Transcript – Matt Abrahams, an expert and lecturer in organization behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business talks on Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques
Matt Abrahams – Lecturer, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Welcome! I’m very excited today to talk about effective speaking in spontaneous situations. I thank you all for joining us, even though the title of my talk is grammatically incorrect. I thought that might scare a few of you away. But I learned teaching here at the business school, catching people’s attention is hard. So, something as simple as that, I thought, might draw a few of you here, so this is going to be a highly interactive and participative workshop today. If you don’t feel comfortable participating that’s completely fine, but do know I’m going to ask you to talk to people next to you. There will be opportunities to stand up and practice some things because I believe the way we become effective communicators is by actually communicating.
So let’s get started right away. I’d like to ask you all to read this sentence, and as you read this sentence, what’s most important to me is that you count the number of fs that you find in this sentence, please. Count the number of fs. Keep it quiet to yourself. Give you just another couple seconds here.
Three, two, one.
Raise your hand please if you found three and only three f’s. Excellent, great.
Did anybody find four? Anybody find only five fs? Anybody find six? There’s six fs.
What two letter word ending in f did many of us miss? Oh. We’ll make sure to get this to you so you can torment your friends and family at a later date.
When I first was exposed to this over 12 years ago I only found three, and I felt really stupid. So, I like to start every workshop, every class I teach with to pass that feeling along. No, no. That’s not, that’s not why I do this.
I do this because this is a perfect analogy for what we’re going to be talking about today. The vast majority of us in this room, very smart people in this room, were not as effective as we could have been in this activity. We didn’t get it right.
And the same is true when it comes to speaking in public, particularly when spontaneous speaking. It’s little things that make a big difference in being affective. So today we’re going to talk about little things in terms of your approach, your attitude, your practice, that can change how you feel when you speak in public. And we’re going to be talking primarily about one type of public speaking. Not the type that you plan for in advance, the type that you actually spend time thinking about, you might even create slides for. These are the keynotes, the conference presentation, the formal toasts. That’s not what we are talking about today.
We are talking about spontaneous speaking. When you are in a situation that you are asked to speak off the cuff and in the moment. What we’re going through today is actually the result of a workshop I created here for the business school. Several years ago, a survey was taken among the students, and they said, what’s one of the — what are things we could do to help make you more successful here? And at the top of that list was this notion of responding to cold calls. Does everybody know what a cold call is? It’s where the mean professor like me looks at some student and says, what do you think? And there was a lot of panic, and a lot of silence.
So as a result of that, this workshop was created, and a vast majority of first year students here at the GSB go through this workshop. So I’m going to walk you through sort of a hybrid version of what they do. The reality is that spontaneous speaking is actually more prevalent than planned speaking. Perhaps it’s giving introductions. You’re at a dinner and somebody says, you know so and so, would you mind introducing them?
It could be a surprise toast. Or finally, it could be during the Q and A session. And by the way, we will leave plenty of time at the end of our day today for Q and A. I’d love to hear the questions you have about this topic or other topics related to communicating.
So our agenda is simple: in order to be an effective communicator, regardless of if it’s planned or spontaneous, you need to have your anxiety under control. So we’ll start there.
Second, what we’re going to talk about is some ground rules for the interactivity we’ll have today and then finally we’re going to get into the heart of what we will be covering and again, as I said, lots of activity and I invite you to participate.
So let’s get started with anxiety management. 85% of people tell us that they’re nervous when speaking in public. And I think the other 15% are lying. Okay? We could create a situation where we could make them nervous too. In fact, just this past week a study from Chapman University asked Americans, what are the things you fear most? And among being caught in a surprise terrorist attack, having identity, your identity stolen, was public speaking. Among the top five was speaking in front of others. This is a ubiquitous fear, and one that I believe we can learn to manage. And I use that word manage very carefully because I don’t think we ever want to overcome it. Anxiety actually helps us. It gives us energy, helps us focus, tells us what we’re doing is important. But we want to learn to manage it.
So I’d like to introduce you to a few techniques that can work and all of these techniques are based on academic research. But before we get there, I’d love to ask you what does it feel like when you’re sitting in the audience watching a nervous speaker present, how do you feel, just shout out a few things, how to do you feel?
Uncomfortable. I heard many of you going, yes, uncomfortable. It feels very awkward, doesn’t it? So what do we do? Now a couple of you probably like watching somebody suffer. Okay, but most of us don’t.
So what do we do? We sit there and we nod and we smile or we disengage. And to the nervous speaker looking out at his or her audience seeing a bunch of people nodding or disengaged, that does not help. Okay. So we need to manage our anxiety. Because fundamentally, your job as a communicator rather, regardless of if it’s planned or spontaneous, is to make your audience comfortable. Because if they’re comfortable they can receive your message. And when I say comfortable I am not referring to the fact that your message has to be sugar coated and nice for them to hear. It can be a harsh message. But they have to be in a place where they can receive it.
So it’s incumbent on you as a communicator to help your audience feel comfortable and we do that by managing our anxiety. So let me introduce you to a few techniques that I think you can use right away to help you feel more comfortable.
The first has to do with when you begin to feel those anxiety symptoms. For most people this happens in the initial minutes prior to speaking. In this situation what happens is many of us begin to feel whatever it is that happens to you. Maybe your stomach gets a little gurgly. Maybe your legs begin to shake. Maybe you begin to perspire. And then we start to say to ourselves, oh, my goodness, I’m nervous. Oh. They’re going to tell I’m nervous. This is not going to go well. And we start spiraling out of control.
So, research on mindful attention tells us that if, when we begin to feel those anxiety symptoms, we simply greet our anxiety and say hey, this is me feeling nervous. I’m about to do something of consequence. And simply by greeting your anxiety and acknowledging it, that it’s normal and natural. Heck, 85% of people tell us they have it. You actually can stem the tide of that anxiety spiraling out of control. It’s not necessarily going to reduce the anxiety but it will stop it from spinning out.
So the next time you begin to feel those anxiety signs, take a deep breath and say, this is me feeling anxious. I notice a few of you taking some notes. There’s a handout that will come at the end that has everything that I’m supposed to say, okay? Can’t guarantee I’m going to say it, but you’ll have it there.
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