Will everyone please shut up?

This month I experienced one of the most enlightening, satisfying and powerful learning experiences of my career.  It didn’t happen following any business coaching epiphany.  Not in a $2000 ticket “motivational” event by an A-lister business speaker.

It came about in an unremarkable bookstore in a small town.  With an hour to kill until my next meeting, I looked at the busy coffee bar ahead and found I couldn’t quite face the noise, the underlying buzz of chat, the “tap tap tap” of phones and keyboards. A little quiet contemplation was required.

So I changed direction and walked into the bookstore opposite, glancing at the new titles.   A small book with a completely white cover nonchalantly commanded my attention.  It was the best-selling non-fiction title ” Quiet“, by American author Susan Cain.  I have subsequently watched her on You Tube giving a TED lecture on the same subject. She speaks rather quietly, doesn’t “power dress”, doesn’t move or gesticulate that much, doesn’t use any notes, yet she completely captures the imagination and interest of her audience for 10 minutes. Bill Gates named this TED lecture one of his favourites (he’s a classic introvert).

What I learned from reading “Quiet” is that a really close and thorough examination of the nature and power of introversion was long overdue.  The book explained what being quiet can look like to some extroverts, and how it feels to be naturally quiet, or to be labelled as such by others who don’t understand or value that quality.

I raced throught the first few chapters, chuckling (quietly, naturally) as I read that the author, too, was always baffled by the “charismatic leader” types that assumed power or center stage as our supposed role models for business success. Whilst most were undoubtedly super-wealthy (the main measurement of their “success”), many  appeared to be (from their PR, their interviews and autobiography content) selfish, egotistical, insensitive, dismissive, arrogant and occasionally, justawful human beings!

I learned that I’m what Susan Cain calls a “chatty introvert”. Thanks to her clear and helpful way of explaining my type of strengths and leisure preferences,  I am proud and happy to be associated with the “i” word.  She tells me I’m neither unsociable nor weird. It’s just that I need a little privacy in order to recharge my batteries every day and then I can be my most creative. I don’t like making decisions there and then.  I want a few minutes to think (ok, daydream), preferably alone.  I’m not sulking (heck, I’m in the business of being chatty and cheerful all of the time); I just need a bit of space (yes, physical space, so leave me alone and don’t place me in an open plan work-cubicle situation and then expect me to perform my best!). I learnt that my kind of solitude is healthy, good,valuable planning and thinking time.

“Quiet” explained why I’m happiest and most productive working from my home office. I always worried I had skipped the “ambition gene”; weren’t we all supposed to want to graduate upwards to an even bigger corporate office with lots of fancy stuff in it? Er, no. It also explains why I was so unhappy in a former business life, where my creativity was stifled by the loud volume of a partner who simply wouldn’t, couldn’t ever shut up and listen!

In the context of how I can apply this learning in future PR and reputation management strategies, it’s been revolutionary. Now, I’ll be seeking out quieter personalities who can make reasoned, credible and powerful expert commentators on behalf of clients.  Their clear and critical thinking will be the ultimate crisis-prevention tool! Hopefully there will be fewer “off-piste” spontaneous media communications to manage (extroverts so enjoy initiating tussles with the press or courting controversy but their PR always has to mop it up).   I’ll shy away from thinking the introverts “won’t like/won’t cope with” the pressure or spotlight.  At last, an opportunity for them to express their great ideas clearly, without interruption by the perpetual “me, me, me” of an Alpha-type!

I’ll leave you with this final quote of note (aha, I’ve also learned I’m a poet) from Susan Cain’s book. It’s illustrating the worrying point that many business leaders are unable to distinguish between great presentation skills and true leadership ability. A highly successful venture capitalist said to Susan Cain, “I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they are good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas. It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent.”  Hear, hear!