Career & Success

How to “Think Faster and Talk Smarter”: a Masterclass with Matt Abrahams

Stanford GSB lecturer Matt Abrahams shares practical advice for speaking spontaneously — in both your personal and professional life.

September 19, 2023

Welcome to Grit & Growth’s masterclass on spontaneous communication — those unplanned moments when you’re called on in a meeting, asked to give feedback, or introduced to a potential investor. Matt Abrahams, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer in strategic communications, has tips and tricks to overcome anxiety, gain confidence, and make sure you’re ready to speak when you least expect it.

Matt Abrahams speaks a lot in public, whether he’s teaching MBAs at Stanford or hosting his podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart. And yet, he still gets nervous. He calls it getting the “ABCs.” “There’s the affect or emotional component, the behavioral or what happens to your body, and then the cognitive part, what happens in your mind,” Abrahams explains. Luckily, he believes there are tons of techniques to manage your nerves, like holding something cold in your hands to calm you down, saying positive affirmations to give you confidence, and even using tongue twisters to both distract your mind and warm up your voice.

Abrahams’ latest book, Think Faster, Talk Smarter, is filled with practical advice for how to prepare for your next spontaneous conversation. He says the biggest mistake people make in their communication is starting from the wrong place. “We start by saying, here’s what I want to say, versus, what does the audience or person I’m speaking to need to hear. And that’s a fundamental mind shift. If I don’t understand from your perspective what’s important for you, what knowledge you have now versus where I would like you to be, I can’t tailor my message.”

7 Masterclass Takeaways

AMP it up. If speaking makes you nervous, develop an Anxiety Management Plan to help you overcome the nerves.

Focus, focus, focus. Abrahams reminds us that sometimes people just want to know the time, not how to build the clock.

Prioritize connection, not perfection. “There is no right way to communicate. There are better ways and worse ways, but there is no one right way. And when we put that pressure on ourselves to do it right, we actually reduce the likelihood that we’ll do it well at all.”

Think about your audience, not yourself. “We really need to be other-focused. And the nice thing about being other-focused is not only is the message more likely to land, the other person is likely to feel more valued because you’re tailoring the message to them,” says Abrahams.

Make it relevant. And connect the dots for people. “If you can make something relevant to people, it’s been shown that they process it so much more thoroughly and invest a lot of effort. We assume that if I set up everything, that you’ll connect all the dots, and that’s not always true.”

Be clear when giving feedback. Many leaders find giving feedback one of the hardest parts of their jobs. “When you give feedback, be very clear on what it is you’re looking for. Many of us are just so frustrated, upset, at whatever’s happening or not happening that we’re not very clear,” Abrahams recommends.

Prepare to be spontaneous. Using common structures like “problem, solution, benefit” to tell your story can be practiced for your next spontaneous interaction.

Listen to Matt Abrahams’ communication insights, advice, and strategies for how to think faster and talk smarter.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: The biggest mistake I think people make in their communication is we start from the wrong place.

Darius Teter: You communicate hundreds of times every day, but are you doing it well?

Matt Abrahams: We start by saying, “Here’s what I want to say,” versus, “What does the audience, or a person I’m speaking to, need to hear?” And that’s a fundamental mind shift.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the podcast where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.

Here’s the classic scenario. You’re on an elevator, the doors open, and in walks someone who could change your life. You’ve got until you reach the ground floor to communicate your message. No notes, no slide decks, just you. Could you do it? I’m not sure I could, even if someone pulled the fire alarm and gave me an extra 20 minutes.

On a previous episode, we dove into how to prepare for planned presentations. But the truth is, the majority of our communication in business and life is unplanned. And for entrepreneurs, the stakes can be really high. You have to be ready to speak when you least expect it, because whether you’re ready or not, you will be called on by bosses, asked tough questions in job interviews, and introduced to potential investors at a moment’s notice. The ability to communicate your message in those situations can be a game changer, both personally and professionally. But for many of us, public speaking is stressful enough, even with the safety rails on. So, how do you overcome anxiety, gain confidence, and rehearse for an unscripted performance? Well, if you have his number, you call up Matt Abrahams, and you ask him if he’ll help.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, Darius. It’s great to be back with you. I’m Matt Abrahams. I teach strategic communication at the business school. I host a podcast calle Think Fast, Talk Smart.

Darius Teter: Luckily, even if you don’t have Matt’s number, you can still get his advice. He’s releasing a new book this month called Think Faster, Talk Smarter. It’s all about how to succeed in those unscripted moments, and it starts with addressing a challenge that many of us face even before we open our mouths.

Matt Abrahams: Anxiety looms large in all communication. The new book is really about spontaneous communication, how to communicate in the moment, like answering questions, giving feedback. You make a mistake, you have to fix it, small talk, and a lot of us get nervous in all communication, but especially spontaneous. There’s a categorization of these different symptoms and results that’s easy to remember: ABC. There’s the Affective, the emotional component. There’s the Behavioral, what happens to your body; and then the Cognitive part, what happens in your mind? So that’s the ABC, and most of us, myself included, who get nervous experience all of the ABCs.

Darius Teter: I’m going to tell you my ABC story.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Darius Teter: I was a relatively new employee at a large international nonprofit. I was in the senior leadership team and they had arranged a meeting with the leadership of the Ford Foundation.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, wow.

Darius Teter: A crucial donor organization.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Darius Teter: The president of the Ford Foundation was there and they said, “Darius, you should come along and you’re going to present on your piece of work.” Well, I was relatively new. I had hyperextended my knee playing sports, so I was on crutches and painkillers. I took the train down there and I was just sweating from these painkillers and on crutches in downtown Manhattan. We go into this room, and it’s a big boardroom and very formal, and my boss, the president of this organization, is very eloquent, just kills it, says amazing, interesting things, and then turns it over to me. And within a millisecond, I just felt hot. I couldn’t even pick up my glass of water. My hand was shaking so intensively and my vision became tunnel. I actually started, I thought, “Oh my God, I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to pass out here.” This vision got kind of dark around the edges and I could not produce a coherent sentence. It was terrible.

Matt Abrahams: I’m really sorry to hear that. What I want you to remember, and everybody listening in, is you survived. You’ve had an amazing career since then and a lot of us need to put our anxiety into that perspective where it’s bad, it’s not great, but you’ll get through it. You experienced many of the things that happened to us. Your body experiences these situations as a threat and you go through fight or flight. It didn’t help that you had crutches and you were on some kind of painkiller, that adds a little extra to it, but many of us do that. I perspire and blush when I get nervous, and I use one of the techniques I talk about in the book. If you hold something cold in the palms of your hand, it actually cools you down. Your palms are thermo-regulators for your body, just like your forehead or the back of your neck. So, the nice thing is, there are techniques we can use to manage the ABCs, and I like to say to take them from capital letters to lowercase letters, so it doesn’t go away, but you’re at least still managing.

Darius Teter: I want to talk about the things you do before you’re going to have to speak.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Darius Teter: And the things you can do in the moment when you feel the wave coming, the wave of panic. What do you do in the moment? I just literally wanted to say, “I’m sorry, I’m having a heart attack right now and I’m going to go and leave.”

Matt Abrahams: Somebody call 911, please.

Darius Teter: So, grabbing a glass of cold water, but I was like, “What are the mental things I can do? What do I tell myself?” And you say that we’re fixated on our own awareness of others watching us.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Darius Teter: Negative thoughts and self-talk. What is self-talk?

Matt Abrahams: We all carry around this voice in our head, and the voice is often helping us be successful. But at times, especially under stress and threat, we’ll say really bad things to ourselves. We’ll say things like, “You should have been better prepared. How’d you get yourself in this circumstance? Why are you doing this and not the other person?” And we can actually transform that into something more positive. Athletes do this all the time — mantra, positive affirmation, whatever you want to call it — but by setting up a positive cascade in your mind, it can help you. So, for example, a golfer as he or she approaches a putt might say, “Calm,” or, “Focus,” and that tunes out all of that other chatter.

So when I speak, I do this, I use a positive affirmation whenever I speak. In fact, before we started today, as I was walking down to the studio we’re recording in, I said this to myself, “My positive affirmation is ‘I have value to bring.’” I remind myself that there are things I know that others might benefit from. Often, when we’re asked to speak — planned or spontaneous — people want to hear from you because you’ve got something to say and if you remind yourself of that, that could cancel out all that little nagging self-doubt. So, there are things you can do mentally to help yourself.

Darius Teter: You mentioned in the book, everyone can have their own unique Anxiety Management Plan, their AMP. So a mantra — is that part of your AMP?

Matt Abrahams: My anxiety management plan, after decades of honing this, are three things. One, I will always hold something cold in my hand. The studio we’re recording in is actually quite cold, so I don’t need that. I’m hopefully not blushing as we speak. I will say that positive affirmation, “I have value to bring.” And then — this is silly — but I say tongue twisters, and I say tongue twisters for two specific reasons. I find that my mind often races when I’m in circumstances where I need to speak and I need to get more present oriented, slow down. I stop worrying about potential negative future outcomes. Saying a tongue twister gets me very present focused. So saying a tongue twister, holding something cold, and reminding myself I have value to bring is what I do.

Darius Teter: But to truly address anxiety, Matt says you have to change your mindset, and I mean really change it.

Matt Abrahams: On my first day of my MBA classes, I tell my students that I want them to strive for mediocrity. And you can imagine Stanford MBAs have never been told to strive for mediocrity, it’s always “achieve greatness.” The rationale behind that is when you actually put a lot of pressure on yourselves to do it right, we actually just have less bandwidth. It’s a complete cognitive bandwidth issue. Your brain is like a computer. It’s not a great analogy, but it works for this. If you have lots of apps running and windows open, your CPU is running less well, each app is running less well. And the same is true if I’m constantly evaluating and judging everything I’m saying. It means I have less cognitive bandwidth to focus on what I’m saying. I’ve been doing this a long, long time. There is no right way to communicate.

There are better ways and worse ways, but there is no one right way, and when we put that pressure on ourselves to do it right, we actually reduce the likelihood that we’ll do it well at all. So, I tell this to my MBA students and by the end of that very first class I say, the rest of the saying is, “Strive for mediocrity so you can achieve greatness.” If you turn down that volume of the judging and the evaluating and the wanting to do it perfectly, you actually free up resources to do it really well.

Darius Teter: This is part of the previous point about self-talk. Am I doing this perfectly? Is this as well as I could possibly do it? Which is all just brain space being wasted.

Matt Abrahams: It is.

Darius Teter: And you’re not focusing on your audience.

Matt Abrahams: That’s right, you’re disconnected. I had the fortune for the book to interview the journalist Joan Lunden, and she was sharing her experiences with anxiety and how this was a big issue for her, doing it right. And she said, “After reading your book, Matt, I came up with the perfect phrase to help me with this issue.” And she said, “It’s about connection, not perfection.” I love that. Your goal in communication is to connect and to respond, and if I’m in my head trying to do it right, I am absolutely not connecting, and it’s going to be harder to respond.

Darius Teter: But why stop at mediocrity? Matt says you can be boring, too. You wrote in the book that improvisational performers tell themselves to dare to be dull.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Darius Teter: Don’t strive to be a cathedral. Focus on being as useful a brick as you can be.

Matt Abrahams: It’s really this notion that we feel pressure in meetings and pitches to just be magnificent, to be the best version of ourselves in that moment, and the reality is it’s hard to do that all the time. And so, it’s important to realize that sometimes the most important things that get done are just laying a brick. A beautiful cathedral is nothing more than a lot of bricks, and so you need to think about, when I’m in the pitch meeting, maybe the best thing I can do is be quiet and listen or just say, “Tell me more.”

Darius Teter: When you redefine your role in this way, more skills become part of your toolkit. Often, the best way to communicate requires no talking at all.

Matt Abrahams: A lot of the information in this book and in my teaching around spontaneous speaking comes from many places, but improvisation is one of them, and improv has these amazing maxims that just stick in your head. “Don’t just do something, stand there” is really about being present and doing what’s needed in the moment. Many of us come into these circumstances preprogrammed with things we want to do. So, if we actually slow down and see what’s needed in the moment, we can then respond better.

Imagine you and I, Darius, we come out of a meeting and you say to me, “Hey, Matt, how’d that meeting go?” And I immediately click into, “Oh, I got to give feedback. Well, you didn’t do this well or you did this kind of well, I think we failed here.” And yet had I just waited a moment and listened really, and by listening not just to what you said but how you said it, I might’ve noticed you came out of the room through the back door, that you spoke a little more quiet than usual, you were looking down rather than looking at me when you asked for feedback, and maybe what you really need in that moment is support. You don’t feel the meeting went well and you’re asking for feedback, but what you’re really asking for is support.

Darius Teter: If you’re taking the focus off yourself, where does it go? You say, think about your audience, not yourself. Help me understand: How does that improve my own ability to speak spontaneously with power and persuasiveness?

Matt Abrahams: Sure. The biggest mistake I think people make in their communication, the fundamental mistake people make, is we start from the wrong place. We start by saying, “Here’s what I want to say,” versus, “What does the audience or person I’m speaking to need to hear?” And that’s a fundamental mind shift. We all suffer from the curse of knowledge. We know way too much about what we communicate about, and if I don’t understand from your perspective what’s important for you, what knowledge you have now versus where I would like you to be, I can’t tailor my message. So, we really need to be other-focused.

Now, the nice thing about being other-focused is not only is the message more likely to land, the other person is likely to feel more valued because you’re tailoring the message to them, and again, it gets you out of your own head. You’re in service of your audience. So, that spotlight that many of us carry around feeling it’s focused all on us, we’re being judged and evaluated, is now partially turned, if not completely turned, on the audience, and that releases some of the pressure that we feel. So, I think it’s fundamental and if there were only one thing that people took away from my book and if that were it, I would actually be happy.

Darius Teter: When you work in service of your audience, you begin to see them as collaborators, not combatants. So, let’s talk about the audience. You’re standing there up on stage, there’s 200 people out there, and I tend to wonder, “Do they want me to succeed, or are they secretly hoping that I’ll trip over my foot and fall flat on my face?” You have this great quote from a Google executive, Kathy Bonanno, and she says, “Most audience members harbor a simple desire in posing questions to speakers, to have a good moment with the speaker, a heightened sense of connection and immediacy.” And I was thinking about that because when I get a question from the audience, my immediate reaction is defensiveness. It’s a gotcha, they’re trying to throw a gotcha question.

Matt Abrahams: So, my simple question back to you is, when you’re in the audience, do you sit there wanting the person to fail? Probably not. Most of us don’t. There are a few people who like to watch people suffer, but that’s not the norm. We get defensive when we feel under threat, and that makes sense, and that’s why a big part of this “mind your mindset” chapter is really about reframing these circumstances as opportunities. If you think about it, if I see our communication as a threat, I’m going to get defensive. It’s going to affect my body posture, I’m going to be uptight, I’m going to make myself small, my answers or responses are going to be very short, my tone is going to be curt and off-putting. Yet if I were to reframe it as an opportunity… — when you ask me a question, it’s an opportunity for me to connect, to learn where your head is at, to expand and collaborate, and that changes my whole demeanor. I open up my posture, my tone is more collaborative and open, my answers are longer.

Darius Teter: Now the other thing I do, if I know I’m going to speak to a large audience, but we’re doing stuff beforehand, maybe there’s a formal dinner and then I have to speak, I try to talk to as many people as possible because it humanizes the crowd, because when you’re up on stage, first of all, I can’t focus on anybody, I’m too stressed. But if I have now spoken to eight or nine of the people who are out there, they’re kind of my peeps now.

Matt Abrahams: That’s right.

Darius Teter: I’m like, “Well, I know that person and I know that person. We shared a laugh.”

Matt Abrahams: That’s great. I would only amend what you said by saying, instead of talk to the other people, listen to the other people.

Darius Teter: Listen —

Matt Abrahams: Give them just enough and the one thing you’ll realize is these people are here to learn something, to have a good, positive experience. They’re not here to judge and evaluate.

Darius Teter: And when you reframe your relationship with the audience, you start to see all the ways that they can help you.

Matt Abrahams: I like arriving early to events. If I’m coming to a meeting and I know I’m later on the agenda, I like just to see what people are talking about, what’s going on that can help me. I’ve been known to start meetings and even presentations or spontaneous small talk where I just put a topic out there to get other people discussing it, and I’m learning a lot by what they’re saying, what they’re not saying, to help me focus. It’s a continual process where I am uncovering. It’s like peeling back an onion, really, uncovering the specifics of what people know and don’t know. The goal is to engage in a conversation. Many people just want to get through their material instead of thinking about, how do I actually adjust and adapt it as needed in the moment? And for me, as somebody who talks a lot, I go around doing all this, for me that’s really more exciting because I can get through my material pretty easily. It’s really having the conversation and seeing how it affects others and where does it take us that’s exciting.

Darius Teter: So that’s a sort of reframing the … Going back to your anxiety management plan, the mantra is, “I have something of value to offer,” but maybe the part two of that is, “My audience has something of value to give.”

Matt Abrahams: That’s right, absolutely.

Darius Teter: I could learn from my audience if I give them the space. Focusing on the audience can also help you focus your content. You describe relevance. Why should the audience care?

Matt Abrahams: We have known for a long time in sociology and psychology that relevance, salience, are really important. If you can make something relevant to people, it’s been shown that they process it so much more thoroughly and invest a lot of effort. If it’s not important, we peripherally process it. So really thinking about what’s important to the person, this is where emotion can come in. If I can get you emotionally engaged, if I can show what I’m saying is consistent with things you’ve done in the past, that makes it more relevant for you, so relevance is really key. A lot of us, when we pitch goods and services or our companies, we assume that people will see the relevance, and that’s true in our communication. We assume that if I set up everything, that you’ll connect all the dots, and that’s not always true. So, we really have to point out the relevance for people.

Darius Teter: I think that makes me want to jump to chapter six.

Matt Abrahams: Great.

Darius Teter: The F word of spontaneous speaking, which is not what most of my audience will think.

Matt Abrahams: Shame on them.

Darius Teter: What is the F word of spontaneous speaking?

Matt Abrahams: It is focus. So many of us, when we speak in the moment, are discovering what we want to say as we’re saying it, and we tend to take people on a journey of our discovery, because in your own mind, you’re putting the narrative together. My mother has this quote, it’s my favorite quote, and she didn’t create it, I haven’t been able to figure out who did. It’s, “Tell me the time, don’t build me the clock.” And many of us are clock builders, either because that’s the way we think or it’s because we feel everybody has to understand how we got to where we got, and that’s not true. Sometimes people just want to know the time.

Darius Teter: Turning your focus outward goes beyond pitches and presentations. It can help you with one of the most fraught types of communication. Another application is giving feedback. I think a lot of our listeners, they run companies, they’re business leaders, they’re executives, and they’re constantly in a position of either wanting to give feedback and not knowing how, or giving feedback and maybe regretting how they gave it, or they think they gave great feedback but it didn’t land.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Darius Teter: It’s one of the hardest things I think we do as leaders.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely.

Darius Teter: So, give me some tips, tricks, tools, applications, shortcuts, whatever you want to call it.

Matt Abrahams: Part of feedback is it has to be part of your culture and your relationship with the person that you’re speaking to. If all you do is give critical feedback or constructive feedback and you only do it when something bad happens, then that’s —

Darius Teter: Or only once a year.

Matt Abrahams: Even worse, only once a year, then you’re setting yourself up to make this a much harder task. When you give feedback, be very clear on what it is you’re looking for. Many of us are just so frustrated, upset, at whatever’s happening or not happening, that we’re not very clear for ourselves or for the person that we’re asking for the feedback from what it is we want, so you have to define it.

Darius Teter: The now what.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, what is the now what, and is it measurable? Will you both know when you see it? I have a very dear friend who has given feedback to be less assertive. What does that mean? What does that look like? But if you say, “I need you to speak last in a meeting,” we can measure that, we understand that. So you have to figure out what it is you want, how can you measure it? And then the last thing I’ll say before giving feedback is that you should think about what might lead the person to do the thing that you’re seeing or not do the thing that you’re seeing. When my two boys were much younger, I was in my office and I heard this loud crash. I come running out. There my older son is standing up on the counter, having reached over his head for a plate that had clearly slipped and fallen and shattered.

Being a good parent, I noticed there’s no blood. What do I do immediately after that? I start yelling. “What are you doing up there? That’s dangerous, you shouldn’t be doing it.” Through his tears, he says he was trying to get the plate down for his younger brother because they knew I was in the office doing important work and they didn’t want to interrupt me. How did I feel? Like a total jerk, right? Did he need constructive feedback? Absolutely. I would’ve given it very differently had I understood the circumstances that led to the behavior. So, those are the things that we have to do before we give the feedback.

Darius Teter: These tools won’t just improve your professional communication, they’ll help you in your everyday life with colleagues, with friends, even with family members. That “support, not feedback” thing, it’s something … When I read that part of your book, it really got me thinking about how I interact with my teenagers and my wife. They’ll come to me sometimes. “How was your day?” And they’ll give me an honest answer, like, “Oh, man, I had this conflict with my colleague,” and I immediately go into problem-solving mode. And my daughter has said, “Dad, you are so task oriented. It’s impossible to have a conversation with you,” because she didn’t want me to give her an action item and a to-do list and report out tomorrow, and now win. She wanted me to say, “You’re going to be okay.”

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, or “That really does suck.”

Darius Teter: Or that really does suck.

Matt Abrahams: I get the same thing, especially from my wife and my close friends. I think there’s something about how some of us are wired to be problem solvers and I’ve learned to ask. So, I will now ask my wife and my close friends, I’ll say, “I’m here to support you and I’m fine doing that, but I can also help you problem solve.” And sometimes they’ll say, “Yeah, I want problem solving,” and sometimes they’ll say, “Thanks for just listening.” It’s hard for me, and then I might send them an email with all the to-do lists afterwards, but in the moment, I’m trying to really listen.

Darius Teter: My kids are … I wake up every Sunday and make a to-do list and I’m not allowed to have fun until I get through it. My kids think I’m a total freak and I’m —

Matt Abrahams: You and I are very similar!

Darius Teter: I’m like, “I’m kidding, I’m just hoping this rubs off on you a little bit someday.” Of course, some audiences will be more skeptical than others. The oppositional audience… — “audience” is not really the right word, because in spontaneous speaking it could be just one other person.

Matt Abrahams: It’s conversation.

Darius Teter: It could be maybe somebody you’re hoping will co-invest with you or fund your enterprise or partner with you to expand to a new country, and they’re challenging you, and you’re trying to bring them on your journey. What are the tricks and tips for bringing sort of an oppositional conversation back to where you want it to be?

Matt Abrahams: First, you have to listen. You have to slow down. There’s this framework I use that I borrowed from one of our colleagues, his name is Collins Dobbs, it’s, “Pace, space, grace.” You have to slow down. We move so fast, and when I feel like somebody’s opposed, I get into this fight-or-flight frenzy. And by slowing down, that can help. Give yourself some mental space to actually think about: Why might the person be pushing in this way? What might the person’s concerns be? And then give yourself some grace to really listen to your intuition, but also to what you’re thinking in those moments. If somebody’s highly oppositional or challenging to me, first I want to validate that I’m understanding, so I like to use paraphrasing. By paraphrasing, I’m not agreeing. I’m just, “Am I hearing you right?”

Darius Teter: So what I hear you say is —

Matt Abrahams: Or I might say, “Cost is something that’s really important, and I hear you saying that, right?” And just that validation, one, makes the other person feel listened to, which always feels good, and then, number two, if I’m off, the person can correct me. I want to make sure we’re focused on the right issue. So, paraphrasing, sometimes I will ask more follow-up questions to, again, try to make sure I’m understanding. From there, I immediately try to understand, if I can in the moment, what might be motivating this circumstance.

There’s a story I tell in the book, it’s from my colleague, Adam Tobin, and he is a screenwriter by profession. He went in to pitch a show, and somebody he was pitching to said, “Help me understand why this isn’t science fiction.” And Adam’s thinking, “This isn’t science fiction. There’s nothing science fiction about it.” And he said, “Tell me more. Why are you asking about science fiction?” And the guy said, “Well, my boss, who you’re about to go pitch to, has been burned by two or three previous science fiction endeavors.” So in that moment, that opposition was actually a gift, because Adam learned something there that he wouldn’t have known otherwise. When somebody is opposing your point of view, if you just take time to understand what might be motivating it, there might be something there that’s really important.

Darius Teter: So, now you have a solution to their other problem that you didn’t even know about.

Matt Abrahams: That’s right. Or it wasn’t really a problem, it was some other issue. But you have to slow down, you have to think about those things. And I like to say challenging questions and issues are really gifts, they’re gifts that can really help you if you put yourself in that mindset.

Darius Teter: To speak spontaneously in these difficult situations, you have to do something that might seem counterintuitive: prepare. I’ve had a lot of board meetings in my life, and one of the things I’ve learned about board meetings is to try to think of every possible challenging question you might be asked.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely.

Darius Teter: And to actually sit down with your team and say, “We think this all makes total sense, but what if we’re asked X, Y, and Z?” It doesn’t mean scripting your answer, it just means being ready.

Matt Abrahams: There are lots of ironic statements in this book, like “strive for mediocrity,” but the other is “prepare to be spontaneous,” which you just described is preparation. It makes sense. I love the role of a devil’s advocate in meetings and groups and what you’re describing is, “We know our stuff. Let’s pretend we don’t. What are the things that we’ll get?” I think generative AI is a great tool for generating questions. If you’re an interview candidate, type in, “questions for this company, for this role.” It’ll spit things out. If I’m pitching to somebody, type in, “what are the three key issues?” And then practice — not memorize, not over-rehearse — but practice answering those questions. It makes a lot of sense.

Darius Teter: Here’s one of the secrets of spontaneous communication: you can structure it.

Matt Abrahams: All communication, again, spontaneous or planned, needs to be goal-driven. We don’t just ramble [with] high stakes. We have conversations that ramble. But you want to go into it saying, “What do I want people to know? How do I want them to feel and what do I want them to do?” That is the general orientation or direction you’re going. How you get there is the structure. So if you look at the book, the methodology, the six steps, it really breaks into two. One is mindset, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about that. That’s everything from managing anxiety to how you approach it to listening. And then the second part is messaging, and that’s what you’re asking about now.

Messaging is about structure. Our brains are wired for structured information. We do very poorly with lists and bullet points. Bullets kill. Don’t kill your audience with bullet points. Rather, we should structure, and by structure I mean a logical connection of ideas, a beginning, a middle, and an end. So when I go in to pitch, people think, “Well, I’ve got a deck, of course it’s structured.” There’s a difference between an ordering of slides and a logical connection of that information. I believe a fundamental tool to speaking, period, but also critical in spontaneous speaking, is how you structure that information. There are many structures, and the second half of the book itemizes some of those structures.

Darius Teter: How are you talking about that? Because it’s storytelling.

Matt Abrahams: It is storytelling, and all good stories have a structure. Structures are not rigid, they’re flexible, but it’s like a roadmap. It’s going to get me from A to B, but I can go a longer way or a more direct way, but the structure helps me get from one place to the next. And so, this is about finding the right structure for the right situation. If I’m asked on the spot to introduce a colleague, there’s a structure I could use that helps, because in that moment, I have to solve two fundamental problems: What do I say? And how do I say it? A structure tells you how to say it. A very common structure, one that many of your listeners are probably familiar with, is “problem, solution, benefit.” There’s an issue or challenge or threat. We have a solution, a service, a product, an offering that addresses it. And here are the benefits of doing it.

Now, you have lots of flexibility in that structure. Maybe it’s not really a problem, maybe it’s an opportunity. Nothing’s wrong, but things could be better. So “problem, solution, benefit” for anybody pitching, I think, is great. So, there’s another structure that I really like for a really tight elevator pitch, executive summary pitching. It’s four sentence starters. The first is, “what if you could”; “so that” is the second; “for example” is the third, and “that’s not all” [is the fourth]. If you finish each of those sentences, I think you have a very tight, clear, concise structure for an idea, a product, a service.

Darius Teter: What if we could check market prices for sorghum in rural Africa using just a feature phone?

Matt Abrahams: That’s right. “So that” …

Darius Teter: So that farmers would not get ripped off by middlemen.

Matt Abrahams: Right. “For example” — this is where if you have an example of somebody using it or an analogous solution, “that’s what” … So for example …

Darius Teter: For example, this puts an extra 20 percent in the pockets of actual primary farmers.

Matt Abrahams: And “that’s not all,” and this is where you would add some additional feature. By having this data that we collect, we can then do something, for example. So, what would you say? So that’s not all …

Darius Teter: So that’s not all. Now that they’re on the platform, they can also band together and negotiate prices for group purchases.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent, and for everybody listening, that was completely spontaneous, and yet I think it’s a pretty coherent pitch.

Darius Teter: Structure doesn’t just help the speaker tell the story. It helps the audience to remember it, and that’s important because often your audience will be your ambassador. You say in the book: one of the greatest benefits of adopting a narrative structure is repeatability. Often the venture capitalist with whom an entrepreneur might be meeting isn’t the one making the final decision about whether to provide funding. That person has to go back to their firm and pitch the entrepreneur’s company to others. Can you say a bit more about repeatability?

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, and it’s not just for entrepreneurs pitching, it’s for an interview candidate. Very rarely does the person who’s interviewing you in that moment say, “You’re hired.” They have to go sell you on your behalf. So much of our communication is about equipping others with our message to go do work on our behalf, and so part of your job is not just getting your message across, it’s about providing a structure and a package of that information, so somebody can go easily do it.

Darius Teter: Spontaneous communication is hard. It can be unexpected and high stakes. No two situations are ever the same, but it’s also all around us, which means you’ve got endless opportunities to practice. What are some ways you can practice things like structuring your spontaneity or the F word of spontaneity?

Matt Abrahams: There is a structure that I really like. I’ll give you one example. It’s three questions: what, so what, now what. The what is the idea, your product, your process. The so what is, why is it important? It’s the relevance, and then now what comes next, and you can do a lot with this. You can write emails this way. Now what is the subject line; the what and the so what are in the body of the email. You can give feedback. The what is my feedback, the so what is why is it important, and now what is what I’d like you to do differently. How do you get good at that? You practice. I would challenge everybody at this very moment after I explained the task, pause this podcast, think to yourself, “What is something I learned? Why is it important to me and how can I use it?” And then turn the podcast back on because we want people to finish listening.

But the point is, listen to something, read something, have a conversation, then think to yourself, “What was it about? Why was it important? How can I use it?” That drilling is just like an athlete will do drills to prepare them, so that’s one way. In terms of focus, the thing I like to do is, I will read something or listen to a podcast episode, I’ll do the what, so what, now what for it, and then I’ll say, “Cut that in half. How could I cut what I just said to myself or wrote in half?” Because what it’s training me to do is to prioritize. I’m picking something that’s more important than something else.

Darius Teter: Wait, so this is an exercise you do when you’re editing your own podcast?

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, it’s an exercise I do when I’m having a —

Darius Teter: It sounds like something I should do.

Matt Abrahams: But no, I do this, so I will go back and look at text messages I sent. I tend to be a pretty verbose texter, which is ironic, I know, but I’ll go back and I’ll say, “How could I have said that text in half the words?”

Darius Teter: Interesting.

Matt Abrahams: My wife helps me do this all the time because, again, I’m still a work in progress. After talking to one of my kids, she’ll say, “Minimal words. How could you have said that … You talk too much, they tuned out.” And so I’ll think about it, so I’m training my brain to prioritize what’s the most important, so that when I am put on the spot, I will have that skill available, so I can be more parsimonious.

Darius Teter: That practical element is one of my favorite things about Think Faster, Talk Smarter. One thing I want to say about your book, which I absolutely love —

Matt Abrahams: Thank you.

Darius Teter: — is that for every piece of guidance you give, you also give exercises. You say, “Go home and try this. Next time you’re alone, do this. Or when next time you’re having a conversation with your family, try this.” Then you also have little tables with cheat sheets. And I’m not joking when I say that I’m going to have some of these printed out, smaller, that I carry around in my pocket when I have to speak because they are that solid. It’s beautiful.

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you. I think communication is something you have to do. It’s not something you think about just theoretically. My publisher for the book said, “How will you know if your book was successful?” They’re thinking, “Do you want to be on this list or that list?” No, I will be successful if people do exactly what you said, if there are dog-eared pages highlighted and people are returning to it. That’s success, because communication is about doing.

Darius Teter: As humans, we are communicating constantly. You’d think we’d be better at it, but it’s not easy, so don’t be so hard on yourself. If speaking makes you nervous, develop an anxiety management plan. Prioritize connection, not perfection. There’s no right way to communicate. Reframe your relationship with your audience. Think of them as collaborators, not adversaries. And consider what’s relevant and important to them. That will help you focus your content. Structure your spontaneity. Don’t try to build the tracks while you drive the train. You can lean on established structures like “problem, solution, benefit.” It’ll make your content easier for the audience to remember and, more importantly, easier for them to repeat. As with anything, practice makes perfect. Check out some of the exercises in Think Faster, Talk Smarter. Print them out, fold them up, and put them in your pocket. Practice when the stakes are low on an email to a coworker or in a conversation with friends. If you do that with your everyday communication, you’ll be ready when you get ambushed by a big moment. Because as Matt says, communication is a skill, one that you can improve.

Matt Abrahams: A lot of people feel that, based on their temperament, based on their experience, that getting better at spontaneous speaking or any speaking or any communication isn’t for them. There are some people who have the gift of gab, there’s some people who just don’t seem to be as nervous, and they can do it, and the reality is everybody can get better at it. For some people, they’re a little farther along in the journey, but they too need to hone their skills. So, I absolutely think people can develop this. And that’s an important thing to feel, that you have a sense of agency, that when somebody calls on you and says, “What do you think?” or when you’re asked to give a toast in the moment, or you make a mistake and you have to fix it, you can actually get better at doing those things. It takes time and it takes work, but you can.

Darius Teter: There is hope.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, more than hope. It’s exciting because when you do that, all of a sudden good things happen for you.

Darius Teter: I’d like to thank Matt Abrahams for coming on the show. I was fortunate to get a proof of Think Faster, Talk Smarter, and mine already has dog-eared pages, margin notes, and Post-its all over it. You can find it wherever good books are sold, and we’ll put a link to it in our show notes.

This has been Grit & Growth from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you like this episode, follow us and leave a review on your favorite podcast app. Erika Amoako-Agyei and VeAnne Virgin researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back soon with another episode.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More