Career & Success

Just Show Up: Bringing the Art of Improv to Your Communication

In this podcast episode, improv experts share how good communication begins with simply taking action.

September 26, 2023

| by Matt Abrahams Adam Tobin Dan M. Klein Patricia Ryan Madson

If you’re reading from your notes, you’re going to miss the magic of the moment. That’s why Adam Tobin, Dan Klein, and Patricia Ryan Madsen bring improv techniques to all their communication.

Communication experts in their respective fields of media, performance, and drama, Tobin, Klein, and Madsen all see the immense power of improv in helping us communicate more freely. As Tobin says, “You do the preparation so that you are expert in the material. And then you let go of the specific delivery of the information in favor of being aware of what’s going on now.” Madsen agrees, explaining that we don’t need all the answers, we just need to show up. “Step first,” she says, “then see where you are.”

In this special celebration of the 100th episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the three guests join host Matt Abrahams to discuss how improv can transform our communication in everything from small talk to work presentations, and help us create space where we feel safe enough to show up as our most authentic selves.

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: Hi. Matt here. I’m amazed that we are today celebrating our 100th Anniversary episode. A huge thank you to all of you, our listeners. We appreciate your support, your input and your passion to hone and improve communication skills. Without further ado, let’s get to it. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. I can think of no better way to celebrate our 100th Anniversary than by inviting back our very first guests from way back in January 2020, my good friends and collaborators, Adam Tobin and Dan Klein. And to add to the mix and provide her expertise, we’ve asked Patricia Ryan Madson to join us as well.

As a quick introduction, Adam Tobin is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Studies and also teaches in Continuing Studies at Stanford. Dan Klein is a lecturer at the GSB in Theater and Performance Studies and also is an instructor at the Stanford Design School. Patricia Ryan Madson is Professor Emerita from the Stanford Drama Department and is the author of the amazing book, “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.”

Welcome to all three of you. You are all such wonderful improvisors, teachers, and just people in general. I am so excited and honored that you’re all here to help us both celebrate and learn. Shall we get started?

Adam Tobin: Yes. Sure. Let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: Well, Dan and Adam, it is great to once again be huddled around a microphone with both of you. I gave you some homework for today, and you graciously accepted. I asked each of you to listen back to our first episode. And I’m really curious, what are some key takeaways or ideas that you found most intriguing and why? Adam, why don’t we start with you?

Adam Tobin: Sure. I was really struck with the ingredients that the three of us came up with at the end, kind of spoke to this overall power and philosophy of improv, which is to say, how do you show up, how do you create a space that is safe enough for you to then get lost a little bit, and hopefully your audience, too, and explore, right? So a lot of what people are looking for is how do I communicate better, but really what improv does is it trains you in how to be safe almost wherever you are, constructing with your listener and partners, a way to communicate that allows you to play and discover a little bit. So that was the real takeaway is you’re building a safe space, and you’re trying to do that almost in every communication.

Matt Abrahams: So it’s that collaboration that you have with your listener and building that space where it feels comfortable to be who you are.

Adam Tobin: All of those things, the collaboration, the listening, the presence, saying yes to things makes you a different kind of powerful, a different kind of invulnerable because no matter what comes your way, your philosophy is I’m going to integrate that; I’m going to take that in. And then all of that, empowering your partner and your listener, allows you and them to play, to discover something, to risk. That was really what I was thinking about was it’s almost like how do you create a safe space to get lost in.

Matt Abrahams: Ah, interesting. Right. So you feel comfortable with that being uncomfortable. Yeah. So Dan, what was the takeaway you had from our last conversation so long ago?

Dan Klein: You know, listening back to it, the thing that jumped out at me was, I love that story, Adam, that you told about driving up to the city and getting lost every time, and then realizing at some point, wait, I’m still lost, but I’ve been lost here before, and I know how I can get out of this. And that was a breakthrough. And then the next level of the breakthrough was talking to Patricia and Patricia saying, oh, no, it goes beyond that. It’s actually getting lost is the point. Like get what we can get out of being lost and enjoy that. And so I think that goes to the whole thing that you were saying. The metaphor of being lost as being something exciting and powerful in a place that you can actually embrace is really the essence of what we’re talking about.

