Think Fast, Talk Smart Communication Techniques by Matt Abrahams (Full Transcript)

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So if you were the recipient of the sales pitch, thumbs up. Did they do a good job? Did they use the structure? Awesome. I’m recruiting you all for my next business as my salespeople.

Please try to ignore this, but as we’re speaking the handout I told you about is coming around. On the back of that handout, you’re going to see a list of structures, the two we talked about and several others, that can help you in spontaneous speaking situations. These structures help. Because they help you understand how you’re going to say what you say. Structure sets you free and I know that’s kind of ironic, but it’s true, if you have that structure then you are free to think about what it is you are going to say. It reduces the cognitive load of figuring out what you are saying, and how you are going to say it. All of this is on that handout, okay?

So what does this all mean? It means that we have, within our ability, the tools and the approaches, to help us in spontaneous speaking situations. The very first thing we have to do is manage our anxiety, because you can’t be an effective speaker if you don’t have your anxiety under control. And we talked about how you can do that by greeting your anxiety, reframing as a conversation, and being in the present moment.

Once you do that, you need to practice a series of four steps, that will help you speak spontaneously. First you get out of your own way. I would love it if all of you, on your way from here to the football game, point at things and call them the wrong name. It’ll be fun. If most of us do it, then it won’t be weird. If only one and two of us do it, it’ll be weird. Right.

Second. Give gifts. By that I mean see your interactions as ones of opportunity, not challenges.

Third, take the time to listen, listen. And then finally, use structures. And you have to practice these structures. I practice these structures on my kids. I have two kids. When they ask me questions, I usually answer them in what, so what, now what. They don’t know it. But, when they go over to their friends’ houses and they see their friends ask their dads questions, they don’t get what, so what, now what. So, you know, you have to practice. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will become.

Ultimately you have the opportunity before you to become more compelling, more confident, more connected as a speaker, if you leverage these techniques. If you’re interested in learning more, this is where I do a little plug. Okay, I’ve written a book. Many of the MBA students who take the strategic communication classes, here that I and others teach read it. It’s called Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. More importantly, there’s a website here that I curate called And it has lots of information that I’ve written, and others have written about how to become more effective at speaking. So that’s, that’s the end of my plug.

What I’d really like to do is, enter into a spontaneous speaking situation with you. And I would love to entertain any questions that you have. There are two people who are running around with microphones, so some of us who remember the Phil Donahue show. We’re going to do a little bit of that. If you have a question, the microphone will come, and I’m happy to answer it.

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Question-and-answer session

Male Audience: Great. Can you talk about hostile situations?

Matt Abrahams: Hostile situations, yes. So when you find yourself in a challenging situation. First, It should not be a surprise to you. It should not be a surprise. Before you ever speak, you should think about what is the environment going to be like? So it shouldn’t surprise you that there might be some challenges in the room. When there are hostile situations that arise, you have to acknowledge it. So if somebody says, that’s a ridiculous idea, why did you come up with that? To simply say, so, the idea I came up with was, right? Acknowledge the emotion, I recommend not naming the emotion, right? So, you sound really angry, the person’s, I’m not angry, I’m frustrated. Now we’re arguing over their mental state, right? Emotional state.

So, so I say something like, I hear you have a lot of passion on this issue, or, I hear there’s great concern from you. So you acknowledge the emotion, because otherwise it sits in the room. And then reframe and respond the way that makes sense. So if somebody raises their hand and says, your product is ridiculously priced. Why do you charge so much? I might say I hear great concern, and what you’re really asking about is the value of our product, and I would give my value proposition, and then I would come back and say, and because of the value we provide we believe it’s priced fairly. So you answer the question about price, but you’ve reframed it in a way that you feel more comfortable answering it. So, the way to do this is to practice all the skills we just talked about. The only skill that I’m adding to this is the awareness in advance that you might be in that situation. First I have to truly listen to what I’m hearing, right? It’s very easy for me when I hear a challenging question, to get all defensive and not hear what the person’s asking. I see it as an opportunity to reframe and explain. Okay so, again, you have to practice. But, that’s how I think you address it.

Are there other questions? I see a question back here, yes, please.

Male Audience: Yes, first of all, thank you very much. Great, great presentation.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you.

Male Audience: For a lot of the speaking I do, I have remote audiences, audiences distributed all over the country, with telecom. Any tips for those kinds of audiences?

Matt Abrahams: So when you are speaking in a situation where not everybody is co-located, okay? In fact, at this very moment, there are people watching this presentation remotely. What you need to do is be mindful of it. Second, try to include engagement techniques where the audience actually has to do something. So, physical participation is what we did here with the games. You can ask your audience to imagine something, imagine what it would be like if, when we try to achieve a goal, rather than say here is the goal we are trying to achieve, say imagine what it would be like if. See what that does to you, it pulls you in, I can take polling questions, most of the technology that you are referring to has some kind of polling feature. You can open up some kind of Wiki or Google Doc, or some collaborative tool where people can be doing things and you can be monitoring that while you’re presenting. So I might take some breaks. I talk for ten, 15 minutes and say, okay, let’s apply this and let’s go into this Google Doc I’ve created, and I see what people are doing. So it’s about variety and it’s about engagement. Those are the ways that you really connect to people who are remote from you.

