Career & Success

Feeling Nervous? How Anxiety Can Fuel Better Communication

In this episode, lecturer Kelly McGonigal shares how stress and anxiety can be used to enhance our communication.

October 11, 2022

Stress, anxiety, nervousness — when these feelings inevitably arise, lecturer Kelly McGonigal says it’s not about making them go away, but using them to your advantage.

“What I have come to value about anxiety,” says McGonigal, “is it’s a sign that I care.” As she explains, feelings of stress alert us to things that matter to us and help us stay present in the moment — particularly useful, she says, when it comes to communication.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, McGonigal and host Matt Abrahams discuss how to channel stress toward more effective communication and a deeper connection to our own purpose and meaning.

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

Matt Abrahams: How we approach our communication and how we approach others when we’re nervous about our communication can make a tremendous difference in feeling confident and portraying that confidence. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

I am really excited today to chat with Kelly McGonigal. Kelly is a lecturer at Stanford GSB who teaches a class on presentation and communication skills for academics. She is also the bestselling author of “The Willpower Instinct: The Upside of Stress.” And her latest book is “The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage.”

Welcome, Kelly. Thanks for being here. I am super excited to get time with you.

Kelly McGonigal: Oh, thank you for having me. I know we have a lot to talk about. I think we have a lot of common passions.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. So, let’s go ahead and get started. You have so many interesting and exciting areas that you look into and explore. I look forward to talking about all of them. But I’d like to start where I first came to know you and your work, like millions of people, and I mean like 29 millions of people. I watched your TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” We’ve addressed the topic of anxiety management [in] communication several times on this podcast. And I’m just curious to get your take on how we can manage anxiety and leverage the benefits that it has for our communication.

Kelly McGonigal: Oh, leverage the benefits of anxiety for communication. Okay, well, let me start by saying I’m someone who was born anxious. So, I come to this sincerely and in a bit of desperation, right? It’s not one of those people who’s like, oh, I’ve never been nervous and, therefore, I’ll teach other people how not to be nervous. It’s more I know what it’s like to have a panic attack, so let’s figure out how to stay engaged with life, even when anxiety is a part of your life.

And I’d say, since you said the benefit of it, I think that, for me, what I have come to value about anxiety is it’s a sign that I care.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Kelly McGonigal: So for example, when I start to feel anxious now, I will say to myself, my heart is in it, which is a kind of a mindset reset. You know, I can feel my heart pounding maybe, or I feel other stuff happening in my body. And saying my heart is in it is a way of embracing that one of the reasons I have anxiety is not because my nervous system is broken, or I’m a person who just can’t face life. I have anxiety in moments that matter where I recognize that something is at stake, and I want to contribute, or I want to do my best. I want to serve. I want to enjoy life.

When you come to value that anxiety as a signal of meaning often or a signal of caring, then the benefit is in staying wholehearted, so that in that moment I don’t have to say to myself, Kelly, if you don’t calm down, you’re going to blow it, or, Kelly, why are you anxious? What’s wrong with you? I don’t have to get into self-talk. I can instead double-down on the caring. I can think about who and what I care about, why this matters to me. Maybe I can imagine the best possible outcome. And then I can also use the energy that often comes with anxiety. I’ve come to recognize anxiety as a physical state that actually really does serve me when I am in a role that I’m meant to be in.

So, for example, teaching. If I don’t get anxious before I teach a class, I mean any class, a class I’ve taught a thousand times before —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: — if I’m not feeling anxious right before it or even when I’m walking over to teach it, there’s something wrong. It’s almost like I’m dissociated from the fact that this is what I was born to do, I’ve prepared really hard for it, I really want to connect with my students. If I’m not feeling that, something’s off because I’ve learned that I can actually trust myself to use that energy. I know that that energy, like my body is now a vehicle for it.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: And that comes in part from practice, a lot of practice, a lot of preparation, and then this developing self-trust.

