We can adopt techniques to become more comfortable communicating ideas in any situation without our anxiety kicking into high gear. We can also become more compelling.
By The Next Big Idea Club with Matt Abrahams for Fast Company
Matt Abrahams teaches strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He also hosts the award-winning podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart. Because of his expertise, many presenters have turned to him for guidance in preparing for high-stakes speeches, such as Nobel Prize award presentations, TED Talks, or speaking before the World Economic Forum.
Below, Abrahams shares five key insights from his new book, Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot. Listen to the audio version—read by Abrahams himself—in the Next Big Idea app.
1. SPEAKING UP WITHOUT FREAKING OUT. I’d like you to try something. Cross your arms in front of you, as you normally would. Now, uncross them and cross them again, this time folding the other arm on top. Notice how weird this feels. For a split second, you’re not quite sure what to do with your arms. Your mind becomes detached from your body and you feel confused, uncertain, and maybe a tiny bit panicked.
Being put on the spot and asked to communicate can feel like this. You often know what you think, just as you know how to cross your arms. But when the setting changes and the pressure is on—you can feel confused, overwhelmed, or threatened. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in—your heart pounds, your limbs shake, and your brain gets foggy. Most of us respond this way when unprepared, but you are not alone if you get nervous speaking in a planned or spontaneous situation.
The good news is that we can adopt techniques to become more comfortable communicating ideas in any situation without our anxiety kicking into high gear. We can also become more compelling.
The best way to tame the speaking anxiety beast is to take a two-pronged approach. We must address both the symptoms and sources. Symptoms are what happen to us physiologically and mentally and sources are the things that initiate and exacerbate anxiety. Breathing is an amazing way to reduce anxiety symptoms. Taking a slow inhale deep into your lower abdomen and holding before releasing can reduce anxiety symptoms.
A major blockade is concern about not achieving our goal. When we speak, we have an imagined goal, and we can be nervous if we think we might not achieve it. Becoming present-oriented takes us away from a perceived negative future outcome. We can do something physical to become present-oriented. Walk around the block, have a conversation with somebody, or listen to a song or playlist. You can even start at 100 and count backward by 17.
By leveraging anxiety management techniques, you can create your own anxiety management plan so you can feel calmer and more confident when asked to speak spontaneously.
2. CONNECTION OVER PERFECTION. One of the most persistent and unhelpful myths we hold about spontaneous communication is the notion that the best, most compelling communicators express themselves perfectly. Just look at how polished those successful TED Talk presenters are, even though they’re speaking casually, without notes. Or look at leaders like Apple’s Steve Jobs or former first lady Michelle Obama who are famously charismatic and compelling when they appear before large audiences.
In truth, TED Talks are heavily scripted and sometimes even edited. Leaders like Jobs and Obama spend months practicing and refining their presentations. We often confuse these planned, perfected communications with what we encounter more frequently in our lives: spontaneous, off-the-cuff remarks. We evaluate how we do in these everyday situations using the standards we apply to rehearsed talks. That’s a mistake. Rather than aiming for perfection, as we might do in presentations, we should instead embrace connection and focus on how we might best engage in the moment. By training ourselves to quiet our critical evaluation, we can lower stress levels and better accomplish our communication goals.
Once we’ve granted ourselves permission to engage without obsessing over performance, we can dial down reflexive judging and evaluation by accepting mistakes when they happen. Stressing over little mistakes is mentally taxing. Think of how much more present and connected we could be without obsessing over screwing up.
To embrace mistakes, we can think of them not as the opposite of success, but as the means to it. I find it helpful to envision mistakes as “missed takes” in the making of a film. When a crew films a scene, they will often do several versions, or “takes.” They do this not because any one take is right or wrong, but because the director and crew want to broaden their options. They seek variety so they can choose takes that are more creative, unique, or imaginative.
Communication situations can be seen as opportunities to try possible approaches. In this way, what we experience as a mistake just becomes another “take” among many, one that helps illuminate what better communication might look like. Mistakes in this vein can focus our efforts. Rather than diminishing us, they can empower us and put us on a path to become better communicators. Reframing errors as missed takes allows us to focus on connection over perfection.
3. OPPORTUNITIES OVER THREATS AND CHALLENGES. Many of us see spontaneous speaking situations as scary and threatening. We feel as if we’re being judged and evaluated. Q&A is about getting the right answer. Small talk is about being delightful and engaging. Toasts are about honoring people enough.
When we see situations as threats and challenges, it affects our demeanor and tone. We speak quickly and abruptly. We hold our bodies tightly. What if we saw these situations as opportunities to connect and engage? Our entire demeanor and tone would change.
Once we reframe spontaneous speaking as an opportunity to extend, expand, and collaborate, we must also turn the volume down on our ruminations. Duke University’s legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K, famously came up with the advice of “next play.” If you miss a shot in basketball, swing and miss in baseball, or throw an interception in American football, you should quickly reset your mind and keep going. Focus on the task at hand rather than on what just happened.