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Okay, other questions? Who, you’re pointing oh — I’ve got to look for where the mic is.

Male Audience: This may be similar to the first question but I do a lot of expert witness testimony. What’s your recommendation for handling cross-examination? Specifically, specifically a hostile one.

Matt Abrahams: I feel like I’m being cross-examined. So in any speaking situation that you go into that has some planned element to it I recommend identifying certain themes that you think are important or believe need to come out. And then with each one of those themes have some examples and concrete evidence that you can use to support it. You don’t go in with memorized terms, or ways of saying it. You just have ideas and themes, and then you put them together as necessary. So, when I’m in a situation where people are interrogating me. I have certain themes that I want to get across, and make sure that I, I can do that in a way that fits the needs in the moment. If it’s hostile, again, you, the, the single best tool you have to buy yourself time and to help you answer a question efficiently is paraphrasing. The paraphrase is like the Swiss Army knife of communication. If you remember the show MacGyver, it’s your MacGyver tool, right?

So when a question comes in, the way you paraphrase it allows you the opportunity to reframe it, to think about your answer and, to pause and make sure you got it right. So when you’re under those situations, if you have an opportunity to paraphrase it, say, so what you’re really asking about is x, y and z. That gives you the opportunity to employ one of these techniques. Now I’ve never been an expert witness, because I’m not an expert on anything, but. Those tools I believe could be helpful.

The microphone is back there. Thank you.

Female Audience: Thank you so much. This has been so helpful and enjoyable this morning. Would you please show the last screen, so we can get down the name of the book you have written and the information?

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. I think they actually, you might even have an opportunity, it’s on the sheet too, everything I said is on the back of that sheet, but I am happy to have this behind me while I talk.

Other questions? Yes please?

Female Audience: Yes, I work with groups that represent many different cultural backgrounds. So are there any caveats or is this a universal strategy?

Matt Abrahams: So in terms of, from your perspective as the speaker, I believe this applies. But when you, whenever you communicate, part of the listening aspect is also thinking about as who is my audience and what are their expectations? So what are the cultural expectations of the audience that I’m presenting to? So there might be certain norms and rules that are expected. So when I travel and do talks I have to take into account where I’m doing the presentations. So I help present in the Ignite program. If you have not heard about the Ignite program here at the GSB it’s fantastic. And I just did a presentation standing in one of these awesome classrooms that have all these cameras and I just taught 35 people in Santiago Chile. And I needed to understand the cultural expectations of that area. And what they expect and what they’re willing to do, when I ask them to participate. So, it, it’s part of that listening step where you reflect on what are the expectations of the audience.

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I think we have time for two more questions and then I’m going to hang around afterwards if anybody has individual questions. But, some of these folks really want me to keep on schedule.

Male Audience: I wanted to ask you a question. One of the things that you’ve done effectively in your talking. And I’ve seen other effective speakers do, is interject humor in their talk. How, what are the risks and rewards of trying to do that?

Matt Abrahams: Well first, thank you, and I appreciate all of you laughing. Those are, that’s the sum total of all my jokes, you’ve heard them, I’m not funny beyond those jokes. So humor is wonderfully connecting. It’s wonderfully connecting, it’s a great tool for connection, it is very, very risky. Cultural reasons get in the way, sometimes what you think is funny isn’t funny to other people.

What research tells us is that if you’re going to try to be funny, self-deprecating humor is your best bet, okay? Because it is the least risky, there is nothing worse than putting out a joke and having no response. It actually sets you back farther than if you would have gotten, where you would have gotten if the joke would have hit.

So basic fundamentals you need to think about with humor. One, is it funny, how do I know, I ask other people first. Second, what happens if it doesn’t work? Have a backup plan, right? And then third, if you’re worried about the answers to those first two, don’t do it, right?

One last question please. The microphone is right here. And then like I said, I will hang around afterwards. Yes, please.

Female Audience: I I’m sort of on the opposite side of this, since I’m a journalist. And I frequently have to ask spontaneous questions of people who have been through media training. So any tips for chinks in the armor, way to ask a question without being antagonistic, but get a facsimile of a straight answer.

Matt Abrahams: Well, so let me give you two answers. One is I have young boys, and the power of the why is great. Just ask why a couple times, and you can get through that first two layers of training. You know, why do you say that? How do you feel about that? The second bit is what I have found successful in getting people to — I do this to get people to answer in a more authentic way. What I’ll do is I’ll ask them to give advice. So what advice would you give somebody who’s challenged with this? Or what advice would you give to somebody in this situation? And by asking for the advice, it changes the relationship they have to me as the question asker. And I often get much more rich detailed information. So the power of the why, and then put them in a position of providing guidance, and that can really work.

With that, I’m going to thank you very much. I welcome you to ask questions later, and enjoy the rest of your reunion weekend.

Thank you.