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Blog Post

Eleanor Handley – HOW Design Live Speaker – on being an introvert, communication, and being genuine

By Ilise Eleanor HandleyBenun, Programming Partner and Founder of

Can an introvert be a good presenter or an excellent communicator?

Eleanor Handley says yes. In fact, she believes that even if you are the world’s shyest person, or even if you hate to present, or both, you can use the tools she teaches to make an impact and to do it confidently. In fact, she says you don’t need to feel confident to project confidence and it’s not about faking it.

About Eleanor:

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Eleanor has over 15 years’ experience in professional development, management and communications training for companies throughout Australia, the UK and North America. Now a lead trainer at GK Training and Communications, she specializes in strengthening communication tools for increased impact and influence, conducting group and individual training across the legal, finance, pharmaceutical and academic sectors.

Most recently she has coached professors at Columbia Business School, as well as a number of start-up companies looking to refine their pitch and messaging. She has an extensive background in the performing arts, including her Masters in Fine Arts from the New School University, a specialty in dialects and accent modification, and has performed on many stages throughout the USA, including a production of King Lear for President Bill and Hilary Clinton.

Q&A with Ilise Benun

Ilise: Does everyone need to be able to present their ideas, even shy people?

Eleanor: As professionals, we all have to present our ideas. So we want to get them across in the most impactful and memorable way. 

I think that one of the problems that people run into, particularly in professional and more high stakes settings is that our ideas of what good communication is narrows. There’s this idea of, “I have to be sort of serious and clear and articulate,” and it stifles our more authentic selves. 

One of the first things we talk about when we’re working with clients is the idea of re-framing what we think of when we think of presentations.

In fact, whether it’s to a room full of 50 people or for most of us the most impactful communication settings in our professional lives will be in a group of maybe two or three, maybe it’s just you and your boss; maybe it’s a conference room with 10 people. 

But regardless of how many people it is, we really want to start thinking about presentations as conversations because the most impactful communicators realize that great communication comes from being focused on the other person, and if your main focus is actually delivering a message rather than, how do I sound? Do I sound smart? Am I saying that right? Am I pausing long? Am I speaking too quickly? That turns the focus inward and ultimately diminishes your impact as a communicator. 

Ilise: I’m curious what your take is on introverts, especially and how they can communicate and present more clearly. 

Eleanor: That’s an interesting question. I love that. Well let me answer it this way. The name of the company that I work for is GK Training Communications. The G and the K in that stand for genuine know-how and that’s our philosophy. Our aim is to give people repeatable, actionable tools that they can use to come across as their most genuine selves, with emphasis on the word genuine. There is no one way of communicating. There’s not one great presenter or one great style. 

I think audiences and listeners respond to the sense that they’re getting a really authentic version of you. There’s something incredibly captivating about a quiet style; a quiet, measured mode that makes you come to them as a listener. You go to the speaker. 

But in terms of the skill set and in terms of these actionable, repeatable tools that I’m mentioning, the idea is that no matter how you feel, whether you hate getting up in front of people, whether you’re tired because you didn’t get enough sleep last night, whether you don’t feel like you had enough time to prepare, there are tangible repeatable, physical things you can do to convey whatever sense you want to get across. 

You might be the world’s shyest person, you might hate presenting but there are physical changes you can make to convey confidence, exuberance, energy if you so choose. I think that’s the toolkit, the empowerment we’re looking to give people. That’s what’s underneath the idea that you don’t actually need to feel confident to project confidence. 

Ilise: But you’re not talking about faking it either, right? 

Eleanor: That’s a good question. Am I talking about faking it. I guess I’m advocating something that might fit into that “fake it till you make it” thing. Although what you find is that if you change your body, you change yourself. The idea is that they actually feed into each other. It’s one of those infinity loops. It’s what we call the virtuous cycle of good communication. 

If I’m getting enough breath to project my voice loudly enough to reach the edges of the room, one of the things I can’t do when I’m breathing is speak. I’m giving myself an extra nanosecond to think of something smarter to say. Suddenly I hear myself saying something smarter and I’m connected to the audience so I see them maybe nodding or smiling. That feedback loop gives me the confidence, the energy to maybe go off in a different direction and reinforce something that I just thought of in, again, that extra nanosecond that I’m taking while I’m giving myself enough breath etc., etc. 

Ilise: So, the suggestion, from a physical point of view, is take a deeper breath or even to remember to breathe?