Adam Tobin: And it’s finding a new path, not to break the paradigm or something, but just to discover, to learn, to enlarge your worldview.

Matt Abrahams: For many people listening, that can sound really daunting to take that leap of faith that you’ll get there. But with the three of you here as our guides, I think it’s really, really insightful for people to think about how they can build that trust and that collaboration. And Patricia, it’s wonderful to add your voice to this conversation. Adam and I have taught a class together for over a decade, and he tells that story every time. And I am so thrilled to have you here to elaborate on the part of the story where he says — and Patricia says I should seek out getting lost. And so thank you for being here.

Patricia Ryan Madson: It’s a pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: I would love to hear a little more detail about why getting lost is so powerful. And then I’d love for you to spend a moment talking about your book, “Improv Wisdom.” I am not joking, that book fundamentally changed my life. Adam introduced it to me, and still to this day employ some of the learnings from that book. So once you talk to us about being lost, I’d love for you to pick one or two of the key learnings from there and share those with us.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Seems to me that getting lost being the point means developing the kind of mind that looks at whatever is happening and accepts it. There’s a fundamental acceptance of life, of other people, of whatever’s going on that’s built into the whole yes mind of improv. And I think what is customary is to make a judgment about whatever’s going on — I like it, I don’t like it, I agree with it, I don’t agree with it, yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a yes-no in every relationship to what life brings us. And the notion of getting lost is an openness, a willingness to see whatever it is and work with it.

It doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily like it, but it means that I’m not going to use the mind of no, which is very common and very useful — we need the mind of no from time to time. But if we start working on what happens to our experience when we open to things and we work on acceptance rather than some kind of political view, if that makes sense.

Matt Abrahams: Sure. Absolutely. So it’s this notion of being open and agile rather than sitting in a place of trying to put your point of view out there on top of it.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Right.

Matt Abrahams: And that’s a message that comes through in your book for sure. Will you highlight one of your maxims that you give? They’re so helpful and easily implementable in some ways.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Thank you. Well, I think one that’s important is just show up. Just show up is about the power of your body in motion.

Matt Abrahams: Uh-huh.

Patricia Ryan Madson: And that very often, we start with the notion that we need to decide or think something through very carefully before we take any steps. So the improvisor’s mind suggests step first, and then see where you are.

Matt Abrahams: Ah.

Patricia Ryan Madson: So it’s very different — ready, fire, aim.

Matt Abrahams: Uh-huh.

Patricia Ryan Madson: So showing up, or getting your body there, is an important part. It’s important in our life, too. If we want to, for example, get an exercise regimen going, you show up at the swimming pool or at the gym. Show up where the things happen that you need to be. So showing up, I think, is an important one.

Matt Abrahams: We recently had an episode with Katy Milkman who studies how to incent ourselves to achieve the things that we’re talking about. And she talks a lot about these internal hurdles that we put in front of ourselves that get in the way of showing up.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Right.

Matt Abrahams: And I think you are reminding all of us that the way to show up is to take that first step. And that’s really important for all of us to think about because we have all this stuff going on in our heads that prevent us from taking that first step. I’d like you to, Patricia, share one more item from your book that you and I have talked about subsequent to that.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: A lot of us feel like we’re always being judged and evaluated.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: And you tell a story, if you wouldn’t mind sharing, where you were asked to do a reading at a Stanford graduation.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: And something happened there —

Patricia Ryan Madson: Mm.

Matt Abrahams: — that you had to respond to. And you have a very interesting take. Would you mind sharing that story with us?

Patricia Ryan Madson: Be happy to [laughs]. It was one of the most prestigious moments of my life. I had been invited to the I was going to say coronation of —

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]

Patricia Ryan Madson: — a new university President. And I was to give a reading from the works of Jane Stanford, my dramatic readings following an orchestral selection that had been composed just for this auspicious event. I was listening, and the musicians came to a kind of a soft crescendo closing. And I stood up, and I walked to the microphone, and opened my book, and said, “And now the words of Jane Stanford.” And then right at that moment, the music continued. [Laughter] So the second movement of the piece began. And oh, was it clear that I had made a woo-hoo! [Laughter] Total humiliation. But what can you do?

