Communications skills: How to assert yourself in public

Public speaking is doubly hard if you're smart. Or female. Photo: Public domain.

WASHINGTON, February 17, 2013 – Have you ever felt nervous when you want to speak up in a group? Worse yet, have you ever been downright intimidated by the very thought of jumping in to a lively, contentious discussion. One article, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal, wonders if your main problem stems from the fact that you’re really intelligent. And maybe a little sheepish about letting people in on the secret.

The article in question, “Speaking Up Is Hard to Do” (WSJ, Feb. 7, 2012, D1-2), referenced a recent study first described publicly in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. That British publication reported discussed the reasons why some people are unable to participate as individuals in group discussions. 

The primary issue? People were unlikely to speak up in a discussion if they felt stupid when comparing themselves to their perception of others in the same group. But paradoxically, the article also observed, “The people who froze the most in the Virginia Tech study were actually the smartest.”

Conditions for the test 

For starters the seventy people who participated in the study received a standard intelligence test. Then, researchers divided them into 14 groups of five. Each person was placed into an MRI, and each received additional tests consisting of “questions dealing with sequences and spatial problems.” 

Have you ever had an MRI? Even if you wear headphones, MRIs are extraordinarily loud, not to mention irritating. The noise inside has no discernable pattern or volume. It’s random and varied. You have to lie still in a confined space. Depending upon the machine’s setting and what the scan is set to look for, the table you’re lying on may move. Normally, you’re inside the machine for 30 minutes to an hour. And it’s cold in there.

How long might you feel okay about answering series of questions about sequences and spatial problems? You’ve already got issues with non-sequenced sounds and cramped quarters. But now, well, it’s getting cramped and claustrophobic in there, and would someone please stop those irritating clicks?

Results of the testing

Women and people with higher IQs, the scientists observed, tended to do more poorly on the test. 

Researchers observed that some people recovered their mental acuity after an initial period of low performance. At that point, they began answering questions more accurately. The performance of other individuals worsened as the test went on. Of the low and high performers, 10 of the 13 high performers were male, and 11 of the 14 low performers were female.

For some test subjects, the more they saw their test rankings go down in comparison to their peers, the more upset they got as the test went on.

Arriving at unexpected conclusions

What’s intriguing here are the researchers’ observations concerning female and/or high IQ test subjects’ emotional reactions to their intellectual performance when their scores were compared to those of their peers. 

Granted, the negative self-judgment of these subjects seemed to be exacerbated as a result of low scores, and they appeared to exhibit a low tolerance for discomfort as their rankings decreased. 

But one can’t assume that women worry about what their peer group thinks any more than men do, or that women today have a higher need for stability or protection than men do. Further, introverts aren’t necessarily overwhelmed by extroverts. Sometimes introverts find a group of chatterers simply annoying—or boring—rather than being overwhelmed by them. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

The Self-Talk 

Of interest in this regard are two brief descriptions of “self-talk” by individuals who were interviewed for the articles but were not part of the test group. One doctor, a woman who is comfortable with her medical colleagues, is “struck silent” at barbecues and charity committees. Similarly, a normally talkative male online marketing representative gets brain-freeze in front of his boss, around others who may be more successful, and at dinner with his graduate-student wife and her friends. 

Both individuals began to interact in each setting but then concluded the chitchat and social bonding wasn’t working. They felt uncomfortable and then fell silent. Why?

MRIs register reactions that show us in real time what’s happening psychologically in an area of the brain called the “amygdala.” According to an usefully simplified entry in

“The amygdala is an almond shaped mass of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobe of the brain. It is a limbic system structure that is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those … related to survival. The amygdala is involved in … processing … emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure. The amygdala is also responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. It is thought that this determination is based on how huge an emotional response an event invokes.” 

But the MRIs that illuminate the activities this entry describes don’t tell why people react the way they do. Sure, the amygdala’s main job is to register “emotions and motivations” like fear. But fear can be caused by dozens of reasons both internal and external to the person who grapples with this powerful emotion. 

For example, some people care more for their fellow man than others. Caring on overdrive has lots of other names like worry, anxiety, and fear, all of which can be observed as activity in the amygdala.

Feelings are not necessarily observable by other people, and some people have more effective, closely self-regulated public selves than others. Such individuals can keep their feelings, both positive and negative, private if they so choose. Yet even privately held feelings can show up as amygdala activity on an MRI. But are these feelings objectively justified? It’s pretty hard to detect the difference between faulty and accurate self-monitoring if they look the same on test results.

People who clam up because of negative self-judgment and people who are introverts (not necessarily negative about themselves, but concerned observers in a healthy way) may test exactly alike in terms of brain activity while inhabiting radically different inner worlds. Obviously, there’s a lot here that remains to be explored, so women and smart people don’t need to raise the alarm. Or at least not yet. 


Frances Ponick’s bookOnly Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn 


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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from


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