Best Of: Using Skills From Improv to Master Your In-The-Moment Communication
Matt Abrahams revisits the first-ever episode, featuring Dan Klein and Adam Tobin.
In January 2020, Stanford Graduate School of Business launched the podcast Think Fast Talk Smart with the goal of helping people improve their communication skills.
Now, with more than 100 episodes to date and listeners tuning in from more than 200 countries, we’re proud to take you back to the very first episode. In this episode, host Matt Abrahams speaks with Stanford lecturers Adam Tobin and Dan Klein on becoming more comfortable and confident in spur-of-the-moment speaking situations.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: Across our many Think Fast Talk Smart episodes, a few themes have emerged repeatedly. Focus on your audience and their needs. Be present in the moment. Listen intently. Be concise and clear. The seeds of these ideas can be heard way back in our very first episode. As we approach our 100th, we thought it would be both fun and educational to go back to episode number one where we chat with my colleagues, friends and improvisation mentors Dan Klein and Adam Tobin. I especially love when we talk about being open to the offers people make and being willing to be obvious. I invite you to listen and learn from this best of episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.
Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, a podcast designed to hone your communication skills. My name is Matt Abrahams and I’m a lecturer here at Stanford Graduate School of Business here where I teach strategic communication. And I’ll be inviting my colleagues and experts in to talk about best practices you can use to become a more confident, authentic, and compelling communicator.
When we think about our communication at work, we tend to focus on our presentations and meeting contributions that we know we should spend time preparing and practicing for. But if you think about it, most of our professional communication is spontaneous in nature. It’s providing feedback in the moment, answering questions, introducing someone. These spur-of-the-moment communication events can be as important, if not even more important, than our planned high-stakes communications. For most people these impromptu situations can be quite challenging. I’m thrilled to invite two experts and good friends to talk about how we can become more comfortable and confident in these situations.
Let me start by introducing Adam Tobin. Adam is a senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies here at Stanford University, and a teacher in Continuing Studies. Dan Klein is also a lecturer at Stanford, both at the Graduate School of Business as well as in Theater and Performance Studies. Dan also is an instructor at the D School. Adam and Dan, thanks for being here.
Adam Tobin: Thank you.
Dan Klein: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Matt Abrahams: This is going to be a lot of fun. So we all are involved with situations where the students we teach or the clients we coach feel challenged by spontaneous speaking. Can you share a little bit about where you think that challenge comes from? Why is this type of speaking so hard?
Dan Klein: There’s a moment when we feel that the pressure is on. It’s like everyone’s attention is on us and we have to perform. And the moment we have that self-conscious awareness, it’s like our brain starts to short circuit. We go into a different set of systems. We’re thinking about ourselves or thinking about how it looks, how we did. There’s a critical level. But sometimes we see this with improvisors specifically. There’s another problem where if the pressure’s on and you think you did really well. That also short circuits your ability [laughs] to be present and in the moment.
Adam Tobin: And it’s amazing people can shut down, or sometimes people can talk too much. It’s like their mind-body is running away from them. It’s doing everything except kind of what they need to do in the moment. But we are expert at that because, for most of the time, we’re improvising. You know, nobody wakes up and writes the script of the day, and everyone else goes along with that script. We’re actually experts at improvising. It’s just when we get put on the spot.
Dan Klein: And when Adam says we are experts, he doesn’t mean he and I. He means like humanity.
Adam Tobin: Right. We are experts, by the way.
Dan Klein: We are experts.
Matt Abrahams: That’s true. You are. That’s why you’re here.
Dan Klein: We all are experts.
Matt Abrahams: And we see this in lots of high stakes situations. I think of athletes who for years have been practicing what they do. But in that high-stakes situation, that pitch, that putt where, all of a sudden, they fail or they struggle because of that over-awareness that you’re talking about. Before we start getting into specific tips and tricks about how to manage in these situations, I really think a lot of what you guys teach has to do with mindset and approach. Would you guys like to talk about that approach that you take?
Adam Tobin: Yeah. One of my favorite stories is that when I first moved to the Bay Area before GPS, I would go to San Francisco, and every time I would get lost. Every single time. And it wasn’t until the seventh or eighth time that I got lost and I looked up and I said, I don’t know where I am, but I’ve been lost here before. And if I just make a right and a right, I’ll get back on the freeway and I know how to get home.
