Career & Success

Communication Tips from the Classroom and Around the World

In this 150th episode, Matt Abrahams, Shawon Jackson, and podcast listeners discuss their favorite pieces of communication advice.

July 10, 2024

Sometimes, what’s communicated to us can have a big impact on how we communicate to others. This episode explores some of the best communication advice — from experts and Think Fast, Talk Smart listeners around the world.

Lecturers Shawon Jackson, MBA ’21, and Matt Abrahams teach Essentials of Strategic Communication at Stanford GSB. In this celebratory 150th episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, they share their own advice as well as tips from Stanford LEAD participants, on topics like knowing your audience, using transitions to connect different ideas, and embracing the power of silence.

 

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.

Full Transcript

Note: Transcripts are generated by machine and lightly edited by humans. They may contain errors.

Matt Abrahams: Legendary baseball player Hack Wilson said, in life, you need many more things besides talent. Things like good advice and common sense.

In honor of our 150th Think Fast, Talk Smart episode, we plan to spend some time today focusing on good communication advice. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Welcome to this celebratory Quick Thinks episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

[00:00:29]
Today I am joined by my colleague, friend, and strategic communication teaching partner Shawon Jackson. Beyond being a lecturer, Shawon is an expert communicator and the executive director of Vocal Justice. Vocal Justice helps black and brown students learn how to communicate authentically and persuasively about social justice.

Shawon, thanks for joining me in a much smaller room than our usual classroom.

Shawon Jackson: Thank you for having me, Matt. It’s been such a pleasure teaching with you and congratulations on one hundred and fifty episodes.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you. Before we begin, I just want to express my deep gratitude to all of our listeners and the team behind the scenes that brings this podcast to everyone. Our podcast started as an experiment to see if we could help people hone and develop their communication skills. And I am continually surprised and humbled by the amazing reception we’ve had across the world over these four and a half years. Thank you all for tuning in and for supporting us.

Today, Shawon and I will be sharing some advice we teach our MBA students, and we will share and comment on advice we have received from some of our listeners from around the world. To begin, Shawon, I was hoping you could share the advice you give our students on the importance of transitions and how to provide strong transitions in our content.

[00:01:44]
Shawon Jackson: Thank you, Matt. I’m excited to talk about transitions because they really help your audience to understand what your key message is and to feel more engaged in the content. And I think about transitions based on the type of presentation that you’re delivering.

First up, we have rapid transitions. Those are the transitions we learned growing up. First, second, third, next, however. They’re very easy and they’re very helpful for impromptu speeches or a quick Q and A.

Next up, we have relational transitions. These are similar in nature, but a little bit longer, a bit more poetic, so it might sound something like, but we also need to consider this, or at the same time, or before we can do that, we also need to consider this. They’re transitions that help to connect the ideas a bit more seamlessly.

Third, we have recap transitions. Now, these transitions are helpful when you have a longer, more complex presentation, and you really want to cement a key learning. So after you finish a segment, you wrap it up, and then move on to your next point.

[00:02:51]
The final type that I love personally are narrative transitions. And this is when you can transition between one idea and the next through a personal story. So you might share an anecdote that reveals one point, and then in that same story, introduce a new idea to your audience.

Matt Abrahams: I really find those four different types of transitions really powerful, and ever since I heard you teach those, I begin to think about them. Summarize them for us one more time.

Shawon Jackson: First up, we have rapid transitions, those are your easy ones. Relational transitions, that allow you to connect ideas with a bit more flowery language. Recap transitions where you summarize complex ideas, and narrative transitions, where you connect ideas through a story.

[00:03:33]
Matt Abrahams: I learned the power of transitions when I was a tour guide on my college campus. It was the highest paying job I could get, and I was desperate for money. And they taught us never ever get your tour group lost. And the place that people get lost the most is when you move from one location to the next. And the same is true in our content. And by leveraging one of the four transition types, you really help keep your audience together. Much like a tour guide does keeping you together when you move from one point to the next. It’s really critical for us to build these transitions in. If all you’re doing is saying, so, and next, or first and second, it’s really easy to lose your audience. So thank you for sharing those.

Shawon Jackson: Yes, and I could not agree with that more, Matt. And speaking of the transitions, I would love to turn it back over to you and hear some of your advice about creating and presenting with slides.

[00:04:23]
Matt Abrahams: Thanks for asking about slides. You and I spend some time in our class talking about it, but we’ve never talked about it in our podcast. Slides are a wonderful tool, but we have all suffered through slides that are poorly designed and poorly used. So, in our course, I teach four key principles for slides.

