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Speaking Up Without Freaking Out: Matt Abrahams (Transcript)

Matt Abrahams at TEDxPaloAlto

Full text of innovative educator Matt Abrahams’s talk: Speaking Up Without Freaking Out at TEDxPaloAlto conference. In this talk, he offers practical solutions to handle communication anxiety and to confidently share our ideas and stories.

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Panic. Embarrassed. Exposed.

No, that’s not how I’m right now, mostly. Those are the feelings I had as a 14-year old boy.

On the very first day of high school, my English teacher, Mr. Meredith had each of us stand up and introduce ourselves. When class was over, he called me over and said, “Hey Matt, you’re really good at this talking thing. I need you on Saturday to show up at the speech contest.”

Doing as I was told, I prepared a 10-minute presentation on karate. It was something I was passionate about and it was pretty easy to do.

Now, that cold September Saturday morning, when I showed up, I was shocked. The room was much larger than I had expected. There were many more people there: my friends; my friends’ parents who were serving as judges; and the girl I had a crush on.

At that moment, I felt tremendous anxiety.

In the first 10 seconds of my 10-minute presentation, my life changed forever.

You see, I started my presentation with a karate kick. I was told to do this, because it would engage the audience and get their attention. But because of my anxiety, I forgot to put on my special karate pants. You know, the ones with a little extra room down there, you get where this is going. I ripped my pants from belt loop to zipper.

In that moment, I learned the impact of anxiety on communication. And from that moment, I have dedicated my life to helping others learn to address this fear.

Each of us has stories to share, input to give, and ideas to spread. If we allow anxiety to get in the way of that, we miss out, society misses out. And we lose valuable, diverse voices.

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Now I am not alone in my anxiety in communication. If you have ever given spontaneous feedback, given a presentation, spoken up in a meeting or even asked somebody on a date, you know what this anxiety feels like.

Research shares with us that 85% of people feel anxious in high-stakes speaking situations. And quite frankly, I think the other 15% are lying. I think we can create a situation in which they would feel nervous too.

So we must act to manage our anxiety so we can accomplish our communication goals. Now I use that word manage very carefully. I don’t think we can ever truly overcome our anxiety, nor would we want to.

Anxiety is actually helpful. It gives us energy; it helps us focus. It tells us what we’re doing is important. But we must manage it so it doesn’t manage us. And it’s not just to help us feel more confident, it helps our audience as well.

How do you feel when you see a nervous speaker communicate? Some of you might like to watch people suffer, but most of us don’t. Most of us feel very uncomfortable and awkward. In fact, I call this second-hand anxiety.

The communicators’ anxiety makes us feel nervous as an audience and therefore we’re distracted and we can’t pay attention to the message. So we need to manage our anxiety, not just to help ourselves as communicators but to help our audience get our message.

Before I introduce you to some techniques that can help us manage our anxiety, I think we need to spend a few moments understanding where this anxiety comes from. I believe it’s hardwired in us. It’s based on evolution.

We are wired to be very concerned about our relative status to others. Now I’m not saying who drives the fanciest car or who has the most likes to a post they’ve just put up.

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I’m talking about the status that existed when our species was first evolving. And we were hanging out in groups of about 150 people. Your relative status there meant everything. It meant access to resources, food, shelter, reproduction. It was absolutely critical that you had status within that group. It was a matter of life or death.

So this constant surveillance in understanding of our status is something that we carry forward to this day. Yet, we can manage it. But we have to take a two-pronged approach.

We have to first address the symptoms as well as the sources. The symptoms have to do with what goes on in our body, physiologically, and what goes on in our mind psychologically. And sources are things that actually make our anxiety worse. So let’s get started.

For some of us, when we start communicating in high-stakes situations, we feel our heart pound. Maybe we get a little shaky. Maybe we perspire or blush. We can manage these symptoms.

Take a deep breath before you start. The kind of breath you would do if you’re doing yoga or Tai Chi or Qi Gong; that’ll calm you down.

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