And for me, that was a mindset shift. That was I don’t need to have all the answers. I need to be present enough to kind of find a way to solve the answers. I need to be okay enough, comfortable enough being uncomfortable, that I can plug in. And our mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, who wrote this great book, Improv Wisdom, when I told her that story, she said, “No, no, no. You missed the point. The point is to get lost on purpose and discover what you find.” And for me, that was another mindset shift.
Dan Klein: I love that. I’ve been trying to run a little bit more in my life. And I find that it’s really exciting to go out and try to get a little bit lost. Like I don’t want to get so lost that it’s actually physically dangerous and I might be in trouble. But I want to find something I’ve never seen before. And I was running near my house the other day in Oakland, and I was going to go the way I know to get home, and I thought, well, I’ll just get a little bit lost.
And I turned right, and literally half a block, they made a native plants park in between two streets. It was 10 yards away from where I was, and I had a walk in nature with native plants completely transported. And I would never have had that if my mindset wasn’t get a little bit lost. Like take the slightly less traveled path.
Adam Tobin: And in speaking, that’s the thing of if you’re present, if you go just a little bit someplace you hadn’t gone before, it may feel terrifying at first. But you’re only going to discover new things that way.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah. That I think is really the crux of what hinders a lot of people in these situations is that ability to let go. There is such pressure to do it right. The expectation is that I’ve been asked to do this, or I need to do this, and I want to do it right. And I know in your experience and in a lot of the improvisation that you bring to the work you do, letting go of the getting it right is really important.
So can you share some ideas about how we get out of our own way? And in fact, I’m going to ask: there’s a wonderful improv game, and in a class that Adam and I co-teach, we often start with this game. And it’s called Shout the Wrong Name. And I think this is a great. If one of you could describe the game and use this as a way to help us understand how we get in our way.
Dan Klein: Yeah. Well, this is a great early game. And the first round is Shout the Right Name. So you walk around pointing at things and calling out what they’re called. And I give people permission to mess up. Like if you get the wrong name, that’s fine. We’re all doing it at the same time. And after a round of that, then we do another round where you say Shout the Previous Name. So you call out what the last thing you pointed out was called, which really messes with your brain.
Matt Abrahams: Wow. Right.
Dan Klein: And hopefully you’ll get messed up. Sometimes you’ll get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. We’re in that weird state.
Matt Abrahams: So you point at a lamp, and then when you point at the computer, you call it a lamp.
Dan Klein: You call it a lamp. And then when you point at the wall, you call it computer.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Dan Klein: And then the last round is you’re free. You could call it the previous thing, or you could call it the next thing or something else in the room or something not in the room, or something that’s not even a thing. Like you have permission to call things gibberish. The goal is to emphatically declare the name. Don’t intellectually sort of solve the problem by figuring out a category of things that you can just list.
And once we’re doing that, we’re in a completely different psychological, emotional, your view of the room and the world shifts after just 45 seconds.
Matt Abrahams: What I found so interesting about this, and I don’t know, Adam, if you want to comment on it, is when I participated in this game, people get so frustrated because they feel that they’re not doing the game right. And you hear students saying, “I didn’t call it that because that’s not the right wrong name.”
Dan Klein: Right, right. Exactly.
Adam Tobin: Yeah. And all the different ways that we judge ourselves come out. So the thing we shouted wasn’t interesting enough. The thing we shouted was too interesting. The thing we shouted was something we heard from somebody else. The thing we shouted was a repeat of something I’ve said before. And in the boundaries of this game, the rule is Shout the Wrong Name. And beyond that, we bring all this baggage of all these different ways to judge the idea that we’ve come up with.
And for me, it just brings to light all the different ways that we strangle ourselves from speaking because it might not be appropriate, it might not be interesting enough. And you know, in the world of business and Stanford and what I do, film, and achievement, people want to be powerful speakers. They want to be interesting. But what we don’t realize is that by trying to meet every goal in our head, we’re shutting ourselves off from material.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the big key aha moments I have I doing the work that I’ve done with you all is that we stifle creativity before we actually have an opportunity to be creative because we’re evaluating. And I know none of the three of us is advocating that you get up in a spontaneous speaking situation and just say the first thing that comes to your mind. But if you loosen the restrictions that you put on yourself, interesting things can happen.