First and foremost, story comes first. I know how many people create their slides. They beg, borrow, and steal all the slides they can find. They slam them together and they create what I jokingly refer to as a Franken deck. Much like Frankenstein was a combination of different body parts, people just slam together different slides. And then when they deliver it, they say, this didn’t flow well, it didn’t make sense, well, it never could have. So we first have to start with our story. What’s the story, the narrative, the structure that we’re trying to communicate through? And then we have to ask ourselves a very important question. Where would slides help our audience?

[00:05:18]
Many of us create slides as teleprompters or as tools to help us remember what to say. But it’s not about helping us, it’s about helping our audience. And not every point needs a slide. So story first, slides are for your audience, not for you.

Next, we have to think about what goes on the slides. The mantra everybody should have is less is more. The question should be what’s the least amount of information I can put on a slide to help my audience better understand my material. So we have to think, will this material simplify, amplify, or clarify something that I’m communicating. And if it is, what’s the most simple way to get that across?

And then finally, words can be very challenging. If I’m speaking words and people are reading words, I’m actually asking my audience to multitask, and the reality is most of us are not good at multitasking. If I can use some kind of image instead of verbiage, it can really help. It could be a picture, it could be a chart, a process flow. When we show an image, we tap into the brain’s visual system, not just the verbal system, and it can help. So, the four rules that we teach our students are story first, make sure that it’s for your audience, not for you, less is more in image over verbiage when possible.

Shawon Jackson: Those are excellent. And I would also add that a lot of people forget that there’s a difference between slides that you present and slides that you send to someone before a meeting or afterwards. In the latter scenarios, it’s okay to have extra text, to add color to your message, but that’s very distinct from a presentation that you’re giving live.

[00:07:00]
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely agree. The slides you create need to be for the audience you are communicating with in the moment. If I’m sending it ahead or leaving it behind, you can have a lot more information. What I like to do to make my burden a little easier, so I’m not creating multiple decks, is I’ll use the notes page feature of many of the slide tools, where the slide, is what I actually presented, which will have less information, perhaps be more visual.

Shawon, you shared some advice about transitions, I just shared some advice that we teach in our class about slides. I’d love to share some advice we’ve heard from some of our listeners. So we’re going to hear from our listeners Kevin and Kesinee about something that’s really important to them in terms of advice.

Kesinee Angkustsiri Yip: Hi, my name is Kesinee Angkustsiri Yip. I’m from San Francisco. I’m a communications strategist and the best communications advice that I’ve ever received is to really know your audience. The reason you need to really know your audience is because it leads to a number of other questions like understanding the, what’s in it for me, aka what’s in it for them, as you think about constructing the messages that you are creating so you can achieve the call to action, what do you want me to do.

[00:08:08]
Kevin Weinstein: I’m Kevin Weinstein from Northern Virginia. And two pieces of communication advice that really resonated with me is that first, communication is really about your audience, not about your message. So that really changed my entire perspective around the concept of communication. And thinking through how your audience should feel, what your audience should know, and what your audience should do, provided a very helpful framework for understanding their needs and how they should use the information I provide.

Shawon Jackson: I’m really glad that Kevin and Kesinee highlighted the importance of your audience. At the end of the day, those are the people that we’re trying to influence towards some particular action. And I was especially glad that they did that within the frame of goal setting. So that you have a North Star that informs all of the choices that you make with regard to your communication.

[00:08:53]
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, your job as a communicator is to be in service of your audience. And if you don’t understand that audience, you can’t set that goal. You can’t craft material that will be most relevant to them. To my mind, there’s several things we have to think about of our audience. And we have to do reconnaissance, reflection, and research to better understand them. Things like, what’s their knowledge level? What are their attitudes likely to be? What are the areas of resistance and concern? This notion of knowing your audience has been the number one bit of advice that we have heard across all of our guests. It’s said in different ways, in different times, but we really, really have to focus on our audience.

[00:09:31]
Shawon Jackson: And a lot of people wonder, well, how can I actually go about getting this information? It’s a question that we hear from our students often. And there’s a few techniques, the obvious one is doing a Google search of some of the people who might be in the room, but sometimes you might not be able to find the right website that’s going to give you the nuanced information you need. So this is when feedback is really helpful. Actually talking to a few people who are planning the event, for example, who are going to be in the meeting and gut checking an idea with them or a frame with them, gets you really helpful information beforehand so that you can deliver the best real time.

Matt Abrahams: I love the specific advice you give our students on how to do that. And another thing you can do is in the moment, if you’re speaking spontaneously, where you end up not knowing much about who’s going to be in that room, you could take a poll to start with. You could say, how many of you are familiar with this? Or what are some questions you have about this topic? And their answers give you the information that can help you hone and refine that.

