out another behavior of shy presenters: lack of facial expressions. This results from fear and is sometimes dubbed as the "deer in the headlight" syndrome. A shy person may be genuinely involved and interested in a topic, but her lack of facial expression while speaking may leave people uninspired or unable to share in her interest.
Demonstrating Good Eye Contact When Presenting
Krasne observes that effective presenters engage in a great deal of practice and rehearsal. This is especially good advice for shy people. Knowing what skills need strengthening and practicing those skills repeatedly helps to build confidence over time.
To improve eye contact when presenting, a shy person needs to practice maintaining prolonged eye contact. It is difficult to know when good eye contact has been achieved. Krasne observes that presenters, especially shy people, assume that gazing for a moment at someone in the audience is considered good eye contact. She argues that a presenter must not only see the eyes of an audience member but really "see" the people.
Communications coaches offer innovative exercises that reinforce good eye contact. The most important takeaway, however, is identifying intent; the intent for presenting should be connecting with the audience, assessing needs and gauging whether the message has been received. Good eye contact in this context is less about arbitrary gazing and more about looking at people and building relationships.
Effective Presentation Skills: Engaging Facial Expressions
Everyone has seen a presenter who is so shy that his face is frozen while his mouth moves. This same person may be quite engaging and animated when speaking to a loved one. Krasne's advice here is to practice the speech ahead of time, moving the facial muscles, even if the expressions seem meaningless. While this may feel strange at first, it creates awareness that facial movement is a necessary part of an effective presentation. When a shy person avoids a bland expression and is more animated, he/she puts the audience at ease and invites social engagement.
In conclusion, overcoming shyness in the context of public speaking is definitely possible. Shy people need to know that they can tackle their fears and develop the art of public speaking. Good eye contact and authentic facial expressions are skills that can be mastered. Over time, repeated practice can transform a shy speaker into an effective presenter.
Krasne, Margot T. Say It with Confidence. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1997.
More information on this topic is presented in Public Speaking Tips: Overcome Stage Fright and Build Confidence.