So I took a breath, and I sat back down, and I listened, and I thought, I should really listen to this music better. And the interesting thing was, when the music did conclude, I got up, and I opened the book and said, “And now the words of Jane Stanford.” There was this lovely ripple of laughter through the audience that they really understood that my world didn’t fall apart.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adam Tobin: It also reminds me of Dan and the last time we spoke on this podcast talked about aim for average and cheer —

Matt Abrahams: Shoot for average, fail cheerfully.

Adam Tobin: Fail cheerfully.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Fail cheerfully.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adam Tobin: And that was fail cheerfully.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adam Tobin: And it said to the audience, we don’t have to worry about Patricia. She’ll be fine [laughs].

Patricia Ryan Madson: Yes. Yeah.

Adam Tobin: And we can return to the words of Jane Stanford, right? And you did everything by letting go of your ego or humiliation and just returning to the task at hand cheerfully —

Patricia Ryan Madson: Right.

Adam Tobin: — just let all of that dissipate.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. And that’s what I took away from that is that you were able to not get locked up in the judging and evaluation of others.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: You were just present and did the job that you needed to do. And I think that’s really important.

Patricia Ryan Madson: The greatest moment was that moment when I began again with a smile, and we were all together.

Matt Abrahams: You created a shared experience out of something that was —

Patricia Ryan Madson: Something that went awry, right?

Matt Abrahams: Right, right. I want to pick up on something Patricia said because when we were together before, Dan and Adam, we didn’t really talk about nonverbal presence at all. But Patricia talks about stepping in —

Dan Klein: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: — to action. And there’s a lot that goes on in our bodies, in our voices that impacts how we show up. And I thought what might be fun for us to do is there’s an improv game that is called Gibberish Translator. Would the three of you be willing to play this game for us?

Voices: Yes. Sure. Of course.

Matt Abrahams: And I’d love to have a discussion of it because I think this opens up a whole bunch about nonverbal presence. So I’m arbitrarily going to pick Adam to be our translator. And Adam is a very talented individual. Not only does he speak English fluently, but he happens to speak two versions of gibberish very well.

Adam Tobin: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: And Dan speaks one version and only one version of gibberish, and Patricia happens to speak another. And what I’m going to ask Patricia and Dan to do is to have a conversation. And Adam is going to act as our intermediary. He’s going to help all of us non-gibberish speakers understand what Dan and Patricia are talking about. So with that, Dan, can I ask you to start our conversation? And then Adam will help us translate.

Dan Klein: [Gibberish]

Adam Tobin: Welcome. I’m very happy to see you, and I have a number of questions about the opening of various flowers.

Patricia Ryan Madson: [Gibberish]

Adam Tobin: I am so pleased you asked me that. It’s my favorite.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]

Dan Klein: [Gibberish]

Adam Tobin: My favorite, too. But let’s get to it. Do flowers think?

Patricia Ryan Madson: [Gibberish]

Adam Tobin: They think deeply, very deeply.

Matt Abrahams: Ah, excellent. That was so much fun to watch it in real time. So thank you to each of you. I would love to deconstruct this for the listeners what was going on because, I think, Adam, you did a great job of imposing a conversation where there really was none. It was just gibberish. But before I get to Adam’s point of view, Patricia and Dan, can you share for me what you were thinking about as you entered into this conversation? You knew you were going to be speaking in gibberish.

Dan Klein: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: What was going through your head when you initially started?

Dan Klein: What I was really trying to do was give Adam some emotion and some rhythm so that he would have some anchor to connect to. If I just did a monotone, then he has to make it up out of nothing. And so I wanted to give him a little something. So I hope I was able to do that. That was at the start.

Matt Abrahams: I think as somebody listening and not participating, I think you did serve up some things that Adam jumped on, and I want to hear what he heard. But there’s a lesson, I think, in what you just said, Dan, is that you were trying to assist your listener, Adam, to be successful.

Dan Klein: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: You were making an offer, as I’ve heard many of you speak about. Patricia, was there anything you were thinking about as you initiated this?