Shawon Jackson: Excellent point. And the last point I would add here is sometimes people say, oh, well, I should only focus on my audience and forget my own communication style. And that’s not what we’re suggesting here. We’re saying start with your audience, and then find the intersection between their needs and your personality and authentic voice.

[00:10:43]
Matt Abrahams: Audience and authenticity are critical, and we try to help our students really see the value of both of those.

Shawon Jackson: Now, let’s hear some helpful advice from Ishita.

[00:10:52]
Ishita Tenki: Hi, this is Ishita Tenki and the best communication advice that I’ve learned in my entire life is about holding the power of silence. That’s huge. If you can hold silence, and process your surroundings, it’ll open up your ears in a very three sixty manner. So try to hold silence, process the information. And understand your surroundings before you talk.

Matt Abrahams: One of the most difficult communication skills I think out there is being silent, is just holding the silence as Ashita said. There are some people who teach communication that I’ve known over the years who actually as an assignment make their students stand up in front of the class and not say anything for two to three minutes just to see what that feels like, to help ease them into it. That’s a hard activity for me to do.

But there’s so many times where holding silence can be of help. In an interpersonal interaction, it demonstrates you’re really listening or that you’re thinking. When you call for questions in a Q and A session, you have to wait to allow people the time to think of their questions or muster the courage to ask those questions. So silence is actually a very powerful means of communicating.

Shawon Jackson: I strongly agree. I think pauses are a powerful way to demonstrate your power, and there are ways for you to make it less awkward for your audience if you’re concerned about that. One thing I like to do in Q and As, for example, is say, after I get a really challenging question, I want to take a moment to think about that. Pause for a bit and then dive in. So that no one is sitting on the edge of their seats wondering if I’m freaking out because I set that expectation up front.

[00:12:34]
Matt Abrahams: And just to let all of you in, when Shawon does that, and I’ve seen him do it in our class, it’s a very powerful moment where you ask permission, and then you take that pause, can be really helpful.

Before we hear a bit more advice from our listeners, Shawon, I’d love for you to share a pet peeve or something that bothers you about how people communicate. What’s on your mind when it comes to that?

[00:12:57
Shawon Jackson: One of my biggest pet peeves is during Q and A when people do not answer the question up front. They start with the context, they give the backstory, they share all of their credentials, and then after a minute and a half, they get to something that’s loosely connected to the question at hand.

Bottom line, up front, is one of the number one things that I love to talk to our students about, as well as folks that I coach outside of the classroom. And then you can give the reasons to justify that point up front, and any additional nuances afterwards. This allows your audience to feel heard immediately and it allows you to structure your response in a way that will land with everyone else in the room.

Matt Abrahams: I agree. Bottom line, up front. Very powerful message.

[00:13:42]
Shawon Jackson: And the framework that I personally love to use for that is called PECS. It’s like muscles to keep you strong, where you start with your point, then a brief explanation, that’s the E, C is a complication or a nuance, and then an S is a summary. And there are many frameworks that we talk about for answering questions. But that one helps me to start with the main point and then go into details as needed.

Matt Abrahams: Everybody listening in knows I love a good structure, so I think PECS is great. So again, PECS stands for

Shawon Jackson: Point. Explanation. Complication. Summary.

Matt Abrahams: And the complication is just some added element that might add nuance or context. Everybody, get to working out your PECS and you’ll have better answers.

Shawon Jackson: How about you, Matt? What’s something that bothers you?

[00:14:29]
Matt Abrahams: Well, interestingly enough, my issue has to do with Q and A as well. We do a lot in our class on Q and A, so it’s not surprising that Shawon and I have lots of concerns.

Two things bother me. One at the beginning of answering questions and one at the end. It really bothers me when somebody rewards every question. Good question. Good question. Good question. Not every question is a good question. You don’t have to be a teacher for as long as you and I have been teaching to know that’s true.

And second, I think what’s happening again to the point you made, I think people are saying good question because they’re trying to buy time for themselves, and they’re saying good, I know the answer to that question. And what happens often is there are three people asking questions. The first two are rewarded with good question. And then the third one isn’t because that’s the really insightful question. So I’m not saying we shouldn’t reward questions, but let’s not reward every question. Let’s focus the rewards for the ones that truly are insightful.