There’s a wonderful saying that comes from the world of improv, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but this notion of Dare to Be Dull. And when I have the audacity to be in front of my MBA students and say, “Dare to be dull.” And it sucks the air right out of the room because I immediately have to follow it up with why. And would one of you like to help articulate why daring to be dull is so liberating?
Dan Klein: It’s exactly that. It’s liberating because it takes the pressure off. We are so driven to be interesting. Our mentor, Patricia Ryan Madson, she had a mentor in improvisation. It’s Keith Johnstone. So he’s like our grand mentor. [Laughter] Our fear of being seen as unoriginal is one of the most inhibiting fears that we carry. And so the idea of like dare to be dull, or be obvious. Be obvious is the most powerful, creative mantra that there is. He said when you’re trying to be original, you sound like everyone else trying to be original. But when you’re obvious, you’re yourself. And that’s what’s genuine. And if the obvious thing you say is what everyone else was thinking, then they’ll just think you’re brilliant for saying it.
And if your obvious thing is different, then that’s actually genuinely original.
Adam Tobin: Right. And that obvious thing is kind of your voice, right? But it’s also true. You’re not putting on any kind of fake version of yourself to try to impress people. You’re actually dealing with what’s going on, what’s in your head, what your reaction to the thing is.
Dan Klein: There’s another message that we got from Keith Johnstone and from Patricia that I personally found really powerful, and I use it in my teaching all the time. And that is shoot for average and fail cheerfully. And when I tell students that, especially here at Stanford, these high-achieving students, I can tell that they don’t really believe it. [Laughter] They laugh. They’re sort of guarded. And they’re still sort of holding themselves back.
But over the course of 10 weeks of practicing doing this, of doing it with other people, of getting the experience of that playful support, being able to fail and have it still work out, I start to see the armor crack. I see them kind of emerge and show up as themselves, which is something that they’ve been holding back.
Adam Tobin: There’s so much pressure to be outstanding and original and break the paradigm. And the truth is that we can’t actually get to those spaces if we’re protecting ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to play and discover and be authentic. I think those skills can be learned over time. As Dan said, the more you do it, the more you tap into something kind of true, instead of trying to wow everybody with this false version.
Matt Abrahams:I really think this is critical, to take the time to understand how much pressure we put on ourselves and how much judging we do of ourselves that gets in the way of us actually being able to do what it is we want to do. And that notion of reflecting on what happens if it doesn’t go well, accepting the failure, really is liberating. We are certainly not saying that this is the only way to communicate.
All of us agree there are situations where we need to do what we traditionally do: prepare, plan, the wording has to be right. But to have flexed these other muscles and be able to have another approach so we can choose in certain situations to turn off the evaluation and the judging and act in another way.
Adam Tobin: Well, in Patricia’s book, in the opening she says, “When I go to a surgeon, I certainly want a surgeon who is prepared and schooled up and knows what they’re doing. But I also want, if something goes wrong, for them to be able to be present and improvise. Also, I would like that surgeon to be able to talk to me about [laughs] what’s going on.
I think if you get expert enough in your material, then that frees you up to be more connected, more conversational because you know, deep down, I know this. Sometimes we’ll do an exercise where we’ll have somebody tell the story of their name, just some story about their name - first name, middle name, last name, whatever, or tell a story about what they did this weekend and remind them that when you’re an expert on the material, you don’t have to have every word perfectly staged.
If you build a comfort in your material, then you can be a little more free-flowing in how you present it.
Matt Abrahams: Being present oriented is really critical in what I’m hearing us discuss. And I know a lot of improvisation requires or invites that kind of present orientation. So I’d like to hear from each of you a bit about how present orientation helps in spontaneous moments. And also, let’s include in that this notion of listening. What I have found in the work I do is we often don’t take the time to be present enough to listen, to understand truly what’s needed in that moment so we can respond accordingly.