Matt Abrahams: I really like how you literally embody the notion of greeting your anxiety and the mantra that my heart’s in it is so powerful because one of the first signs people report is their heart’s pounding and it distracts them. But if you embrace that and say, hey, this means that I care about this, and it even extends to I care about the audience that I’m in front of. And I hear you about getting nervous about something that’s important and how it clues me into this is meaningful for me. And I also get nervous before I teach, and I now look for it, like you do. And if I didn’t have it, I don’t think I could —

Kelly McGonigal: This [never] happens. Like once or twice I’ve had a class where I was feeling kind of numb before —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Kelly McGonigal: — and man, that things did not go well.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right. It’s either one I’ve done before or something was distracting, and you miss that.

Kelly McGonigal: I wasn’t there.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Kelly McGonigal: I wasn’t present for it. And that’s even another way to reframe it, that sometimes my anxiety is a sign of presence, which is so different from how people typically think of presence as being very calm. You know, I actually love the energy of anxiety when it’s that right combination of adrenaline and endorphins and dopamine. We love this feeling. People do all sorts of things to try to get that chemical cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine and endorphins. By paying attention to my physiology and other activities I love, like working out —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Kelly McGonigal: — I realize it feels very physically similar. So, I just have to give myself a goal. Like anxiety’s not as great in situations where I have nothing to do. I will be honest about that.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Right.

Kelly McGonigal: When it’s worrying about the future and there’s nothing I can do, where I’m on an airplane and I clearly can’t fly it [laughs] — like

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Right.

Kelly McGonigal: — like anxiety in those moments, I have other coping skills for.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: But since you asked specifically about speaking or that —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: — kind of performance.

Matt Abrahams: No, that’s exactly right. And I think it’s that reframing that these are the normal physiological symptoms that, in many cases, we seek out and enjoy. I think about first dates or exciting conversations. And we’re doing the same thing, but we frame them as, hey, this is a great thing. I really like that. You and I both teach Communication Skills at the GSB. In fact, as part of the COVID emergency plan that was put in place here, you and I were backups for each other if one of us got really sick.

Kelly McGonigal: This is a smart policy, by the way. I actually think that was pretty good that we got in the habit of doing that.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: But yes, that was — that was a first.

Matt Abrahams: Well, it reduced stress for me that I knew somebody as competent as you could step in, although I do have to admit I got a little nervous that my students would like you more than me [laughs] [unintelligible]. I’m curious, what do you find are the most common mistakes you see our students and those you coach when it comes to communication?

Kelly McGonigal: Yeah, so first of all, let me set the context. I work primarily with Ph.D. students who are all doing amazing research. So, they’re used to communicating their research in academic settings. And my class is to help them communicate in every setting — professionally, at conferences, but also to the media and to potential collaborators and stakeholders and a random person on the street. And I would say that the thing that I say over and over again, and we do all of these exercises to try to practice it and yet is really hard for them, is to talk about crunchy details, not abstractions.

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Kelly McGonigal: So, I don’t want to know that you study the technological interface of emotions and artificial intelligence in market analysis of [blah] — like basically a string of nouns.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Right.

Kelly McGonigal: And I’m waiting to like, okay, would you point to something that you actually study, like, for example, a dating app. Okay, great. And what problem are you trying to solve, how to get people better matches or something like that. And so, I’m always saying like show me the actual thing. Show me the question you ask people in your study. Take a picture of people doing the thing that you study, even if what you’re doing is modeling, and you never leave your computer. Go out into the world and take a picture of the thing that you’re modeling so that I understand.

So, I say that’s the biggest thing we work on. And I talk about coming up with artifacts for you research — the photos, the videos, the audio samples, the objects that will help people understand what you do and using language that people will immediately understand. I think the other mistake is the mindset that a lot of academics have, in part because they’re terrified — getting a Ph.D. is basically understanding that you don’t know anything, and people are eager to point that out to you.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]

Kelly McGonigal: So, people get in this habit of feeling like they have to prove that they know stuff, hide that they don’t know stuff, and also persuade you that their research is correct. So, a lot of times in research presentations or communications, my students will try to like talk fast and deliver things so fast you can barely keep up, so you can’t interrupt with critiques. And I don’t want to take questions because the questions might reveal what I don’t know. There’s this idea that like my job is to just sort of push my research at you —

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm. Right.

