Here is the full transcript of communication professor Matt Abrahams’ TEDx Talk: Think Fast. Talk Smart at TEDxMontaVistaHighSchool conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Think Fast. Talk Smart by Matt Abrahams at TEDxMontaVistaHighSchool
People hate me. People fear me. You see, I’m a communication professor. And these people who fear me and hate me are some of the brightest, most creative, most entrepreneurial people I know. I wield a tool. And that tool I wield is what makes them fear and despise me.
As a professor, I have the ability to do what’s called “cold calling.” That’s where I look at a student and say, “What do you think?” “What do you feel about what we just discussed?” “How does this impact you?” And this causes panic, not just for my students but for everybody. That moment when we are called upon to speak articulately: Can we do it?
Now, rest assured, I never cold call on my students. I think it’s rude. And I know it’s hard. But people fear it. 85% of people say they fear speaking in public. And, quite frankly, I think the other 15% are lying. I think we could find a situation that makes them nervous too.
So today, my goal is to share with you some tips and techniques that you can use to help you be more comfortable and confident when you are speaking. In other words, to be able to think fast and talk smart. To do this, we are going to look at four different steps.
First, we are going to talk about the approach we take. Then, we’ll speak about the audience we talk to, the context in which we find ourselves. And, finally, the structures we use to help our messages get across. So, let’s start by talking about approach.
You know, I was reminded about the importance of approach. Many, many years ago, when my wife and I first moved in with each other, we fought a lot, over little things. Things mostly that happened in our bathrooms. We called these our bathroom brawls: “Is the toilet seat up?” “Is the toilet seat down?” By far, the biggest fight my wife and I ever had was over toothpaste. You see, my wife’s a roller and I’m a squeezer. And all of you out there who are rollers, I appreciate the fine artwork you create out of your toothpaste. But you know that the most awful thing that can happen to you is to have a squeezer come by and ruin all that effort you’ve put in.
But to me, getting toothpaste out of a toothpaste tube is an act of aggression. I feel powerful in the morning and in the evening. And we would fight incessantly over little things like this. And finally, my wife, who is much smarter than I, said, “Timeout. What are we doing here? We’ve just been married. We love each other, yet we’re fighting all the time. We need to look at this differently.”
And as soon as we started looking at our bathroom brawls as opportunities: opportunities to learn about each other, to make concessions, to collaborate, things changed. And I am happy to say, after 15 years of marriage, we no longer fight over toothpaste. This same approach is true in communication. Most of us, when we are in situations where we need to communicate, we see them as threatening. We see them as opportunities for failure. And I’d like to suggest we need to change that.
We need to approach communication in an open way, see it as an opportunity to share our ideas, our beliefs, our innovations. And when we take a perspective of openness, all of a sudden, something that we dread become something that we embrace.
The first step to effective communication is to approach it in an open way. But that’s not enough. We need to think about the audience that we are speaking to. And, to me, the way to approach it is the opposite the way most people do. Most of us think about, “Here’s what I want to say.” Or, “Here’s what I need to say.” I would suggest that’s exactly wrong. You need to think about what does my audience need to hear. And it sounds like verbal jiu jitsu, where I’m moving words around. In fact, it’s a fundamental difference.
If I ask myself what does my audience need, it puts me in service of my audience. It’s about their needs. In order to understand those needs, I have to do some reconnaissance. I have to ask myself, “Who they are?” The three things I think we need to ask about our audience are: “What is their knowledge? What is it that they know? And if they don’t know enough, what can we do to scaffold that information so that they have the tools they need?”
In addition to knowledge, we need to be thinking about their expectations. By expectations, I mean what is it that they expect of me? Most audiences have heard the types of presentations you are giving: maybe it’s a pitch, maybe it’s some kind of advertisement or marketing, maybe it’s a TED talk. Your audience has heard those kinds of presentations before, so what do they expect of you? And you can choose to conform to those expectations or not.
I have two young kids. I learned that sometimes violating their expectations actually is the most effective thing I can do for the communication we need. My boys sometimes make me upset. And when they make me upset, I used to raise my voice to no avail. Nothing happened. I was ignored. And that’s tough for a communication guy.
So what I started to do: When I’m really upset with my boys, I lower my voice. And they stop dead in their tracks. Violating expectations sometimes can actually help you as a communicator.
The final thing we need to think about – “What are their attitudes?” The way you approach your communication is influenced by what your audience thinks about what you are talking on: Are they in favor of it? Are they against it? Or they are hesitant? Agnostic? Those are the things you need to be asking yourself when you communicate. So we need to appreciate our audience.
When my older child was in kindergarten, I volunteered. I came into his classroom, the teacher had to leave to take a call or something. And I was in charge of an art project. Oh, was that a mistake. The kids were running around. I was saying, “Stop this, Johnny.” “Sally, stop doing that.” Nobody listened. The Yoda-like teacher returned, saw the chaos that had ensued in her brief absence and simply looked at the children and started rewarding the positive behavior. “Janet,” she said, “what a lovely way you’ve cleaned up your crayons.” “Samuel, thank you so much for walking with the scissors.” The students stopped in their tracks, changed their behavior. I learned then that you need to understand your audience and what they need. And to this day, I try to apply those principles.
I also learned that I could never teach elementary school students. If guilt and shame doesn’t work, I can’t teach them. So, knowing your audience really matters. But beyond knowing your audience, you have to appreciate the context in which you speak. Whenever you speak, you are in a particular context. And to me, context comes in a bunch of different varieties.