Because we’re in our heads, because we’re judging and evaluating, we might miss some nuance or make some assumptions that get in the way of being successful and spontaneous speaking. Curious to know your thoughts about that listening and that present orientation.
Dan Klein: Okay, what did you just ask me? [Laughter] Sorry. I’m sorry.
Matt Abrahams: That was a softball there, Dan [laughs].
Dan Klein: I know, I thought of that early and then I planned to say it.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah [laughs].
Adam Tobin: And you blocked out everything else he said.
Matt Abrahams: There you go. What not to do.
Adam Tobin: Look. If you’re like locked into a script or locked into this idea of how you were going to do it, and something is going on, you’re totally not connecting with your audience, with their needs. Like imagine you’re giving a talk and there’s a fire alarm and the sprinklers go off, and you keep giving your talk. It’s the opposite of actually connecting your material [laughs] to people. You have to be there, and you have to keep bringing the current circumstances to your material so you can get it to people.
Dan Klein: https://www.improv.org/actors/rafe-chase/ is a brilliant improvisor and director here in the Bay Area who’s created amazing theater for more than 30 years. And his advice was, in the moment when you find yourself thinking about yourself, either in the past or in the future, how I did or how I’m going to do, don’t beat yourself up but let that be a little reminder that there’s something to notice right now. And that’s always true. There’s always something to notice right now.
Adam Tobin: And I would say one of the most powerful ideas that improv gave to me personally and then I’ve applied certainly to speaking and to pitching movie ideas and to teaching and to this room right now is it’s not about you, it’s not just about you, it’s really about them. It’s about your listener. It’s about your partner. It’s about making your partner look good. There’s a great improv maxim, which is do what needs to be done. Don’t do more, don’t do less, do what needs to be done.
And you only know that if you’re paying attention.
Matt Abrahams: That’s right. And a great way I think for people to help get in that present moment, not when they’re playing improv games because improv games invite that but taking time to greet your audience. Take time to get to know them. Ask questions. It brings you into that present moment. You can’t be worried about everything that could happen if I’m shaking your hand and asking you a question.
Another way to make sure that you’re listening well and understanding is using paraphrasing. I’m a big fan of paraphrasing, such that you hear the information and demonstrate you heard the information. There’s no sense communicating if you’re not communicating on the topic that’s needed in that moment.
Adam Tobin: I just had an insight about paraphrasing, which is you’re kind of extending the now, right? So like now keeps moving past you and blah-blah-blah-blah and it’s hard. But what paraphrasing does is like what they said, you’re saying again and you’re kind of like living in that space for a little moment, right? And yes, it reaffirms fidelity. Did I get that message right? It affirms what they said, “Oh, I heard you and you said something.”
But also, it’s like, “Okay, before we rush on to what we think about that or what that means, like let’s take a moment and just be in that for a sec.” And it doesn’t take a long time, but it’s in the now.
Dan Klein: There’s another piece here. I connect this to teaching but also to speaking, with teaching being a variation of speaking, which is sometimes we really want to get a laugh because the laugh kind of gives us an indication that everyone’s with us and it’s working.
Matt Abrahams: Right. They’re engaged. Yeah, right.
Dan Klein: It’s an ego boost, but it also says we’re alive and together. There are some laughs that are actually costly. If you’re just doing your jokes, if you’re making fun of somebody, you might get the laugh, but it won’t actually build that connection. But there is a laugh that you can get which comes from highlighting something funny or interesting that someone else did. So if someone does something funny to be celebrated, as the teacher, as the host, to call it out, you get that laugh, but you get it in service of the other person and of the message.
I think it’s true in talks as well. If something happens in the room that you can call out that gets the laugh, it’s not you generating a joke and saying, “Look at me.” It’s sort of being present in the moment.
Adam Tobin: And it’s something we’ve all experienced in that room, and no other talk will experience that. And if anything, it might be the more memorable thing when you leave of like, “Oh, that moment,” because it’s a live moment. It happened. We participated in it.
Matt Abrahams:I love this notion of connection and being in service of your audience. That’s a mantra that I share a lot. For many people, though, it’s very nerve-wracking to go from that monologue to dialogue, to letting other people in. And I know that improvisation and both of you have some thoughts about how we perceive and frame those interactions.
