Dear Joyce: I am 27, shy, a hard worker and I obtained my current job through a community college friend, Jill. She got her boss to hire me. Then Jill changed jobs and I would too, except that I kind of blank out during tests and job interviews or when speaking to more than a few people at a time. My forehead sweats, my throat tightens and my brain freezes. I'm a mess.
Jill will let me know if a job opens at her office but otherwise am I trapped?
Dear M.J.D.: Have you seen a therapist to figure out why the cat gets your tongue? Joined a speakers club (Toastmasters International, toastmasters.org)? Nabbed a camcorder to practice, practice, practice effective communication? Sought a coach? Done anything to deal with your core shyness?
Your painful behavior may be more biology than bashfulness -- at least, that's the newest theory.
Yale medical school researchers have reported findings that stress interferes with working memory. If true, that's why you go blank when the spotlight's on you.
The researchers explain that stressful situations over which the individual has no control activate an enzyme in the brain called protein kinase C (PKC). This enzyme impairs memory and concentration functions in the prefrontal cortex, the executive-decision part of the brain. We all have friends who know the material but do poorly on tests.
Most intriguing, a researcher said a pill could be developed to inhibit PKC -- a Cool-Hand-Luke pill that nervous interviewers, uncomfortable test takers and stage-frightened public speakers would kill for.
Only problem: Such a wonder pill is years away, not nearly soon enough to transfuse your career with confidence in the clinches.
Until medical marvels erase your reluctance to speak up, you'll have to rely on the old-fashioned way: coaching and practice, practice and coaching.
While nothing replaces the need to close the deal in an interview session, you can offload interview stress to supporting materials by writing a resume letter (a combination of cover letter and resume; this is also called a job letter) and add to it several backup sheets, each with a theme of topics for discussion.
The backup sheets become talking-point papers that employers are likely to focus on during the interview session. Write them in 12 or 14 point type and send by postal mail. (Be sure to take along extra copies.) The sheets allow you to rehearse the likely interview flow -- and to be sure that the points you want to make are made, even if you forget them in the heat of the moment.
Each backup sheet focuses on a single topic, such as accomplishments or experience. Format the pages with brief, bulleted statements. Use these sheets to sell yourself the same way you would sell yourself on your feet -- if you could get the words out of your mouth. It's OK to prepare as many as a half-dozen sheets, providing there's plenty of white space on each.
Follow good resume strategies. For example: use numbers that quantify your contributions, specify what you improved, state who you trained, explain how you succeeded in a competitive situation, relate how you increased company revenues and describe how you trimmed costs. Incorporate anecdotes to make the topics come alive.
Don't use the backup sheet technique more than necessary or online -- recruiters don't want big packets of data to plow through.
I'm glad you're concerned enough to work on your interview fluency. As your stand-in, Jill did the talking for you. That's a real friend. Send flowers. But you can't go through your career tied to Jill at the voice box.
There's a book that might help. It's "Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life" by Barbara Markway and Gregory Markway (St. Martin's Griffin).
E-mail career questions for possible use in this column to Joyce Lain Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org; use "Reader Question" for subject line. Or mail her at Box 368, Cardiff, CA 92007.