By the same token, if you sink a three-pointer, hit a grand slam, or throw a touchdown pass, you also should keep going. Athletic competition is fluid. To perform at your best, you should try to stay focused on what’s happening now and not allow what just happened to distract you, regardless of how devastating or wonderful it was. As Coach K once put it, “Whatever you have just done is not nearly as important as what you are doing right now.”
Shifting to a “next play” mindset might seem daunting—we’re used to attaching emotionally to past outcomes and struggle to break that pattern. We can practice staying in the moment and moving on to the next play. Budding improvisers often learn a game called New Choice. They start performing a scene and at various points, the organizer of the game shouts, “New choice!” The performers drop the current scene or choice and begin a new one, uttering whatever snippets of dialogue come to them. You can play this game yourself using a timer or by enlisting a friend to shout “New choice” at odd intervals.
Doing this for even a few minutes can help habituate you to simply leave what you were doing and move on.
The next time you find yourself in a spontaneous speaking situation where things aren’t going as planned, don’t dwell on it. Allow yourself a brief moment to feel emotion—then refocus and move on to the next play.
4. PACE, SPACE, GRACE. We are bad listeners. We often listen just enough to get the gist of what people are saying so we can prepare our response, judge what was said, or transition to what we think is more important. Imagine you come out of a meeting with a colleague and your colleague asks for feedback. Upon hearing that request, you immediately go into all the things that didn’t go well or could have gone better. But if you had listened more closely, you might have noticed that your colleague had exited through the back door, not the front door like you. You might notice that they were looking down and speaking softly. What they really wanted was not feedback but support, and the fact that you gave feedback made things worse.
To truly connect with audiences and increase the likelihood of responding appropriately, we must fight distraction and orient ourselves toward them. We must listen to what they’re saying and how they are saying it, paying attention not just to the words but to nonverbal and situational signs that evoke their deeper emotions, desires, and needs.
Drawing on his experiences playing college basketball, Stanford lecturer and consultant Collins Dobbs has created a useful three-step framework for handling difficult encounters with others called Pace, Space, and Grace. With his permission, I have adopted his framework to help us all become better listeners. In essence, this framework prompts us to slow down, reflect on what might be going on in the minds of others, and cue into our intuitive sense of what’s happening. The result is more empathic listening and more informed communication.
First, we need to focus on pace by slowing things down. Life comes at us fast, and we need to slow down to listen better. We also have to give ourselves space, both physical space (be in an environment where you can truly listen) and mental space. We must focus on what’s happening in the moment. And finally, we have to give ourselves grace, meaning permission to stop what’s going on and really listen not just to what’s being said and how it’s being said, but to listen internally to how we’re responding and feeling.
By slowing down, making space, and giving ourselves permission to listen to what we hear from others and ourselves, we not only respond better, but we connect more.
5. STRUCTURE SETS YOU FREE. There are several counterintuitive ideas in Think Faster, Talk Smarter, but the two biggest are: First, we must prepare to be spontaneous. Second, leveraging structure makes it easier to be creative, concise, and clear when speaking spontaneously.
Many of us might think that a structure would prevent agility in the moment. Quite to the contrary, structure enables spontaneous communication. When the best jazz artists improvise, they’re not just playing random notes. They’re improvising within the bounds of informal, preset musical structures. The melodies and chord progressions they have practiced serve as structures for improvisation. A preordained structure makes it easier for jazz musicians to compose spontaneously. Song structure also helps orient listeners, giving them a logic to follow.
When communicating, structure helps you focus your thoughts and share them with your audience in a clear, concise way. Structure is nothing more than a logical connection of ideas that have a beginning, middle, and end.
Let’s get specific. My favorite structure is What—So What—Now What. This structure is simple and versatile. You start by discussing an idea, opinion, product, service, or argument (What). Then you explain why it’s important, helpful, or useful (So What). You end with what your audience should do with this knowledge (Now What).
For example, assume your colleague asks for feedback, and after confirming they really do want feedback, you might say: “That meeting went well except when you talked about the implementation plan. You spoke quickly and didn’t give a lot of detail.” That’s the What. “When you speak quickly without giving a lot of detail, your audience might think you’re not prepared and you’re a bit uncomfortable.” That’s the So What. “The next time you speak on the implementation plan, talk more slowly and I want you to add these two specific examples.” That’s the Now What.
Leveraging a structure sets you free from worrying about how you are going to package your message so that you can focus on what you are going to say and how you are going to connect it to your audience.
The ability to speak successfully in spontaneous situations can impact our personal and professional lives: Deals are won, relationships initiated, questions answered, and much more. Whether we like it or not, the need to speak spontaneously is part of our everyday lives. With repetition, reflection, and feedback, you can get better at in-the-moment communication. Think faster and talk smarter so as to shine when put on the spot.