Eleanor: Yes. That’s one of our acronyms: RTB. If fact, if you would have asked me the one piece of advice that I would give, it’s this: if you do nothing else, take a breath before you start speaking. It sounds like the most simple thing in the world. 

Most people probably think, “Of course I do that. I have to breath to live.” But you’d be amazed how many people rush to speak, and rush to show that they’re on top of things and that they know what they want to say.

Ilise: What about preparation? I find that the more preparation I do, the calmer I am before any presentation. What do you think about that?

Eleanor: I think preparation and practice are essential and probably the most underutilized. Preparation is key but I think we need to shift our thinking about how we prepare. We walk into a lot of rooms with clients who are about to give a presentation and we’ll say, “Have you practiced?” They’ll put their piece of paper on the table with the notes on it and say, “Yeah, I sat down and I typed that out.” But the number of people that stood up and practiced out loud is slim to none. 

What we’re touching on here is this idea that you start to build these physical habits in to your process, from the preparation stage. It’s not an intellectual exercise. Communication is a physical art form. You can’t think your way out of a physical problem, so you need to start building these muscles of standing, talking, taking a breath, producing enough sound right from the practice stage. 

Ilise: What about transparency? What is it and how can we use it to be better presenters?

Eleanor: Transparency. You’d be amazed the latitude an audience will give you if you include them on the experience you’re having. By audience, I mean the other person in the room or the other 50 people in the room.

So rather than letting a mistake take you off course, a technical glitch with your slides or maybe you forgot a big chunk of what you wanted to say, if you just said something like, “Wait, I forgot to say the most important thing. Let me go back.” Or “I’m sorry. I misspoke. Let me start over.” Or even, “I’m feeling a bit nervous today. I’m not used to being up in front of a room with these many people.” 

Taking them with you, leading them through the experience you’re having, they’ll give you a tremendous amount of latitude there. And actually, it does a number of things that might seem counter intuitive. It makes you seem spontaneous, which people love. They love to feel that this is happening in the moment. It’s not just some regurgitated speech you’re pressing “play” on, and it makes you seem more trustworthy because you’re able to acknowledge what’s actually happening. 

And finally back to this idea of great communication being focused on the other person, it shows your listeners that you’re much more interested in them getting the information than in your “performance.”

So yes. I’m a big advocate for transparency and I think it’s probably one of the most underutilized tools. For some reason, we get up there and we feel this pressure to be perfect. So, I definitely would like to say, aim for flexibility not flawlessness. 

At the same time, there is no need to stop yourself and flag every single glitch. Let me share the 3 Fs of transparency.

  1. Fake it. If no one knows it’s happened and internally it’s not going to throw you off completely, move on. Let it go. 
  2. Feature it. If you’re particularly quick on your feet, if you can turn it into a bonus, “Oh, I’m glad I forgot to say that because it gives me time to mention A, B and C,” then great. Or if you can turn it into a joke, even better to get an audience laughing.
  3. Fix it. This is probably the most useful one, just fix it. Fix it out loud. Let the audience know what you’re doing. “I’m just going to get these slides working. There we go,” and move on. 

Ilise: Here is my last question for you: Is there a way to read something aloud that is that is more effective or more engaging than the boring way most people read things aloud?

Eleanor: This actually ties back to transparency. The power of just saying, “I’m going to read this verbatim because I don’t want to forget anything.” Already you’ve invited the audience into what’s going on, rather than just getting up and starting to read from the page. They’re going to feel like they’re part of the experience. 

Also, the thing that is going to make any presentation feel more spontaneous is being in a constant feedback loop with the audience. So that, even if you’re reading, if you can know it well enough or even during the periods and pauses, you find time to look up and connect with the audience. 

It might be imperceptible, but they’re going to be giving you things. They’re going to be nodding or looking a bit confused. They’re going to be giving you nonverbal signals that allow you to modulate. Maybe they’ll laugh, which gives you time to decide, “Okay, let me take a little longer before I move on.” Maybe they’ll look confused so you’ll want to repeat yourself. 

Even when you’re reading, you want to keep in this contact loop so that a) they know that you’re most interested in them, but b) you will, as a flexible presenter, incorporate the feedback you’re getting into where you go next, even with written or prepared material.

More links:

Listen to the podcast here:

Watch the video of Eleanor’s 2017 session here: