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Q&A with Matt Abrahams, lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter

Being put on the spot at work fills a lot of us with dread. How to turn these scary situations into opportunities to shine.

Matt Abrahams is a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He gave a talk several years ago at a Stanford alumni weekend, “Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques,” that has been viewed more than 33 million times on YouTube. His new book (his second), released in late September 2023, is Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot. It’s a practical guide about how to get better when speaking spontaneously—answering questions, giving feedback on the spot, making small talk, and fixing mistakes that you make. His first book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting, now in its third edition, is about how to manage the anxiety that comes with speaking in front of others. He also hosts a podcast, now in its fifth season, “Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast,” and curates the “No Freaking Speaking” website.

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Speaking “on the spot”

Annie: In the book, you articulate so clearly the shivers and fears you get, the feeling like you can’t communicate, when you are cold called to speak. A lot of what we do in life is the equivalent of being cold called, like when you’re in a meeting and you’re asked for feedback. This is something that you have to do throughout your whole life. You have some good examples of the effects of the terror or the feeling of incompetence that can bring on in people. What are the effects?

Matt Abrahams: Most people are nervous when they have to speak, be it planned or spontaneous. But in the moment, we feel particularly on the spot because we feel like we are being judged and evaluated. We want to do it right. We believe that there are significant consequences. Often, we’ll feel that we are being threatened or challenged. Somebody’s asking a challenging question or asking for critical feedback, and that works against us. What it does is it invokes the fight-or-flight response. We feel under threat and our body responds. It’s very innate. It’s part of being human to respond to these circumstances with anxiety.

Ways the contemporary business environment makes us increasingly confront this anxiety

Annie: With the amount of media that’s available to us now, do you feel like the problem’s gotten worse, because the comparison class is so different? We see TED Talks and you just look at these people and you think, “Oh my gosh, there are so many amazing speakers in the world. Why do I stink?”

Matt Abrahams: Yes. I think that’s exactly right. I think that we are holding the wrong standards for success for this type of communication. We hold up TED Talks, we hold up politicians, even actors and actresses who are very well versed in communicating. The reality is all of those people are highly practiced and coached. Often, things that we see of them are edited, and so we’re using the wrong metric to compare ourselves against.

Annie: Beside communications in person, it seems like other things are increasingly putting people on the spot in these ways.

Matt Abrahams: I think the other issue is that technology is changing the way we communicate in terms of spontaneous responses. We have Slacks and texts and all of these other things that require us to respond on the spot. It’s just in a different way. We’re typing it in instead of speaking it, but the same pressures exist. If your boss texts you and says, “Hey, what do you think of this?” Or, “I’ve got a client on the other end of this call and they need to know this answer right now.” That has a huge impact on how we see things.

The very first step in the methodology is to manage the anxiety, and then you need to think about other mindset shifts. We have to move ourselves away from striving for perfection. It’s really about just connecting and getting the job done. I like to say, “It’s connection over perfection.” Then, we also have to re-envision, reframing these circumstances not to be threatening but to be opportunities. I can extend, I can expand, I can connect, and all of that can be helpful. The anxiety is natural, but if we think about it and we do some mindset shifts, we can actually make it not only more tolerable, but we can also actually make it enjoyable.

Abrahams’ Six Step approach: Mindset (Steps 1-4) & Messaging (Steps 5-6)

Annie: I feel like a lot of books talk about the places where we might go wrong or things are scary for us, but your book is very prescriptive. In the two parts of the book, you lay out six steps. Can you start by summarizing your approach, then we can get into some specifics on individual steps?

Matt Abrahams: The six steps can be divided into two major categories. Mindset, which has four steps and Messaging, which has two.

Annie: Can we talk about the four mindset steps first, and then finish up with the messaging steps?

Matt Abrahams: The Mindset steps establish the methodology. They are the pre-work that we do to get ourselves in a place where we can respond appropriately. We’ve already talked a bit about Step 1, managing anxiety. When you manage anxiety, you have to deal both with symptoms and sources. Symptoms are what we physiologically and mentally experience. Sources are the things that initiate and exacerbate the anxiety.

Step 2 is getting out of our own way. That is this notion of striving for connection versus perfection. There is no right way. It’s all based on cognitive bandwidth. If I’m constantly judging and evaluating what I’m saying, it means I have fewer cognitive resources to focus on what I’m actually saying. I’m not saying we should not think, judge, and evaluate when we communicate. We should, but many of us, I assume you remember the movie Spinal Tap, are dialed up to 11. If we could dial that down to 5, that would be much better, and we’d do better.

Step 3 is that reframing step. See communication as an opportunity, not as a threat or challenge. When somebody asks you a challenging question, there’s an opportunity to extend, expand, agree, and collaborate versus just having to protect your position.

Step 4 is listening. Listening is critical to all communication, but especially to spontaneous speaking because I could respond incorrectly if I don’t listen well.

Imagine you and I come out of a meeting, and you say, “Hey, Matt, what do you think? How’d that go?” I think you’re asking for feedback, and I say, “I thought we screwed up here. I thought you could have done better. I could have done better.” Then, I give a whole cascade of things that could have been better. The problem with that is when you were asking me the question, you were looking down and speaking quietly. Because I wasn’t listening attentively, I missed the fact that you weren’t really asking for feedback. You were asking for support because you feel badly about how it went. Therefore, I made the situation worse. I just piled on instead of saying, “Would you like me just to listen?” Or, “Do you want some constructive feedback?” Had I just made that clarifying question, it could have changed the whole interaction. Listening is a critical step.

Step 4: Listen (It’s about more than just hearing)

Annie: I have questions about all four steps, but I have to jump ahead to the example you just used for Step 4. I love that listening is about more than the words that the person says. This is something that I used to talk about in poker. I used to say, “People are always talking to you at the table. You just don’t know to listen to them.”

People think about listening as me hearing to your words, but listening is a lot more than that. In poker, what I’m actually listening to are several kinds of things. One is how you are betting, which is a conversation. You’re telling me a story with the way that you’re moving your chips around. Then, there are other things, like how are you sitting, how are you holding your body? In poker, you become very attuned to those things that are nonverbal communication.

I know as a public speaker, I do a lot of looking out in the audience because, to your point, are people engaged? If they’re not engaged, I may change what I’m saying. If they look confused, it changes what I’m saying.

Matt Abrahams: That’s exactly right. We need to listen with our whole bodies, not just our ears. That means we have to listen to our own intuition because what you just said is that when you’re listening, you’re getting a vibe. You get this feeling. That’s part of what you’re listening to. But you also have to listen to everything you’re seeing in their bodies and in their context. That’s a very different way than most of us listen. Most of us listen just enough to get the gist of what somebody is saying, and then we tune out or move on or start formulating our thoughts.

Step 1: Calm (managing anxiety)

Annie: Let’s go back through Steps 1 through 3. For Step 1, managing anxiety, you said we have to deal with both the symptoms and the sources. What are the symptoms? What are the sources?

Matt Abrahams: There are three types of symptoms I talk about in the book, the ABCs. The Affective, that’s the emotional; the Behavioral, that’s what happens in our body; and then the Cognitive. There are things that we can do to address each of those. We also have to address the sources, and that starts getting us into the mindset. Chapter 2 is all about perfection. If I am worried about being perfect, it means I’m distracting myself from being good, because the cognitive load is kicking in.

The mindset shift is how we deal with most of the sources of anxiety. there are things you can do. Many people feel like, “I’m born this way, I’m stuck. I’m never going to get better.” And I am here to tell you, I absolutely 100% have seen in my own life and the people I coach and teach, you can get better and more confident at speaking.

Annie: One of the things that I think about with what you’re saying here is this is very different than public speaking, because public speaking is something that, in general, you can opt out of. I mean, not necessarily if you’re the CEO of a company. But mostly, you can just choose to not do it.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, some roles and positions require you to do some public speaking, but in many cases it’s not that way. You can opt out of those, but in day-to-day communication, you certainly can’t get out of the spontaneous speaking we’re talking about.

Annie: And I’m not saying that people should opt out of public speaking. Public speaking has a lot of really good uses to it. I think it feels really good when you figure it out and you do a good job. It helps you organize your thoughts.

That being said, I have no issue if someone has really horrible social anxiety that they don’t do public speaking. But it’s impossible to avoid the type of speaking that we’re now talking about. You’re in a meeting and somebody asks your opinion, or you’re in a performance review, or you’re in a pitch meeting. We’re talking about speaking that you have to be able to do to get through life, you have to be able to do this. You can probably get through your life without giving a speech.

Matt Abrahams: Correct.

Annie: It is impossible for all those day-to-day situations where we’re put on the spot to opt out. You do actually have to figure out a way to manage the anxiety, figure out a way to get out of your own way. What are some tips for doing that?

Matt Abrahams: There are a couple things you can do to manage symptoms and sources. The single best thing you can do is deep belly breathing. Like if you’ve ever done yoga or tai chi, where you take an inhalation in low, into the belly, hold it, and then exhale. The exhale needs to be twice as long as the inhale to take maximal effect of the relaxation response. It happens in the exhalation. We need to make sure that we do that.

Then, depending on what the symptoms are, there are things you can do. If you get shaky, that’s adrenaline. Adrenaline’s job is to move you from a risk or threat to safety. You should do big, broad movements, but it needs to be purposeful, not pacing and swaying.

There are a lot of things we can do to manage symptoms, and I itemize them in the book.

Annie: In terms of managing anxiety, when we’re thinking about deep breathing, things like that, are you saying do that before the meeting? What do you do if you all of a sudden start having anxiety in the middle of a meeting?

Matt Abrahams: A couple of things you can do. One, you can take a breath whenever. It can be a little awkward to pause, but you can do it. I’m a big fan of having what I call a “back pocket question,” a way of distracting my audience so I can give myself a second or two to think. As a teacher, I do this all the time. I’ll need a moment to collect my thoughts, et cetera. I’ll simply ask a question. I’ll say something like, “Let’s pause for a second. I’d love for you to think about how what we’ve just discussed could apply to your life.” And my students don’t think, “Oh, Matt screwed up.” They think, “Yeah, how does this apply to my life?” Most of us, if we’re in a meeting, could say, “How does this relate to what we just talked about?” Or, “How does this relate to our agenda?” There’s a real quick question that gets people thinking away from you so that you can just take that breath. You don’t need a long time. Little things like that can really work.

Step 2: Unlock (shifting from perfection to making a connection)

Annie: That makes a lot of sense. It feels like it also brings up to Step 2, which is connection. Those kinds of pauses that are helping us deal with anxiety are also a way to connect with the audience, to refocus on them, to make them feel like you are connected to them and care about what they think.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, absolutely. Anything that brings you to focusing on the other person or bringing the audience in creates connection. That’s where paraphrasing helps buy you time. Asking follow-up questions buys you time. All of that can help you as you are in the midst of communicating.

Annie: One of the things that I do when I’m in meetings is I’ll say, “I just want to reflect back what you just said to make sure I understand.”

Matt Abrahams: I think that’s great. Or, “Here’s what I’m taking away from what we just talked about,” or some language like that can be really, really helpful.

Annie: Not only, I would imagine, does that help with anxiety, but also when you talk about getting out of our own way in terms of letting go of perfection, these are ways of saying, “I may not have this perfectly, and I’m asking for you to help me with this.”

Matt Abrahams: You’re making it clear, and that bolsters your credibility because people see that you really are interested. The methodology has six steps, but it’s more like a Venn diagram. They all overlap. They all help each other or amplify each other. You’ve appropriately noticed that, and that’s really important.