Many of us in a Q&A situation, where people are asking us questions or asking for our feedback, feel that in that moment we are being challenged, that we are being evaluated.
Dan Klein: Attacked.
Matt Abrahams: Attacked in some cases. And I know improv has a lot to say about this notion of offers and opportunities. Do you want to make mention of that? I think that reframing these situations as a positive versus a negative can make a big difference.
Adam Tobin: Yeah. I mean, one of the improvisors’ mantras is that there are always offer coming at us from all different directions and that we should notice those offers. So an improvisor goes on stage with absolutely nothing planned, and just the posture of their partner coming on stage will say, ah, that person is just a little slumped, or that person is a little proud. And I’ll notice that, and I’ll treat it as an offer. And now I’ll have a sense of what we’re beginning to do on stage.
So there are these offers everywhere. And our audiences, for sure, are giving us offers all the time.
Dan Klein: Yeah. In the moment when an audience member is challenging, when they ask a question that might have an aggressive tone to it, something that might put you on the defensive, especially if you’re not that confident about that specific area, one of the things that I learned as a facilitator, and I’ve seen it happen over and over again, is that person is the most engaged. That’s what they’re showing you.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, that’s great.
Dan Klein: They are engaged, and they are the best opportunity. It’s not a fight. You’re not going to fight with them, but they are an opportunity. So take that energy, get delighted. Whenever something goes wrong on the improv stage, improvisors just get excited. Their eyes light up and they go, “Oh, good, what can we do with this?”
Adam Tobin: It’s live. It’s an opportunity. It’s new information.
Matt Abrahams: I am surprised that I’m the one that has to say this, but yes and.
Adam Tobin: Yeah.
Matt Abrahams: Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Adam Tobin: Yeah. Right.
Dan Klein: So someone challenging you, someone being sort of negative or a problem, we’re instantly reframing that. And I’ve seen it many times. The person who has the most challenging question is most likely to be your champion. They’re the one who is going to be your biggest supporter when you work with them and are able to engage and turn around.
The other thing I learned was when they ask a question that has a lot of energy behind it, don’t answer. Say, “Tell me more,” or say, “What thoughts do you have about that?” Like let them keep talking, because sometimes you’re just misinterpreting that negative energy. They’re fired up in another way.
Adam Tobin: It’s very powerful. I mean, you mentioned yes and. And it’s such a cliché of improv. But really to parse it and say when you’re met with something, see that as an opportunity. And not only see it as an opportunity but build on it, run with it. This is a story I tell in the class that Matt and I teach together. There was a time where I was pitching a TV show. And the person I pitched it to said to me, “Tell me why this isn’t a sci fi story.” And I thought [laughs], this isn’t a sci fi story. It never occurred to me. Like maybe there’s some element?
And I said, “Why do you say that?” And it turned out that that person’s boss had been burned by the last three sci fi stories that they had made. What this person was doing was actually asking me for ammunition that he could then take to his boss to sell my story. He was solving a problem that I didn’t even know existed. And so rather than seeing that question as an attack, see it as this person is bringing information from like outside of my headspace, right?
Like I wasn’t aware of this. By bringing that question, he’s bringing his concerns and he was actually trying to help.
Matt Abrahams: What I love so much about that story is it brings together many of the things we talked about. You had to be present in the moment to see that that’s what was going on. You had to take the offer that he was giving you and see it as an offer, that there was something of value there. So you really had to be present. You had to listen and have that mindset.
Adam Tobin: And I did paraphrase. I asked a question back, as Dan said, “Tell me more. Why? Where is this coming from?” And it turned out the deeper source was something useful for both of us.
Matt Abrahams:I think for folks who find themselves in situations where they’re handling objections or taking questions, this advice and guidance is critical. You have to listen. You have to be open. You have to see how this is now an opportunity to expand and extend versus to just offend and entrench.