Kelly McGonigal: — and get through it without there being any kind of critical dialogue. And what I always say is the purpose of any really interesting communication should be for the other person to have interesting thoughts in their own head about your work. It’s not to convince them that your work is right or important or that you know everything about it. You want the person who is listening to you or watching you to think, wait, what if this — or I wonder if — or I don’t think so, to the degree in which they are having their own interesting, spontaneous thoughts and questions. That’s the measure of success.

It really reframes like what you’re doing and how you do it. Those are two things we spend a lot of time talking about.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. So, there’s a lot there. I really like the goal is to have people have their own experience about your content. Absolutely. And not only does that invite collaboration rather than challenge and threat, but it also forces you, I think, to be audience centered.

Kelly McGonigal: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: My goal is to have you have an experience —

Kelly McGonigal: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: — rather than me just push all that information.

Kelly McGonigal: That’s — we do all that. I teach Empathic Design for Talks. What do they need to know? When do they need to know it? What do they need to see? What do they to like literally visually see? When do they need to be able to interrupt so that it really is from that point of view.

Matt Abrahams: And it’s not — this is not just for academics. Anybody is in that same position. I coach and teach executives and managers who feel like they don’t want to be threatened and challenged. They just want to push out their decrees and move forward. It’s the same thing.

Kelly McGonigal: The thing I always tell them is, if there are problems with your work, people already know. And that’s so funny, I’ll see students — like they’ll say something kind of interesting, and I’ll be like, wait a minute; that was so fascinating. Like I’m remembering that this woman in my class had mentioned that she calculated stuff with a certain 15-minute window during market trading. And it was very specific. And I was like that’s so interesting. Why that 15-minute window? And tell me more about that. And she’s like, “Well, I kind of rushed through that because I didn’t want anyone to ask questions about it. I was afraid that maybe it was like the wrong choice.” I’m like, “No! This is — that you made a choice —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: — is interesting. And it almost is a matter of it’s the perfect choice. I want to know that you made a choice. I want to hear why you made the choice. I want to be able to have an opinion about your choice.

Matt Abrahams: I think that that particular example is really important and resonates nicely with some of the things we’ve talked about when we’ve talked with folks who are experts at improv. Make a choice, commit to the choice, be behind that choice, and be willing to accept what consequences come from that choice. And I don’t want to lose what you said earlier about this notion of help people actually see what you’re talking about.

Kelly McGonigal: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: That is so critical. It is so easy to hide behind slides and data. But if you can actually have people — help people have an experience of what you’re talking about —

Kelly McGonigal: And it can be with data, too.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Kelly McGonigal: So, I’m always saying like, you know, if you’ve got videos of babies doing funny things because you study infant cognition, show the baby videos. But also, if what you’ve got is data or a model, you know, what people always do is they put it up there, and they’re like, “As you can see, X and X.” I’m like, no.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Right.

Kelly McGonigal: You don’t say, as you can see. You walk me through it. What you’re looking at here is this. Notice this. Like you zoom in, you interpret it. This dot, this slope, whatever this means this. As you can see, it’s different from this. Like you want people to actually see it. So, it can be photos and videos, or it can be data. But the idea that somebody can understand something just because their eyes see it on a slide, that’s so different from somebody having an actual understanding and an opinion about it.

Matt Abrahams: Oh absolutely. And it takes them outside of themselves and puts them in their audience’s perspective. And I just want to get Meta for a second in and not Facebook. But you have done a great job in the answer to that question of doing exactly what you’re talking about.

You help show us and give us an experience of it. You are an excellent communicator yourself, both in writing and speaking. I’m wondering if you can share a bit about your process. What do you do as you’re thinking about crafting your communication?

Kelly McGonigal: I always start with the best possible outcome for the audience that I care about most, right? So, you never control everyone who’s in the room or everyone who reads the op-ed that you write or the book that you write. So, I’m always thinking, well, whom am I really trying to speak to or reach, and what’s the best possible outcome for them? Do I want them to feel a certain way? Do I want them to change their behavior in a certain way? And then I work backwards and I think, what do they need to hear? What do they need to do? What story could I tell that would make that outcome more likely?