Now on the opposite end, after you’ve answered a question, what really bothers me is when people say, does that make sense? Does that make sense? Did that make sense? After a while of hearing that so many times from a speaker, you begin to think, maybe that person doesn’t make sense. What we’re trying to accomplish with that, I believe, is we’re trying to see if our answer landed. And there are lots of other ways to do that. You could say, did I answer your question? Can I share more with you? Do you have a follow up question? Just the, does that make sense, is a knee jerk reaction and I think after time it loses its purpose. So both of us found some concerns around Q and A. And we will absolutely in the future spend more time on an episode talking about how to handle Q and A.

Shawon Jackson: I’m really glad to hear that because it is, without question, one of the most challenging topics that our students are interested in. So I trust future listeners will get a lot out of that conversation from you all. Let’s wrap up our Quick Thinks episode with our last bit of listener advice from Digant.

[00:16:23]
Digant Dave: My name is Digant Dave and I’m from Pacesetter Group at Stanford’s LEAD program, and the best communication advice that I’ve received is listen. Listening is just the most important tool that anybody can have. Communication happens in different formats, verbal communication, but also the fact that more than eighty percent of our communication is nonverbal.

[00:16:44]
That is one of the best way to ascertain how people can actually get the nonverbal clues in communication. So I guess that’s one, and the other one is, meditation essentially gives me a way to connect with what the advice is. Sometimes it is listening that really helps for my own self and then how I communicate is through nonverbal. So those are the two things that I think are more important to me.

Matt Abrahams: It is highly ironic, but what you and I both teach, how to communicate often is more about listening than it is about speaking. And I think Digant really highlights the value and importance of listening. Listening is critical to best understand what’s needed in the moment and to really focus. And we’ve had several episodes with listening experts. What I’ve taken away from all of those is we’re first and foremost not very good listeners. That’s because we are listening only for the top line, not the bottom line. And when I teach listening skills, I often encourage those I’m teaching, to listen as if they have to paraphrase what the person is saying. When we listen with the intent to summarize it and repeat it back, we listen at a much deeper level. So we end up listening for the bottom line, not the top line. And that can help us.

Shawon Jackson: Listening is hard. We have so many exciting ideas floating in our minds and we don’t want to forget them. And so it’s natural for us to want to center our own opinions before we just hear someone else’s. So sometimes what I might do is just jot down a few key words that are coming up to me as someone is speaking to make sure that I’m still giving them all the space that they need, and then can return to those points later if it’s appropriate.

Matt Abrahams: And in some ways, by virtue of writing things down and demonstrating that you really are trying to listen well with high fidelity, accuracy, I think also connects you in a way. Because listening is one of the ways we build trust, we demonstrate empathy, and when you demonstrate it by writing things down, I think it can be really helpful.

Shawon Jackson: And I think when listening, I like to think about this in two levels. One is the actual words that people are sharing and being mindful not to put your own spin on it and using their language when you’re paraphrasing. And then two, is paying attention to where other people are getting really excited. Sometimes you ask one question and they take it in a totally different direction. That’s information about where their passion lies or where their concerns lie. And then you can use that to be as responsive to your audience as you need to.

[00:19:09]
Matt Abrahams: This notion of listening not just for information, but emotion, I think is really, really important. And I want to put a big exclamation point on the end of that. And also listening to how it is said and the context in which it’s said. There’s a lot of information people share with us, not just through their words, but through their emotions, through how they say what they say. You know, it’s very different if I say, I’m really excited versus I’m really excited. There’s information in that. So thank you for clarifying. It’s not just about information, emotion is important too.

So there you have it, our hundred and fiftieth episode, and some really useful advice for how we can all become better communicators. Shawon, thank you for your time. Thank you for your insights. I’ve really enjoyed taking what we do in the classroom and bringing it into the podcast studio.

Shawon Jackson: And thank you for having me, Matt. I always learn a lot the more I reflect on this and talk to you about it and hear your wisdom. So I’m feeling energized and hope that folks gained a lot from this conversation as well.

[00:20:08]
Matt Abrahams: Well, I certainly did.

Thank you all again for your support. Please help us spread the word by recommending and sharing Think Fast, Talk Smart with your friends, family, and coworkers.

And here’s Jenny Luna, our executive producer, to wrap this episode up.

Jenny Luna: Thank you for joining us for our 150th episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart. This has been a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business, and let’s hear from a few other folks who make this show possible as they read the credits.

Ryan Campos: I’m Ryan Campos. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Matt Abrahams, and me, with help from Podium Podcast Company.

Elizabeth Wyleczuk-Stern: I’m Elizabeth Wyleczuk-Stern. For more information and episodes, visit gsb.stanford.edu or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @StanfordGSB.

Martha: And I’m Martha, web designer, and check out FasterSmarter.io for deep dive videos, English language learning content, and our newsletter.

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