Adam Tobin: I mean, one thing that was very powerful that I learned was from you, Matt, which is to make this into a conversation rather than a performance. And that mindset shift of I’m presenting, I’m in front of a group. But it’s much more like I’m in a conversation where I’m putting information out. You’re giving information back. I’m taking that in and moving it forward. And that’s a way to kind of demystify or take the anxiety out of these situations.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Being conversational always I think is beneficial. So it seems to me that everything we’ve talked about so far is really about mindset and approach. Now you actually have to communicate. You have to do something. And you both know, and I’ll share with everybody listening, I have a very strong bias towards structure. I think actually structure is critical. In a spontaneous situation, the structure you leverage is very, very important.
And the same is true in improv. And I find it very interesting that people think improv is totally unstructured. But in fact, there are a whole bunch of rules and procedures and processes that folks doing improv are working on together and sharing. Can you talk a little bit about how structure actually frees people up to be spontaneous?
Dan Klein: Well, I think that’s it exactly. At even another level, one of the things that we learned from Patricia from the first day was we’re not doing improv so that we have less work, right? We’re not doing improv so we don’t have to spend time memorizing our lines or rehearsing. In fact, if we’re going to step into this world, we have an extra responsibility that we are not late, that we are not casual and sloppy, that we are taking care of each other, and that we are doing this in a most respectful way.
And if you see a professional improv show, they don’t kind of slowly get up on stage and go, “What should we do tonight?” They have a very clear plan about how are we going to get this first suggestion? What’s the start? How are we going to do the lights at the beginning? How will we know when we’ve come to the end? What’s the curtain call? We get the frame really well established, which then gives us room to play within the structure.
Adam Tobin: And I’m a huge believer in structure in film and television, too. And in general, it’s this sense that a playground structure allows kids to climb up and over and through and around and run around and make it into a mountain or make it into something else. But if you just drop a couple of kids in an empty field and they don’t have a bat or a ball or lines or anything, it’s actually harder to generate play. You need building blocks a little bit.
And when there are structures, you can kind of say, “Okay, here’s what I’m doing first,” or, “Normally, I would do that first, but I’m going to switch it around.” And it just gives you a basis in which to play.
Matt Abrahams: The way I like to think about it is whenever you have to communicate, you have two fundamental things you have to worry about. One is what am I saying, and other is how am I saying it? And this notion of structure gives you the how I’m going to say it. So you actually free up your brain to focus on what you’re going to say and how you put it in the structure.
And I fully believe if you take the approaches that we’ve talked about and the mindset, it puts you in a place where you can then think about the different structures, maps, approaches that you want to take and, therefore, plug the information in.
Dan Klein: For about seven years here at Stanford, my wife and partner Michelle Darby and I taught a class on storytelling where we taught people to get up on stage and tell a true story in front of a live audience. That was not improvised. But we also encouraged people to plan your story, rehearse it, practice it, but don’t memorize it because it’s like the life force gets pulled out when you’re just reciting the lines.
Even if they’re beautiful and well-crafted, if you’re reading it, there’s something that’s missing. But if you’re sharing it, if you’ve planned it out and you know where to go. And there’s a version of improv which is just ad-libbing. There’re a lot of improvised movies where the structure is actually totally in place. We know the characters. We know the scenes. But the dialogue hasn’t been written. That’s an important skill, too.
Some [unintelligible] that we’re talking about is where you don’t know anything about the story and you’re figuring it out right there in the moment. That’s wonderful training. Even just the ability to ad lib, to know where you are but be fully present and let the words come to you as you’re there. Even with all of that, we say you should memorize the first line and the last line.
Adam Tobin: Right.
Dan Klein: Don’t be sloppy about those.
Adam Tobin: Right. I mean, Matt has talked about in our class that anxiety peaks at the beginning of a talk and at the end of a talk. And if you can start strong and finish strong, that will reduce some of your anxiety. And people remember primacy and recency, right? But also, I mean, I do think that when you have a script that you’ve written out, you’ve added all these other layers of judgment to it. Am I hitting all the words that I needed to hit? Am I inflecting them right? Am I pausing the way that I had planned?
You’re subservient to the script and the plan instead of to getting your message across to the people who are here.
Dan Klein: And if you’re picturing the words themselves as they appear on the page, you’re in a completely different space than an actual communicator.
Adam Tobin: Yeah, right. Yeah.