Patricia Ryan Madson: Interesting. I wasn’t thinking at all. In fact, I love this game, especially getting to be the gibberish part of it, because I don’t need to think of what I’m saying and then translate it into gibberish. I need to utter something with some kind of an emotion or a feeling.

Matt Abrahams: Ah, yeah.

Patricia Ryan Madson: So what I was going for was the sound of answering a question and leaving the specifics to the translator.

Matt Abrahams: So you came from a place of emotion, and you knew that the way you said something, the way you inflected your voice, would also be an offer that Adam could take [up].

Patricia Ryan Madson: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s —

Matt Abrahams: All right.

Patricia Ryan Madson: — one of the main ways we can communicate and do all the time.

Dan Klein: Yeah, in fact, when we say, oh this is the best day of my life, people don’t believe the words we said. They believe the emotion with which we said it.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, absolutely. So Adam, what were you doing to translate? You were getting lots of offers from both sides. What were you doing?

Adam Tobin: I was trying to hang on to anything they were putting out there. And as Dan said and as Patricia said, they put a lot out there. There was variation in tone. There was speed. There was emotional inflection, not just a question or a statement, but the kind of feeling that they were going on.

Matt Abrahams: And that was wonderful. Adam and I teach a class together, and we will sometimes use this as a vehicle to help people understand vocal expression and how we can use our voices. Now what people couldn’t see, because this is a podcast, was you were also with your bodies making offers. So Dan looked inquisitive, and Patricia looked knowing. And through our bodies and voices, we’re conveying lots of information. I want to make this very real for those listening in. We have experts at improv playing improv games. Improv games are fun, and they can teach you lessons. But I think what we just did translates really nicely into small talk and chitchat.

Adam Tobin: Mm.

Matt Abrahams: You walk into a space. You don’t know people. You throw something out there, a question or an insight. And then if it goes well, people take that. So what you just demonstrated and the ideas you talked about, I think, translate really nicely into a very common speaking situation that many people feel uncomfortable with. And that’s the insight and the unlock that I think improv can bring is we can take these — and I don’t mean offense by this, but silly games —

Adam Tobin: Sure.

Matt Abrahams: — and then we can take from them really meaningful things that can help us. So can we just quickly go around the room here. What insight do you have or advice do you have for small talk? I get this question all the time: How can I be better at small talk?

Dan Klein: I always speak gibberish when [it comes to] small talk. [Laughter]

Patricia Ryan Madson: My tip for small talk would — find something that you notice about someone else in the room. Instead of trying to say something interesting about yourself or what you’ve just done, if there’s a way in which you can engage the other people or find something to comment on about what they’re doing or what they’ve just said or where they come from, if you can deflect off of yourself onto the other people in the room, I think it can be really helpful. Where we get stuck is trying to come off as masterful with small talk or something like that. But if you’re interested in others, there’s always something to say.

I’ve got a new habit now practicing this. When I’m out in the store, being checked out by a grocery person or somewhere, besides saying thank you for bagging my groceries, I’ll try to point out something. I’ll ask a question like, “How long have you been standing on your feet? Oh my gosh, how do you do that? Do you ever get to sit on a stool or something?” And I’ve found that I engage even strangers with a curious question, it often lightens up their day.

Matt Abrahams: So I heard two things you said there, Patricia, that I think are really important. One is, observe and notice something in the moment and in the environment and comment on that. And the other is be interested. Rachel Greenwald, who was on our show, has this wonderful saying: “In small talk, it’s important to be interested, not interesting.”

Dan Klein: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: And I think that’s a really powerful way to look at it. Thank you.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Great quote.

Dan Klein: I just learned something. That’s a great one, Patricia. The idea of like coining out something in the — even if it’s fairly innocuous, like, “That’s a red shirt.” Like that may start a thing. And that’s all you need. You just need something to be started, be interested and follow. The insight that I was going to give is I like to be in the mode. When it’s working the best is eliciting stories. Rather than asking for information, try to get stories. I learned this many years ago watching a good friend at a summer camp. And every time we would sit down at a table with guests, she would get them talking. And she had a go-to, which was always, “How did you guys meet?”