The first thing about context we need to think about is the time. What time of day are you communicating? If you are talking early in the morning, you might’ve to have a little more energy to keep people moving. Same thing after lunch, when people are having that food coma experience. I taught high school many, many years ago. And I don’t think my principal liked me very much because she gave me freshmen right before lunch, and right after lunch. And if you know anything about 14, 15-year-old kids, they need lots of food and lots of social experience.
So, by the time my first class of freshmen came to me after four hours of class, they were dead tired. They could barely move, let alone think. Right after lunch, when my second batch joined me, they were amped up on their food, their caffeine, their friends. It was a frenzy in my classroom. And I had to teach them the same thing. How did I do it? I changed the way we approached the class. The class before lunch was highly collaborative, people were moving around, lots of activities — after lunch, a little more mellow. You must address the context, the timing, so your message can be effective.
Context also involves emotion. Most of us when we communicate, we think about information. What’s in my head, in my heart I need to communicate to you, but we also communicate a feeling. Maybe we are trying to get people excited and motivate them. Maybe we’re trying to scare them, create that burning platform that motivates them to change. Sometimes, we’re just trying to instill confidence. You should believe in what I’m saying. But we need to think about the emotion as well as the information.
The final bit of context has to do with where you are physically speaking. Location matters. Just the other day, I read in the newspaper that the Girl Scout in the state of California this year who sold the most cookies during the Girl Scout’s annual cookie drive, set up shop in front of a medical marijuana dispensary. She sold more cookies than anybody. Location matters. Think about the way the room is set up. Think about the environment: Is it live? Is it virtual? Those change the way that you communicate.
We need to think about location. So, our approach is important. Our audience is important. The context in which we find ourselves is important. And so too is the way we structure our messages. It is much easier for humans to understand information when it is structured. In fact, we remember information up to 40% better when it’s structured. What do I mean by this? Some of you listening are too young to remember, but those of us my age, when we wanted to call somebody on the phone, we actually had to remember a phone number.
My kids today, they look at a picture, push a button, and the other person starts talking on the phone. We had it much harder. We had to remember ten digits. Ten digits are hard to remember, so what did we do? We put them in a structure, three-three-and-four. That’s how we remembered. That’s what I mean by a structure. The information’s put in a way that it makes it easy not only for you as a speaker but also for the audience to remember.
Now, I have lots of favorite structures. You see some of the structures up here behind me. The first structure is a chronological structure: past, present, future. Here’s how things used to be. Here’s how they are today. Here’s where they’re going in the future. A chronological structure can really help you navigate your audience from one place to the next. Quite frankly, structures set expectations. You can’t be lost if you have a map. Your structure provides a map. And the chronological structure is incredibly helpful for that.
The next structure happens to be the problem-solution-benefit structure. This is one of the most persuasive structures out there. You start by explaining what the issue is; you talk about how to solve it, and then the benefits to the people.
Finally, my favorite structure, the one I use the most, I call this “the MacGyver of all structures.” This can get you through any situation. It’s the what, so-what, now-what structure. You start by telling people what the issue is. You tell them why it is important in the so-what step. And then you tell them what’s next, what’s coming. It’s like a Swiss Army knife. You can use it in situations if you are teaching. You can use it if you are trying to motivate people. And you can use it even if you are introducing somebody. Change the “what” to a “who” – and you’ve got your introduction.
Structure helps keep your audience together and in line. When I was an undergraduate, I was a tour guide. It was the highest paying job on campus. And, boy, did I need money. I trained for 12 weeks to be a tour guide. I learned lots of interesting – some would say useless – facts about my university. Things they drilled into our heads, besides how to walk backwards, which to this day I still can do in a straight line. The most important thing they taught us: They said above all else to be a great tour guide at this institution is to never lose your audience. You are a bad tour guide if your tour group gets lost. The same is true when you are speaking.
Structures keep people together. We need structure. So we see here that these tools – the tools that help us get our audience engaged and involved and help us convey our message are the same tools that helped my students learn to love speaking and learn to do it well. It’s about the approach you take, the audience, the context, and the structure.
Now, I’m always looking for examples of this to help people understand. The other day, I was eating breakfast, and I looked across the table at my soy milk. And I said, “You know what, this is a great example.” Think about it, Silk soy milk. Silk soy milk is targeted to a very specific audience: People who are interested in eating healthy, or people who are lactose intolerant. The name is a combination of the word soy and milk. Silk: it speaks to the audience’s desire to have something rich, something expensive, something yummy. It’s at a time and a context in an environment.
If you notice where you buy Silk soy milk, it’s next to other milk. That’s not where it was originally. It used to be in the health food aisle. Now, it’s next to milk. They marketed it and boxed it the way milk is. The structure of the name is very compelling. Let’s face it, they could have called it “Moi,” and nobody would have bought it. Right?
So, if you get the message right, and you communicate it effectively, you can make a big difference; so I want for you what I wish for all of my students: Bold communication that’s confident and compelling. And I want for your message to echo long after you leave the room. And these are skills that are at your disposal. It just takes practice and a little bit of a positive approach.
Resources for Further Reading:
- The Power of Unconventional Thinking: David McWilliams (Transcript)
- What I’ve Learned From My 3 Trillion Closest Friends: Robin Shields-Cutler (Transcript)
- Think Like a 4 Year Old, The Cure to Writer’s Block: Austin Martino (Transcript)
- The Problem With AI-Generated Art: Steven Zapata (Transcript)
- TRANSCRIPT: Master Your Mindset, Overcome Self-Deception, Change Your Life: Shadé Zahrai