Debra Fine: Bestselling Author & Keynote Speaker on “Small Talk” – Ep. 53

About debra Fine:

Debra Fine’s got a remarkable “rags to riches” story.

Discover how she built a thriving business in an unlikely field.

She’s living proof that necessity is the mother of invention, and in this episode we talk about her journey from feeling uncomfortable in social situations to building an impressive solo career as an author and keynote speaker.

A self-proclaimed introvert by nature, she had to systematically and methodically teach herself public speaking and the art of small talk. She soon learned that her methods and theories were resonating with more people than she’d ever imagined.

Debra Fine turned her greatest weakness and fear into her greatest strength and asset, and that’s why I love this story so much. She’s now a multiple bestselling author, keynote speaker, coach, and mentor to other authors, my own father among them.

Her story is proof that with grit and determination (and sometimes our backs up against a wall), we can persevere and achieve remarkable things.

If you consider yourself an introvert, or if you’re just shy, this episode is for you.

Full Audio Conversation:

Debra Fine Links:

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4:00 – “Shy and introverted people tend to be the nicest people on the planet—the nicest until we get into interacting with other human beings. And then the only person’s comfort we’re concerned with is our own, because we just feel like the spotlight is on us.”

6:44 – “Now I am not shy any longer, partly, obviously, because I’ve been rewarded with positive results from the tools I have.”

9:54 – “They needed… a teacher for small talk, which I just thought was crazy. Like what? I had just taught myself all this, and I thought I was the only one at that point. I really believed I was the only one that needed this. The only awkward, dorky person.”

12:15 – “One thing I learned that has made such a difference in my speaking businesses is: I learned that people wanted to learn exit lines. Now that sounds obvious now, but I thought small talk and conversation skills—I didn’t realize it was exiting people. I thought it was engaging people. So exit lines is a big portion of my books, my programming, etc.”

14:19 – “I thought, ‘Oh, people will pay you a thousand dollars an hour to speak?’ That’s interesting. And so that’s when I started knocking on doors. And in those days, we didn’t have the internet. So I had to use the phone feature on my phone and I made cold calls and I built a business speaking in that way.”

18:39 – “For me, I was being analytical. It wasn’t that I was like, ‘Oh, this is such a rush, I want to be on stage.’ It was more, ‘Oh, you should do that again. That’s how to craft.’”

21:30 – “I take a deep breath and try to become that person that belongs on stage, because that’s not really me.”

23:56 – “I just wore the same outfit all the time. It gave me so much power. You have no idea. And it still gives me power.”

37:04 – “I think introverts and I think extroverts—we all do it without realizing—we jump in and share our experience before we show an interest in the other person’s experience. And yet we know our experience. So don’t we want to learn about other people?”

39:19 – “[My business] has become organic, but it was pounding the pavement and cold calling for at least 10 years.”

44:03 – “When you’re in [a desperate] situation, you don’t care if anybody says no to you. You don’t mind picking up the phone. You’ve got nothing to lose. You got nothing to lose.”

58:32 – “I think people long to be connected, considering what we’ve been through and what we’re going through…

Every conversation is an opportunity for success. So whether it’s with your spouse, whether it’s with your friend—so many of us have been distanced from our friends because we haven’t gone out for happy hours, we haven’t done [these things].

And then all of us who are parents of grown-up adults, we can all benefit from skills in communication. Every conversation is an opportunity, but it’s up to us to put our foot forward first. Whether you’re an introvert or shy. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it. Life is short.”

RESEARCH NOTES ON Small Talk & Public Speaking: 

National Social Anxiety Center

“The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects about 73% of the population. The underlying fear is judgment or negative evaluation by others.”

Public speaking statistics, study

Nearly 30 percent of Americans report that they’re “afraid or very afraid” of public speaking.

Jeffrey R. Strawn, MD, FAACAP, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics

“The fear of public speaking is more common in younger patients as compared to older ones and may be more prevalent in females as compared to males.” 

A fear of public speaking often is present in individuals with social anxiety disorder, Dr. Strawn says, and these social anxiety disorders may affect 5 to 9% of Americans

“However, it is important to point out that not all individuals with a fear of public speaking have social anxiety disorder or another psychiatric disorder.”

Top phobia per state – study

The fear of public speaking is considered to be one of the most common phobias in the country. In fact, it’s even been estimated to affect up to 75 percent of the population. However, according to the Area52 study, Mississippi is the only state in the country where it is the top phobia among residents.