And I’m often like literally just writing this stuff down. I’m writing that out. And I start to get ideas for content blocks. And this would be true if I were drafting a chapter for a book or giving a keynote. And I’ll often think, well, what are these content blocks? Like what’s the best story that I have? What’s the best case study I have? What’s the best scientific study I have? You know, I’ve really learned to put things in judiciously, and that it only has to be one.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Kelly McGonigal: I only have to tell one story for an idea. I only have to share one study.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. So, to get back to the first part of what you said that I find so cool is you actually backward map. You start with —

Kelly McGonigal: Oh yeah.

Matt Abrahams: — what’s the outcome, and what are the steps that I need to get there?

Kelly McGonigal: I do that for teaching, too, right?

Matt Abrahams: Oh absolutely.

Kelly McGonigal: That’s how you design a class.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. We haven’t talked about that before, but it’s really interesting to start with what’s the end, and then what do I need to add to it. And you are adding things very judiciously. Just one key example: You know, many of our listeners know that for decades I’ve found great benefit from doing the martial arts. And I know you’re a big believer in exercise and movement, not just in communication but in life in general. And your newest book, “The Joy of Movement,” is a testament to that idea. I’m curious if you could just share why exercise is so important, not just for health but for life. And I saw in “The New York Times” that you’ve got joy exercises. And I’d like to hear a little bit about that. We all need a little more joy in our lives.

Kelly McGonigal: People listening to the podcast couldn’t see — I just did a joy move when you said that.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Kelly McGonigal: Let’s —

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Kelly McGonigal: — go backwards. Let’s start with the joy workouts.

Matt Abrahams: Sure, please.

Kelly McGonigal: So, one of the things I tell my students is always start in the middle of the action.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Kelly McGonigal: Like start your talk with something interesting and specific.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: So often people start with like these general, vague things —

Matt Abrahams: Oh, it’s got to be like an action movie, I tell my students.

Kelly McGonigal: Yeah. So okay. So let me — when I explain the joy workout, you will understand how I think about movement.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: So “The New York Times” called me up, and they were like, “You know, we’ve got all these seven-minute workouts that are based on getting your heart rate up or like using all your muscles in a specific way. And we were curious, would it be possible to create a workout specifically to make people happy?”

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Kelly McGonigal: And I was like, “Why, yes.”

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]

Kelly McGonigal: “Actually, I do it ten times a week.” What they ended up doing was asking me to leverage the science of what we know about what joy looks like and feels like in the body, and can you teach people to move in those ways so that it actually makes them happier, more optimistic, feeling more connected, more celebratory. And it’s based on this fascinating research that when people are in situations where they are dynamically happen, like you get good news, and just imagine what would you do when you get good news? People pump their fists, they throw their arms in the air, they jump up and down. What would you do if you saw someone that you love or you haven’t seen in years? You fling your arms open wide. You like lift your face to the heavens. There are these gestures that people do.

Or even if you think about like an athlete who just did something amazing in a game, right? They pose, they show off, they do their happy dance.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Kelly McGonigal: So, it turns out that these movements are really similar all over the world, in lots of different cultures. It seems to be a natural expression of joy. So, I developed this workout where you just like jump for joy and celebrate and sway and bounce, show people what it can look like, but you do it your own way. We put it to happy music designed to also make people feel better. And by the end of eight minutes, the idea is you can move your body in ways that get your heart rate up, that are good for your physically. But you did it not as like a punishment for what you ate, or not because you’re afraid of some disease you might get in a decade.

Matt Abrahams: Or giving a presentation.

Kelly McGonigal: Yeah, or it’s — but you do it because you can have a direct experience in movement that you value. And the research is really clear that people who are more physically active in an activity they enjoy, they’re happier, they have better relationships, they have more meaning in life.

Matt Abrahams: I would love for all of the people we work with to experience that joy in their communication, but also in just life in general. I find your approach to both mind and body, mindset and physical movements really empowering and so helpful. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Kelly McGonigal: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: All right. I saw a big smile, everybody. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Kelly McGonigal: I think this is going to be unusual, but my honest answer is trust that people are adequate to their experiences. That was eight.

Matt Abrahams: That’s all right. I’ll let you go. Help me understand what that means.