Matt Abrahams: I think it’s important for us to distinguish between script and structure. So a structure is like a map. It’s not the step-by-step street name that you go to to get to where you want to be. We’ve talked about a lot of really interesting, useful skills that people can use to feel more comfortable speaking in a spontaneous way. I’m curious if both of you would be willing to be a little spontaneous. We end each of these podcasts with a little game. So I’m going to ask each of you three questions that we end each podcast with. So we’ll alternate back and forth, and we’ll switch who goes first. So one of you will truly be being spontaneous. So Dan, I’m going to start with you.
Matt Abrahams: If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Dan Klein: Adam already said it earlier. I just want to pull it back in. It is not about you.
Matt Abrahams: Nice. Very good. Adam, same question to you. What five to seven words would be on your slide title?
Adam Tobin: I was going to say that.
Dan Klein: That was yours?
Adam Tobin: It’s not about you. It’s about them.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, okay. We’ll give you credit. That’s all right. That’s all right. So Adam, since you were a little less original, we’ll give you question number two.
Adam Tobin: But I was present and I failed cheerfully.
Matt Abrahams: Who’s a communicator that you admire and why?
Adam Tobin: You know who I really enjoy is Trevor Noah, the host of the Daily Show. And his autobiography audiobook is just amazing. But what I like about him is a mix of he does seem always present. He seems always him. You know, you really feel his voice. But he can speak with authority. He can speak sometimes crassly or glibly or sometimes like really kind of profoundly. And so I enjoy the range that he brings. And yet it’s always him.
Matt Abrahams: So that authenticity then, yeah.
Adam Tobin: Yeah, yeah. And specificity and naturalness. Yeah, I really enjoy watching him.
Matt Abrahams: So Dan, who’s a communicator that you admire and why?
Dan Klein: I’m going to go a little bit obscure here. Almost 20 years ago, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And there’s a British comedian storyteller named Daniel Kitson who was hosting it was an event called Late and Live. And Late and Live was notorious because it was at midnight and the crowd would be packed, and you’d get a random collection of standup comics. And they were handling hecklers, like that was the culture of that environment.
And Daniel was the host of it. And he was so masterful at playing with what people would shout out. He would disarm them so easily. He was so present. Not high status. Not aggressive. Very calm and comfortable, but so comfortable in his own skin. And he would name exactly what was there in the room. So whatever someone called out to him, the tone of voice, the phrasing; he was so present and aware of what it was that everyone just fell apart. It was absolutely hysterical.
Matt Abrahams: That’s cool. That’s cool. So usually the third question that I ask is to ask the person to give three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe. But I’m going to turn this into a little bit of an improv game. So instead of each of you telling three, and I’ll play as well. Say one ingredient that you would put in the recipe. So Adam, what’s one thing you would put in?
Adam Tobin: Cinnamon.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, excellent.
Adam Tobin: No, I’m sorry. How do I say this? You build up a trust in yourself over time, and by putting yourself out there in safer ways, and then increasingly you get more and more comfort. I think ultimately, having some trust in yourself is a really powerful ingredient.
Matt Abrahams: Dan?
Dan Klein: Here’s something we haven’t quite talked about, but it fits into everything. Plan the talk. Be ready. Do the research. Think about the audience and their needs. But in the moment when you’re delivering, use an opportunity to pay attention. Like meet people beforehand in the room. Have some quick conversations. Listen to the speaker right before you.
And use something from the room in your talk. You don’t have to change everything you’re going to do, but reference something that’s come up on that day in that moment so that your talk is particular to that space and that time.
Matt Abrahams: So I like this notion of trust yourself, be ready. And I would add to this, have fun. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. I’ll never forget when I went for my first martial arts black belt, somebody I trust and a mentor, right before I went to do the test, he looked at me and said, “Have fun.” And I was in total utter shock. How can this be fun? This is something that’s going to be torturous. But taking that approach really made a big difference.
I think those three ingredients would make for a wonderful, spontaneous speaker. Thank you for that and thank you for joining today. I really hope that people listening in take to heart the advice that we gave. It’s about the approach you take. It’s about having that open mindset, being present, listening, relying on structure, trusting in yourself. Taken together, those are the skills that will help somebody become a better spontaneous speaker. Thank you, guys.
Adam Tobin: Thank you.
Dan Klein: Thank you.
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