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Matt Abrahams: The Power of the Paraphrase


Matt Abrahams: The Power of the Paraphrase

An expert on public speaking shows how paraphrasing can help you navigate tricky communication situations.
A job seeker raises his hand to ask a question | Reuters/Rick Wilking

When you are giving a public presentation, don’t you hate it when you face … the dreaded question. You know the one: the emotionally loaded challenge that serves to undermine everything you presented prior. You had hoped you wouldn’t get it, but here it is. Or, you may face ... the obnoxious meeting participant. You know this guy: He thinks he’s Mr. Smarty-Pants and wants everyone to know it. He ruins your meeting by going on long rants that contribute little and waste much.

These two situations can make even the most confident and calm speaker nervous. One powerful way to navigate your way through these two tricky communication situations is to rely on paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is a listening and reflecting tool where you restate what others say in your own words. The most effective paraphrases concisely capture the essence of what another speaker says. For example, at the end of your presentation a questioner asks: “In the past you have been slow to release new products. How soon will your new product be available?” You might paraphrase her question in one of the following ways:

  • “You’re asking about our availability.”
  • “You’d like to know about our release schedule.”
  • “Our release timeline will be … ”

Effective paraphrasing affords you several benefits. In Q&A sessions, for instance, it allows you to:

Make sure you understood the question correctly. After your paraphrase, the question asker has the opportunity to correct you or refine his or her question. There is no sense in answering a question you were not asked.

Think before you respond. Paraphrasing is not very mentally taxing, so while you are speaking your paraphrase you can begin to think of your response.

Acknowledge emotions prior to addressing the issue(s). Occasionally, you may find yourself confronted with an emotionally laden question. In order to be seen as empathetic, and to get the asker to “hear” your answer, you should recognize the emotion as part of your paraphrase. To a questioner who asks, “I get really exasperated when I try to use some of your features. How are you going to make it easier to use your product?” you might say: “I hear that you have emotion around the complexity of our offering.” By acknowledging the emotion, you can more easily move beyond it to address the issue at hand. Please note that you should avoid labeling the emotion, even if the asker does. If someone seems angry, it is better to use terms such as “strong emotion,” “clear concern,” and “passion.” I have seen a number of speakers get into a labeling battle with an audience member when the speaker names a specific emotion that the asker took offense to (e.g., saying an audience member seems frustrated when he is actually angry).

Reframe the question to focus on something you feel more comfortable addressing. I am not recommending pulling a politician’s trick and pivoting to answer the question you wanted rather than the one you got. Instead, by paraphrasing, you can make the question more comfortable for you to answer. The most striking example I have come across was in a sales situation where a prospect asked the presenter: “How come your prices are ridiculously expensive?” Clearly, the paraphrase “So you’re asking about our ridiculous pricing” is not the way to go. Rather, you can reframe the issue in your paraphrase to be about a topic you are better prepared to address. For example, “So you’d like to know about our product’s value.” Price is clearly part of value, but you start by describing the value and return on investment, which will likely soften the blow of the price.

Using paraphrases can also help you in facilitation situations, such as a meeting. In meetings, paraphrasing allows you to:

Acknowledge the participant’s effort. For many people, contributing in meetings can be daunting. There are real consequences for misspeaking or sounding unprepared. By paraphrasing the contributions you get from others, you validate the person’s effort by signaling that you really listened and valued their input.

Link various questions/ideas. You can pull together disparate contributions and questions and engage different participants by relating a current statement to previous ones. For example, you might say: “Your comment about our profitability links to the question a few minutes ago about our financial outlook.”

Manage over-contributors. Someone who over-shares or dominates a meeting with his or her opinions can be very disruptive and disrespectful. If it is your meeting, then the other participants will expect you to manage the situation. If you don’t, you will lose control and potentially credibility. Paraphrasing can help you move beyond the over-contributor while looking tactful. Fortunately, even the most loquacious person needs to inhale once in a while. During a pause, simply paraphrase a meaningful portion of the person’s diatribe and place focus elsewhere — to another person or topic. For example, you might say, “Forrest’s point about manufacturing delays is a good one. Laurie, what do you think?” Or, “Forrest’s point about manufacturing delays is a good one. What other issues are affecting our release schedule?” In both cases, you have politely informed Forrest that he is done, and you’ve turned the focus away from him and back to your agenda.

Beginning a paraphrase can sometimes be tricky, and people often ask me for suggestions for ways to initiate their paraphrases. Try one of the following lines to help you start your paraphrase:

  • “So what you are saying/asking is … ”
  • “What is important to you is … ”
  • “You’d like to know more about … ”
  • “The central idea of your question/comment is … ”

Paraphrasing has the power to help you connect with your audience, manage emotions, and steer the conversation. And once you begin to use the technique, you will realize it has the power to help you not only in presentations and meetings, but in virtually any interpersonal conversation.

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