Kelly McGonigal: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Trust that people are adequate to their experiences.

Kelly McGonigal: So this was something that I was taught by a Zen teacher, talking about how we show up for other people and how important it is, particularly when you’re trying to help someone, that — to be present with them in a way that can hold the opposites of both you might be suffering right now, you might be overwhelmed, you might have health challenges, and whatever the situation is, and I want to help. And also, to have some kind of core belief that because you’re human and because this is your reality, you’re adequate to this moment.

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Kelly McGonigal: There’s something in you that is adequate to the moment of your life. And this is something that it’s a matter of trust or faith. It’s a kind of a putting a trust in the audience as well that it’s their life. It revolves around them. And I’m just here in a moment of interaction. And often before I give a talk, I’ll even think like, all right, I just hope that I say or do something that somebody here needed to here.

Matt Abrahams: That’s a lovely mantra as well. I found myself getting hung up on the word adequate because, to me, adequate means minimally acceptable. But in the way you’re using it, it’s very different. And it’s an adequate in confidence.

Kelly McGonigal: But nobody wants to be adequate. But I think what it is is it — what it’s saying is people often desperately feel that they’re not adequate to this moment. “I’m inadequate to this. I can’t handle this. This is too much.” And I know what that feels like. Like I have that voice in my head, too. So, there’s something about — it’s a kind of acceptance.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. And it also removes some of the pressure that I don’t have to be great. Let me ask you the second question, and I’ll be very curious to hear your answer. Who is a communicator that you admire, and why?

Kelly McGonigal: So, this will be somebody that most people don’t know, but I’ll try to describe her well enough that you appreciate her. Her name is Natalie Goldberg. So, Natalie Goldberg is an author and also a Zen teacher. And she has a really strong accent, like a deep, strong, powerful voice. And so she sounds very distinct. And then what she says when talks is like just absolute ruthless authenticity. This is how it is. This is my experience. The details. There’s just something so grounded about it. And I will listen to her talk about anything —

Matt Abrahams: Hm.

Kelly McGonigal: — because she’ll tell you the color of the carpet, but because she’ll tell it to you because it means something. I don’t know, it’s like the opposite of abstractions. And yet, she’s so in touch with what it means to be human that everything that comes out of her teaching and her writing, I just feel like it reminds me of common humanity.

Matt Abrahams: I think a communicator that we admire who inspires us and challenges us to change or at least reflect on who we are is the right kind of communicator. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Kelly McGonigal: I have an answer [laughs] that actually has three parts that I didn’t even have to make up for this.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Kelly McGonigal: This is something also that I teach in my Communication class and also when I coach people giving TED Talks. This is an idea that I learned from Gail Larsen, who teaches a speaking style that I really admire. It’s really about like viewing speaking as an opportunity to change people’s lives. And she says that there are three sort of sides of yourself that you can show in any talk. One is the face of wonder, which is really — it’s curiosity. It’s open-mindedness. It’s what you wonder about. It’s what motivates you. The second is the face of creative fire. And it’s what you’re passionate about. It’s your drive. It’s all of your time and your energy made manifest in showing that you care.

And then the third is my favorite, which I don’t know how often I get to do it, but it’s rude magnificence. And that is when you realize there’s something that people need to hear that might be difficult, and you know it because of your lived experience or the wisdom that you have acquired through your own suffering and adversity, or because you’ve been willing to look and think about something for a long time. Do you have an opportunity to say something that feels important and true that is — [yet] you’re the one who can say it. You’re the one in the room who has thought about this the most, or you have a unique life experience to share.

Matt Abrahams: Well, I would expect no less from a communication teacher to share three really powerful ingredients. So, the notion of curiosity, passion, and what I’m going to call authentic wisdom. Well, Kelly, this has been a true joy and pleasure, for sure. I have always admired what you teach and how you teach it and the passion that you bring. And it’s been a true pleasure to chat. And I am hoping that people take away that there’s so much value into reflecting on our communication, on our physical wellbeing, and the joy that we can bring to others. So, thank you.

Kelly McGonigal: Thank you.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Riley, and me, Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit Or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on social media at Stanford GSB.

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