Speaking in public: an introvert’s perspective

I am speaking to two different audiences this week in Sydney, on two of my different specialisms; a seminar on Powerful Schools at Macquarie University School of Education on Wednesday, and a public lecture and discussion at the renowned St Mark’s Darling Point on ‘Bringing Up Girls’ on Thursday evening. As an introvert who has learned to develop a number of extrovert traits, I still ask myself occasionally ‘why put myself through the trial of speaking in public?’, but the answer is always definitively clear, and worth exploring here.

What drives me to speak and to lead discussion is, I realised a number of years ago, a passionate belief in the power of human beings to solve problems through collaboration. My role as a speaker is to share thoughts and ideas – and, by doing so, not simply keep observations and insights to myself that people may not otherwise be able to access because they are not deeply embedded in the same field. Having developed expertise and a specialist knowledge in an area of human activity that touches us all – young people, and education in its broadest sense, as a driver of future thinking in our society – gives me a privileged platform, and it is, I believe, my moral responsibility to use that platform to help fellow human beings through the sharing of insights, and through prompting and challenging their thinking.

speaking in publicThe key word, of course, is ‘sharing’. The best speeches, I feel, are those which create a safe space for people to be able to think, to ask questions, to ponder the answers, and to incorporate the thoughts and ideas of others into their own framework of thinking, which has been shaped over the years. Listening to a speech should not be a passive process – the brain will absorb, questions and reframe ideas according to its own experience, and if the person listening feels safe and able to ask questions, then not only does this reframing become even more personally pertinent, but it can enable the rest of the audience – and the speaker – to extend the scope of the ideas being discussed, and to take them into new areas of reflection.

I have always thought that the discussion following a speech is immensely valuable – the speech itself is an introduction to ideas, and a powerful vehicle for the sharing of thoughts and deep experience, but the subsequent discussion enables those thoughts to be owned and turned into something practical and used as the basis for further thinking and reflection. The speech itself acts as a catalyst and inspiration, and the real value happens as these ideas and experiences, carefully set out and communicated as clearly as possible, meet the minds and experience of other people, who can turn these insights into something meaningful for them – something that has the potential to influence their future actions and may help them make changes that will benefit themselves and others.

And of course, my speeches are all about change. Not drastic change (at least, not usually), but nonetheless fundamental change in our thinking, our actions, our relationships with others and with society more generally. As a human race, I believe that we are hard-wired to keep moving, questing, improving, doing things better and better for one another and for the world as a whole. Every day we take decisions and do things that make a difference, and the more deeply we can think about how to connect these decisions and actions, the more likely it is that we will be able to turn them into a greater collaborative striving for improvement.

This is what motivates me – and I hope that it inspires and catalyses in equal measure. And this is why I am looking forward to this week.

Dr Helen Wright’s latest book, Powerful Schools: How schools can be drivers of social and global mobility, is available from the John Catt Educational Bookshop and on Amazon. Her widely-read book on bringing up girls, Decoding Your 21st Century Daughter, is available as a paperback and Kindle edition on Amazon.

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