A couple weeks ago, I saw this tweet from a student: "Being An Introvert In An Industry That Practically Requires You To Be Outgoing: a novel." As a self-identified introvert who struggled in the past with speaking up, feeling comfortable at agency events, and connecting with clients, I instantly related.
It's been said that introverts make up about a third of the population. We've been getting more attention lately and are better understood thanks to people like Susan Cain and Marzi. But that doesn't always make it easier to function when facing an industry that seems to reward extroversion. This is my attempt, as a bonafide introvert in advertising, to share the trials and triumphs you might face.
Let's get something straight: introversion isn't shyness, timidness or a dislike of working with others. While these traits may be correlated with introversion, they're not one in the same. At its core, introversion dictates how we process information and how we respond to stimuli—a result of neural differences in our brains. So when looking at things we struggle with, it's important to identify exactly what's getting in the way, and how your introversion is related.
Take my struggle with speaking up as a junior strategist. What held me back was fear of being wrong, or sounding lame as the least experienced person in the room—something which affects entry-level intro and extroverts alike. On top of that, studies show that introverts’ brains aren’t as strongly rewarded for taking risks as extroverts’ brains are. So while an extrovert may be more willing to take the risk and blurt out what s/he's thinking despite the fear, us introverts are doubly muted. The key is to reframe speaking up so it's not seen as a risk. Instead, that it's part of your job, that it's better to share and be wrong than to stay silent—so that both the fear and our brain's response to risk is minimized.
Last thing on speaking up—a loud, talkative voice doesn't equal the best ideas. Their ideas get through simply because they're getting them out there more often. So here's a trick: don't speak more, speak more potently. Use your strengths as an introvert—our ability to listen, to absorb contextual details around us, needing to think before we speak—to make more of an impact when you do speak. It can become something you're known for: powerfully thoughtful, well-formed input, delivered at the right moment.
Social events, whether with the agency or clients, are draining. I love a good team outing or Christmas party, spending time with coworkers who become friends and like family. But enjoying it doesn't mean it isn't draining. Introverts' brains require less stimulation to be excited and alert, and are often running a simultaneous inner-dialogue as we process information—meaning it's easier for us to be over-stimulated and feel drained by interactions with others.
I used to stress about how I left agency events (early and unannounced), only to realize it was all in my head—no one cared as much as I did. Be present with your work fam for the time you are there, then embrace the ghost exit. Removing the expectation that you have to be last man standing will lift the pressure, and make you more at ease. If you're a manager, you'll learn to balance your need to lead with your instinct to leave.
Small talk with clients has gotten only incrementally easier for me over the years, but here are a few things that help: setting aside a little alone time before drinks/dinner to recharge, interacting with only one or two at a time so I can focus, and being interested in who they are outside of work. Forming strong relationships with clients is monumentally important, so this is an area where we really have to push ourselves.
We need quiet alone time to do our best thinking. This isn't about always working alone, but making sure we have time and space within the project timeline to think in our ideal environment. Block off your calendar, turn off notifications—even just for 30 minutes at a time—and find some solo space. This could mean escaping to a corner of a common area with headphones, stealing time in an empty conference room, or going to a nearby coffee shop. When allowed to do so, we're better when it comes time to collaborate or brainstorm.
Finally, extroverts are your allies. Partner with them and leverage what makes them great at what they do. Discuss your ideas ahead of a meeting and create an alley-oop moment. Take their off-the-cuff ideas and build on them. While it may seem like extroverts are more visibly rewarded in the industry, the truth is that we need each other to do the work we do.
I'm convinced that being successful in advertising isn't about becoming more outgoing and gregarious. It's about understanding and accepting yourself, so you can work to your strengths and know when/how to push yourself. No one is purely an intro or extrovert—we all exist along a spectrum—and can work together to achieve great things our own way.
Here's some more introvert inspo next time you need it:
- The Quiet Revolution by Susan Cain
- An Introvert's Guide to Working in a Creative Industry
- 9 Excellent TED Talks for Introverts
- Introvert Doodles by Marzi
Shhhhhhh in solidarity,