And that’s simply an invitation for a story. And it works with anybody. It doesn’t have to be a romantic couple. It can be any pair of people or a trio, “How did you guys meet?” Instead of where are you from, what’s something interesting about your hometown that only a local would know? Of course, I think last time we even talked about the story of your name —

Dan Klein: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: — as a great way to — rather than, “What’s your name,” “Why are you called what you’re called? How did you get that?” So seeking story is really a fun way. And telling stories is a little easier for us. So when you ask somebody, it’s something we can do. That’s great.

Adam Tobin: What I love about this is I think the easy advice I’ve heard is ask questions, which comes from a position of putting your partner first and noticing things. But this goes beyond a kind of robotic ask questions about the other person. And it really is, be interested. Find that person’s story and dig deeper in that way without crossing any particular lines. But most people want to talk about themselves.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. And it’s something that they know and something they’re more comfortable talking about. I’d like to turn our conversation to some topics that I know you all have some thoughts on. I know that because I’ve interviewed all of you before, especially for the book I’ve got coming out. And one of the things that I think people find really ironic or confusing is you can actually prepare to be spontaneous. And in fact, it’s to your benefit to prepare to be spontaneous in some ways. I’d love to just hear thoughts about preparing to be spontaneous.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Let me start on this because the subtitle of my book, “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Patricia Ryan Madson: I often need to have a disclaimer because that’s not exactly true. What I really mean to say but it was too long for a subtitle was, go ahead, prepare all you want, spend a lot of time preparing, do it a hundred different ways. And then set it aside, and then show up —

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Patricia Ryan Madson: — so that there’s some way in which preparation isn’t the enemy, but it often gets in the way when we show up of actually being there fully and noticing what is happening and who else is in the room.

Matt Abrahams: You have a saying in your book about your preference for a surgeon. Would you share with us —

Patricia Ryan Madson: Oh sure, yeah.

Matt Abrahams: — because I think that fits right here, yeah.

Patricia Ryan Madson: I want a surgeon who has passed all the exams and is the top, top guy who knows everything there is to know about replacing my hip. But also, if something goes a little awry, I really hope they’re an improviser. I hope that they’re able to look at the situation, not from a formulaic point of view, but with fresh eyes. We all need to do that. We can’t live by the formulas, although they’re often very, very useful.

Matt Abrahams: Right. And I think that’s a great way to capture this notion of prepare —

Patricia Ryan Madson: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: — but be spontaneous because the surgeon should know how to do surgery, but in your case, he or she might have to do something unique and different. Thoughts on preparing to be spontaneous.

Dan Klein: Yeah, I remember going into Patricia’s office 35 years ago when I was a TA for beginning improv. And it was early in the quarter. We’d done several sessions. And I would get to see the plan for the day. She would say, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” We would meet 15-20 minutes early, maybe a half hour early and go over the plan. And then one time I came in, and I had just taken a class in San Francisco. I said, “Oh, I learned this great exercise.” And without missing a beat, Patricia said, “Let’s do it.” [Laughter] And I thought, well, what? And ended up leading this exercise. She adapted the plan that was carefully crafted and well thought out and put in something brand new.

I still teach that [laughs] exercise in the same spot in the class now that we have. And that really changed my view entirely. Prepare, and then be ready to go off script as soon as there’s an opportunity.

Adam Tobin: Yeah. It gets back to what we talked about at the beginning of this conversation, which is building up a trust in yourself —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adam Tobin: — right? And so you do the preparation so that you are expert in the material. And then you let go of the specific delivery of the information in favor of being aware of what’s going on now. Integrating present information is something that gets cut off from people who just prepare and read the script.

Dan Klein: That’s right.

Adam Tobin: So it’s all the preparation, all that work stops right when you’re about to deliver instead of trusting that that stuff has been internalized.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Haven’t you noticed that someone delivering a prepared speech has a whole different sound to the quality of what they’re saying of natural human speech. One of my former Stanford improvisers, Vince Ritchie, his job is helping right now Japanese students take exams or interviews to get into U.S. colleges. And he went to an important conference where these were all interviewers. And he said the single thing that they all agreed that they hated the most was the sound of a prepared answer. So very often when we’re preparing for an interview, we’ll think of ordinary questions, and then we will write them out and memorize them.

But that — it’s not that the answer is wrong, but there’s something about reciting your preparation that doesn’t really sound as human as we could be.