Harvard Business Review

Our brains have transferred that ancient fear of being watched onto public speaking. In other words, public-speaking anxiety is in our DNA. We experience public speaking as an attack. We physiologically register an audience as a threatening predator and mount a comparable response. Many people’s physical responses while speaking resemble how their body would react to physical signs of danger (shortness of breath, redness of face, shaking).

Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? – 2012 study

This study investigated the genesis of the often cited Bruskin fears study, reported in the London Sunday Times (see Watson, 1973), Spectra (see Speech Com-munication Association, 1973), and The Book of Lists (see Wallechinsky et al., 1977). This study found that public speaking was selected by college students more often as a common fear than any other fear, including death, just as the 1973 Bruskin study found, which was based on an adult population. 

When it comes to ranking top fears, students selected death as a top fear most often, followed by public speaking, and then financial problems. So, is public speaking the number one fear? The answer is ‘‘yes,’’ it is the most common fear, selected by students more often than other fears. However, it is not the top rated fear; death is. It is ranked among the top three things that students fear most.

Communication in the pandemic – video chat

Embracing video chat hasn’t been easy for everyone. Our new virtual normal has left some people feeling more awkward than connected. According to Alison Papadakis, director of clinical psychological studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, much of this is rooted in the “friction” that video chat introduces to social situations. 

Social anxiety disorder

Some people with the disorder do not have anxiety in social situations but have performance anxiety instead. They feel physical symptoms of anxiety in situations such as giving a speech, playing a sports game, or dancing or playing a musical instrument on stage.

Social anxiety disorder usually starts during youth in people who are extremely shy. Social anxiety disorder is not uncommon; research suggests that about 7 percent of Americans are affected. Without treatment, social anxiety disorder can last for many years or a lifetime and prevent a person from reaching his or her full potential.

Social anxiety disorder affects approximately 15 million American adults and is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobia. The average age of onset for social anxiety disorder is during the teenage years. Although individuals diagnosed with social anxiety disorder commonly report extreme shyness in childhood, it is important to note that this disorder is not simply shyness.

Why small talks make people anxious

Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist, says social anxiety is rooted in a fear of what she calls “the reveal” of a fatal flaw that will ultimately lead to social rejection. 

“This distorted fatal flaw is what we carry around with us if we have social anxiety. And we work really hard to try to conceal it, because we believe that if we actually engage, or if we stop avoiding, then it will be revealed, and we’ll be judged and rejected for it.

Small talk – Nicholas Epley, professor who specializes in behavioral science

Epley has spent years researching our general aversion to engaging in conversations with strangers. The overwhelming reality is that while we might say we dislike small talk, or even consider ourselves bad at it, it does make us happier to partake in it (no matter how awkward it is). 

“The result is so reliable, it’s almost becoming boring in my lab. No matter who folks are talking to, or what they’re talking about, it’s better than expected.”

In Epley’s most recent study with Juliana Schroeder, “Hello, Stranger?”, they found that while commuters on the London Underground knew that socializing would make their rides more enjoyable, they still felt apprehensive toward starting a conversation — out of fear of people around them not being interested in chatting, or fear of simply failing to strike up a conversation.

Susan Cain, best-selling author, self-proclaimed introvert

If you identify as an introvert, public speaking can seem like a daunting task. In fact, it’s tiring and emotionally laborious to express a personality that isn’t yours.

Public speaking is particularly difficult for introverts because it focuses everyone’s attention on the person speaking. “Self-promotion appears unseemly and it strikes [introverts] as crass.” 

World champion public speaker Dananjaya Hettiarachchi on why introverts are often better speakers vs extroverts

“When you look at introverts, they tend to be a bit more empathetic. When you look at extroverts, they tend to project. But some extroverts project too much, and they block out the audience. It becomes all about them. Introverts are able to structure content in a way that draws energy off the audience.”

Rebecca Vogels, author & speaker, on Networking for introverts: rubber duck storytelling

Originally mentioned by Andrew Hunt in his 1999 book, The pragmatic programmer, rubber duck debugging is a method for problem solving.  

The idea is, when a developer runs into a problem and gets stuck with their code, they need to talk it out. But really, they need to talk at something. So, they talk to a squeaky duck on their desk, explaining the code to it. 

By going through the code like this, line by line, they come to a new understanding. That might be clocking the problem in the code, or working out the missing piece. 

The same method can be used in storytelling. I’ll call it “rubber duck storytelling”. 

Study says introverts enjoy networking

“A study published in PLoS One (the Public Library of Science peer-reviewed open access scientific journal) showed that 83% of people got a positive boost from social interaction, whether or not they anticipated it would be a good experience or not.”

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