Did you know that Beyonce’s shy? Most people don’t expect this, because she’s so hugely successful and we tend to equate success with outgoing people. But that’s just one of many misconceptions about shyness.
In this article, I aim to demystify shyness and to explain why it’s an attribute, not a flaw. I’ll cover what shyness is, what’s amazing about it—potentially your own, but also other people’s—but also the challenges it may throw up.
We’ll look at how to promote yourself, and your work, if you’re shy.
Let’s start with presenting, as this is often an area of self-promotion that makes shy (or quiet, introverted) people feel uncomfortable.
I’m one of those people.
So in the lead-up to a talk or presentation, I write out what I’m going to say in full. I’ll then rehearse it multiple times, before getting on stage.
Often, when doing public speaking, I’ll even take my notebook on stage with me. And people sometimes laugh as I flick through the pages but more often, they say: what a good idea; having notes with you in case you lose your train of thought.
If you know you have a presentation coming up, sit down and write out what you want to say in full. Do it before the nerves become overwhelming. And keep these notes with you, on the day.
Now, as I said above: shyness is not a flaw. It’s not something to be fixed. It’s not something that needs to hold you—or your clients/employees—back. But it’s something that may require creative thinking in order to use it to your advantage.
If you’re shy yourself, or you’re working with someone who is, remember:
It’s important to prepare. The fear of presenting—at work, in public—can become quite overwhelming for someone shy. So knowing what you’re going to say helps.
But also, being open and vulnerable is ok. So in the same way that I’m telling you I write out my presentation in full, and take it along with me—you can do this too. Make notes, take them with you.
What matters is that the message is shared; that you get to say your piece. Not that we can get up and perform perfectly and spontaneously on the spot.
And later, I’ll come on to the advantages of shyness. But first, a bit of background…
For me, shyness started in childhood. I was born shy. I had an older sister who often spoke for me – and I was very happy about that, as it meant I could hang back, say very little and no one gave me much attention.
I sat still, sucked my thumb, observed the world and just joined in when I felt like it, sometimes not at all.
But when I started school, I realised that shyness wasn’t ok.
We were expected to speak up in front of our class, fight to be heard, perform in assemblies. And while I would have loved to do all these things—it didn’t come naturally. And there wasn’t any discussion about how it might feel, for shy people to be forced to participate in this way.
Now, if we were in the room together right now, I’d love to ask:
How many of you were shy as children—and to see who raised their hands. Probably quite a few of you would.
I know a lot of people who talk about their childhood shyness.
What I’d then say is: how many of you are shy now, as adults?
And I imagine there would be fewer hands in the air. Not because shyness necessarily disappears when we become adults, but because it’s generally seen as socially unacceptable to be shy as an adult.
And yet 50% of us are shy.
Perhaps a definition of shyness would be useful at this point.
Shyness is a personality trait, that comes partly from genetics and partly from the environment you’re raised in.
Some shyness is circumstantial – so someone who experiences trauma of some sort may then develop a shyness, or withdraw.
It’s often described as a ‘wariness’. So shy people may be wary of new social situations or new people and move at a different pace, in terms of getting involved.
I interviewed the psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg and she shared a useful description of shyness, in relation to social anxiety and introversion.
She said: “Shyness is more like: ‘I prefer to stand back and observe before getting involved’.
Whereas social anxiety is: ‘People are frightening and a threat to me/my self-esteem’.
Introversion is: ‘I find energy from spending time alone or in small groups’.
Versus extroversion: ‘I find energy from being with others’.
Introverts enjoy being solitary and are generally more reserved. It’s a different personality trait. Shyness is more related to openness vs cautiousness.”
Dr Svanberg also said that we need shy people. It’s an evolutionary thing. We need some people to stay closer to home, ‘protecting the fort’, while the others go out hunting.
And I’d add to that, by saying that we need shy people because otherwise the world would be incredibly loud. Shyness brings the peace; it creates balance.
If you’re the type of person who arrives at a party, or wedding, and you take bit of time to ‘warm up’ – you might be shy.
If you find starting a new job and walking into an office full of strangers daunting – you might be shy.
If you find yourself sitting at the pub with a group of people and realising that others talk a lot more than you – you might be shy.
Right now, at (hopefully) the tail end of the pandemic, lots of people are feeling wary about reintegrating into society.
Perhaps we’ve realised we like working from home, presenting on Zoom instead of ‘in person’, not having to make small talk during the lunch break.
People who may not have ever felt shy before are feeling a need to have more quiet, reflective time. Less time mindlessly chatting.
But for a long time, for most of our lives, many of us have felt a need to ‘perform’ socially. To be loud and funny and contributing to every conversation. And it’s so tiring, if that’s not your natural inclination.
For years, we may have been masking shyness – perhaps we down some Prosecco before getting stuck in at office parties. Or simply ‘fake it til we make it’—do the presentations, full of nerves, and never tell anyone we feel petrified.
So the fact that suddenly, life became quieter during lockdown… Less social. Less pressurised, in some ways—this may have suited shy people.
But what happens next?
Firstly, if you’re shy, it can help to openly acknowledge it.
This isn’t something to be ashamed about. It’s part of your personality. And all the psychologists and psychotherapists I have consulted on this subject assured me that there’s nothing wrong with shyness.
Shyness doesn’t need to be overcome. In fact, the world should instead adapt, the experts say, to make life more comfortable for shy people.
One psychologist, Dr Ruth Erskine, said that a shy child shouldn’t be forced to just fit in—to be loud, and immediately ready to participate. Instead, the teacher should create an environment that lets children go at their own pace; join in when they’re ready.
It should be the same in the workplace.
We aren’t all going to be shouting out in meetings to make sure we’re heard. Some of us will have our best ideas once the meeting’s over. So perhaps being given the opportunity to contribute after the meeting, via email or one-to-one with the chair, would create a more comfortable environment for us.
And if you’re thinking: well, maybe it’s easier to just employ or work with people who aren’t shy—well, that definitely isn’t the solution.
Because research shows that shy people have a lot to offer, in the workplace.
Shy people work well in teams, as we’re better at listening and sharing the stage. We think more before we speak. We observe social dynamics before diving in, so can be better at fitting in. Shy people are often more empathic, as we’re paying closer attention to other people’s needs and emotions.
But it’s not just about ‘fitting in’. Shy people also make better leaders. You see, when the loud people are chatting away, the quiet people are conjuring wild business plans, practising their art, getting creative, solving the world’s issues.
If you’d like some examples…
Richard Branson is shy. Beyonce. She created ‘Sasha Fierce’ as an alter ego to help her to get on stage when she’s feeling shy.
Mark Zuckerberg is shy. Elton John. Greta Thunberg. Nicole Kidman.
Rosa Parks was shy. And yet she refused to go to the back of that bus. You can be shy and determined. You can be shy and ambitious. You can be shy and hugely successful. You can be shy, and still change the world.
These people all had to force themselves out of their comfort zone, to get to that level of success. But now, we have an amazing tool at our fingertips:
When it comes to promoting yourself, as a shy person, the online world is your friend.
I’ve spoken to influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers who are performing all day on their Instagram Stories but tell me they’re shy. That if you met them in person, they’d probably say nothing.
For these people, it feels safer, performing to a screen than a real-life audience. And while I’m not an influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers, I do have over 14,000 followers—and I do a lot of ‘speaking to camera’ in my Instagram Stories.
I feel incredibly confident doing this. If those 14,000 people were stood in front of me in real life, however, I’d be petrified. So the online profile-building suits me—and other shy people—very well.
But still, some people find the idea of talking into their camera phone hard. So my advice is:
Again, prepare. Have a practice round—record yourself on your phone, do a short video. It can be a great way to rehearse. In fact, Judith Argent, a CBT therapist, told me that she encourages her clients to film themselves when they’re feeling shy or anxious about an upcoming event.
“When we’re feeling anxious about a social event or exchange—at work, school, with friends, at a party,” she said, “we have a fear about something happening.” So Judith asks the client for a prediction about what might happen if they go and start a conversation with someone and they’ll say, for instance: ‘I’ll look stupid.’ so getting them to film themselves is a way of showing them that actually, they don’t ‘look stupid’ when they talk.”
It can be the same when preparing to record an Instagram or Facebook Live—the nerves kick in and we may feel tempted to back out. So instead, run through it and film yourself, to prepare.
And remember, when you’re thinking: this is going to be a disaster, and generally catastrophising—re-frame this and ask yourself: what’s the best thing that could happen, if I go ahead?
Judith also recommends ‘Shame attacking’.
This means encouraging a client to do or say something silly. She’ll say: What will happen if you do this in public? And asks them to make a prediction. Perhaps they think people will stop and stare. Laugh. She says: and if they do, how will you cope? It’s about exploring all eventualities and how it will feel if it did actually happen. ‘Almost always,’ she says ‘their prediction isn’t right. Perhaps people do stare, but it doesn’t feel so terrible.’
I’d add that it’s worth remembering that no one else cares all that much if you mess up or look a bit silly. It’s the ‘yesterday’s chip paper’ idea. You share something on social media, perhaps it flops; perhaps it gets loads of amazing engagement – and then you move on. And everyone else does too.
And if you think: but my friends and family will think I look silly—or perhaps you have one person in mind who may take the piss—just remind yourself that you’re being bold and courageous and giving this a shot—are they doing the same? Probably not.
Another aspect of the online world I love is email.
As a journalist, I find it so much easier to pitch stories via email than I would on the phone or in person. It means I can think of a really good subject line to draw people in (one that will easily translate as a headline), and write a short, succinct email pitch without stuttering or forgetting what I was about to say.
In terms of getting that commission, perseverance is key. You need a good, timely idea, the right person to send it to—and then to keep checking in. It once took me three attempts to get a story published by a major publication. I wouldn’t take no for an answer, as I knew the idea was good, and eventually they said yes. It became a double-page spread in the print paper.
Being shy doesn’t make you any less tenacious. In fact, it may make you even more determined to succeed; to prove the naysayers wrong.
To end, I’d like to say that all the most successful people, in terms of careers, put themselves out there. It takes courage to do public speaking, to talk into your camera phone and share it online, to present at work, relentlessly pitch, to make small talk at a networking event. But every time you do it, it gets a little bit easier.