Annie: The perfection thing, for me that was one of the main ways that I was dealing with anxiety. I tried to be really conscious of the fact that if I dropped a section of my speech, nobody knew. The audience never knows what a complete version of my speech is supposed to look like. That helped me relieve my anxiety.

Matt Abrahams: That’s exactly right. And for many people, that’s freeing. People will tell me that these tools that I talk about for getting rid of perfection, really help them with their anxiety, help them with their focus so they can listen better, their messages are clearer. All of these things intertwine and interrelate.

Step 3: Redefine (being put on the spot as an opportunity)

Annie: For someone who doesn’t see communication as an opportunity, who sees it just as a moment of sheer terror, and you’ve worked with a lot of people, how do you get them to view spontaneous speaking as an opportunity?

Matt Abrahams: In the chapter about reframing, I go through several mindset shifts that I think are important. From improv, the Yes-And approach. If you see this as “yes and,” rather than “no but” it helps. The notion that comes from sports of “next play” applies, as well. Instead of getting stuck in rumination, just move on to what’s next and then reflect later. Those are ways to do it.

If I were coaching somebody on this, I would say, “Let’s think for a moment about a time where you felt really challenged, and the result of that challenge was something very positive.” It could be that they answered a question in a way that unlocked a whole different way of thinking about something, or the feedback they gave in the moment made a fundamental change on the person or the organization. Most people have a story like that they can draw on.

People will say things like, “I went on this job interview and they asked me really challenging questions, but I got the job and it was the best thing ever.” Helping people understand that there are times in their lives where they have had success when they’ve been in these challenging circumstances helps them reframe being put on the spot as an opportunity. Then, I just ask, “Could you approach the next challenging circumstance by reminding yourself of the possible good stuff that comes?” That begins to break down some of that inertia that people have towards this. I’ve had great success in doing that. It’s not like a light switch where all of a sudden everybody’s like, “Oh, I can’t wait to be grilled.” But people begin to lower some of their defenses and see the benefits of doing that.

Annie: One of the things that I’m hearing you say in there, as a tool that I think is great for reducing anxiety, is this idea of a little bit of time traveling. If you can imagine that in the past you’ve gone through a really challenging time and you came through it, imagine a future time after this moment when you’ve come through it and had success, and how excited you’re going to be when it’s done.

Matt Abrahams: That’s a valid technique that people have studied, this notion of future casting to help reduce and manage anxiety. And you’re exactly right. In my first book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, there were 50 techniques for managing anxiety and some contradicted each other. There’s a good line of research that says if you get present-oriented, live in the moment, you’re less nervous because you’re not worried about the consequences of what’s going to happen. Then, there’s what you’re saying, which is to put yourself into the future and imagine how beneficial it was based on what you know from the past. It’s a known technique and many people benefit by reminding themselves of the past and then casting into the future.

The Messaging Steps: Structure Framework & Focus

Annie: Okay, so we’ve covered the Mindset steps, what you referred to as the pre-work to get ourselves to a place where we can respond appropriately. Tell us about the Messaging steps, Structure, which is Step 5, and Focus, Step 6.

Matt Abrahams: The second part of the book, Messaging, is about applying the best practices in specific situations. When it comes to messaging, Step 5 is Structure. Our brains are not wired for lists. Our brains are wired for structure. And I’m a huge fan of structure. It’s all about different structures. Structure is just a logical connection of ideas, a beginning, a middle, and an end, not just a list of bullet points. There’s a structure I suggest for answering questions versus pitching an idea versus giving a toast. You have to have structure.

Then, the final chapter, Step 6, is about Focus. When people speak spontaneously, they take us on a journey of their discovery of what they’re saying while they’re saying it. They tend not to be concise. They tend not to be targeted. They’re figuring it out as they go. And this can make it hard for us to appreciate because we’re learning and listening and trying to connect the dots. If they can be more concise and precise in what they’re saying, it helps.

In that chapter, I go through several things we can do to be more concise. One, think about relevance to your audience. What’s relevant to them is what I should focus on, not just do a shotgun approach and put everything out there. There’s a whole list of things we can do to make our messages more concise and clear.

Annie: Can you walk us through an example in terms of structure and focus? Maybe you’re a startup founder and you’re pitching something, or you’re trying to pitch a project to your boss, or something like that where the communication has some stakes to it, where that might be particularly anxiety producing.

Matt Abrahams: I’m going to combine the two steps, structure and focus, because they work hand in hand. The very first thing you need to think about in a spontaneous situation, as well as plan for, is who is your audience and what’s important to them? The way I’m going to pitch a program or project to my CEO might be different than the way I pitch to the team that’s going to work on it. I have to think about what’s relevant and important to the people that I’m talking to. You can do that instantaneously in the moment. You can say, for this person, this is likely what’s most important, or if it’s a planned presentation, you can spend more time reflecting on it. That helps you focus because that gives you a place to start from.

You then can quickly think about, “what’s your goal?” Any communication needs to have a goal. To me, a goal has three parts: information, emotion, and action. In other words,

What do I want you to know?

How do I want you to feel?

And what do I want you to do?

Most communication has an action component and doing part. You start with that, and that’s what helps you focus. It helps you prioritize what you’re saying. We do that before we even craft the messages. Then, as I’ve talked about, structure is key. We’re not good at lists. Our brains are wired for story, for episodes. In fact, we call it episodic memory. How do I structure information in a logical way? There are many, many structures if you are pitching or persuading or trying to influence, one that many of us are familiar with because it’s how almost every single advertisement is designed, based on its problem-solution-benefit.

You start by some problem or challenge or you could reframe it as an opportunity. Nothing’s wrong, but this could be better. Then, here’s how we solve it or address it. Then, here’s the benefit of doing so. Problem-solution-benefit is a very logical structure. If I’m trying to convince you to adopt a new client resource management (CRM) system, I might start by saying, “Our customers are really struggling with the latest update and upgrade that we’ve had, and they’re finding that they can’t start or continue using the product until they work through their problems.” That’s the problem. What we’re going to do is we’re going to release a chatbot that can answer their questions whenever they have them. In so doing, our users will be able to address whatever needs they have in real time and not be reliant on a customer service agent who works only certain hours during the day.

Problem-solution-benefit. It’s logical. It’s easy to walk through from an anxiety point. If I blank out and go, “Oh my God, what do I say?” All I have to say is, “I just talked about the problem.” I always know that solution follows problem. It helps me and my audience. The value of structure is that it helps you package information up for your audience, and it helps you focus your thoughts. And by focusing your thoughts, you end up being more concise. That’s how those two chapters work together.

Annie: I love to the point of thinking about it as this sort of Venn diagram or ball of yarn or something like that, as opposed to a flow chart. Your point is that, if you have structure and you have kind of a narrative framework for what you’re saying, thinking about how you construct a good paragraph, but in speaking rather than writing, that that helps you manage anxiety, it helps you with connection because you’re connecting with what the reader wants to hear. It helps you with viewing it as an opportunity, helps you with listening. Once we get into how we are thinking about the messaging, that’s going to help with the mindset as well.

Annie: I assume that this is not something that only works for a planned pitch, right? I’m trying to pitch somebody on a new CRM system, but when I’m asked spontaneously, say in a meeting, I can also be thinking in this structured way about what’s my beginning, what’s my middle, what’s my end?

Matt Abrahams: That’s correct. But you might leverage a different structure. The second half of the book gives different structures for different situations. If somebody’s asking you for feedback, you would use a structure, but you might use a different structure because of the nature of what the required action is. My whole goal is that people have a toolkit full of different structures that they’re comfortable with, that they can deploy as needed based on the situation that they find themselves in.

Annie: This has been fantastic.

Matt Abrahams: It’s been fun. I’ve especially appreciated the way you’ve synthesized across the different ideas and provided examples from your experiences.

Annie: Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you.

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