Adam Tobin: It feels disingenuous, and it’s the exact opposite from what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to look prepared and professional and buttoned-up, but there’s something that seems false about it. And what’s false about it is it’s not in the present moment.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adam Tobin: It’s an artifact of work you did before.

Matt Abrahams: I like to think about what you all said is like an athlete. You know, an athlete does a lot of drills. If you play soccer or you play basketball, you dribble around orange cones a lot. You’re not doing that to get good at dribbling around orange cones. You’re doing that so in the game you know how to dribble, and you’re going to have to adjust and adapt to what happens in front of you. The person isn’t going to stand still like a cone, but that preparation frees you up to be more spontaneous in the moment.

I want to turn to the topic of listening. Over these hundred episodes we’ve done, one of the things that has surprised me is how important listening is and how frequently it comes up. As improvisers, as teachers, I’d love to hear just your thoughts on listening and if there are any bits of advice or guidance you give to help people listen better. Dan, do you want to start?

Dan Klein: Sure. I think it’s 80 percent at least of the work is the listening. That’s where all the information is. That’s where all the stuff that you need is in the listening. One of the things that always strikes me is the moment when we turn self-conscious, the moment we’re thinking, oh, how am I doing, or what I’m going to do, or what I just did is the moment we’re missing something. And so don’t beat yourself up. It’s just a reminder to tune in and pay attention because there’s something happening right now.

Matt Abrahams: It’s a call to be present, and it’s a call to pay attention.

Dan Klein: Yeah.

Patricia Ryan Madson: And whatever is going on becomes our food, that we are fed by not only the words but the body language, the thing we learned in the gibberish game, in watching the whole presentation because it might not be the content of what our partner’s saying but something about the way they’re saying it, which leads us to a better question or something new or a new direction in our conversation.

Adam Tobin: Popularly, people talk about reading the room, right? And it’s that sense improvisors get of almost peripheral awareness of the things going on right in front of us, and then all the extra information that we’re trying to integrate. The most useful idea that I know about listening I learned from Patricia, which is the windshield wipers, which is really about attention, and that when other things kind of cloud your attention, your brain is working and it’s evolutionarily trying to help you out in all these ways, and you kind of say, thank you, brain, for doing that work. And then you, just like windshield wipers, you gently move those [laughs] aside, and it’s a clear path in front of you, and you rededicate your focus to the person you’re listening to or watching or being aware of.

And then something else will come up, and the windshield wipers will say, thank you, brain, just gently push that aside and reassert your attention. I’ve done it a bunch of times in this interview even — what am I going to say, what am I going to say? Stop it. Listen to Dan’s rich-based voice —

Dan Klein: [Laughs]

Adam Tobin: — talk about the listening.

Matt Abrahams: That visualization, I think, is very helpful because I think a lot of us get distracted. And then we beat ourselves up and we say all these negative things, like I wasn’t paying attention, or, oh no, what do I say now. And we just say, thank you, brain. I really, really like that.

Dan Klein: Mm-hmm.

The one thing I heard subtly being mentioned by all of you is that listening is not just hearing the words. It’s how the words are said. And also, we have to listen to ourselves, the reaction we have to those words.

Adam Tobin: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: So listening is not just external. It’s internal as well. As I expected, this has been absolutely fantastic. And we’re going to change up a little bit how we end this podcast, starting with this episode. I had three questions I asked every single person all the time. We’re going to keep two of those three. And Dan and Adam, since you were so kind to answer those questions previously, I’m going to save two for Patricia because we haven’t heard her answer. But for the first question, I would like to play another improv game. And one of my favorite improv games that Adam introduced me to was Word at a Time.

So I’m going to ask the three of you to give some advice that you would like communicators to take with them. But instead of each of you telling us the advice as a whole sentence, you’re each going to contribute a word at a time. And I will attest to those listening, they have not practiced this. They didn’t know this question is coming. This is spontaneity happening now. Patricia, as our newest guest, would you mind starting?

Patricia Ryan Madson: Always —

Adam Tobin: Keep trucking —

Patricia Ryan Madson: — when —

Dan Klein: — your truck —

Patricia Ryan Madson: — seems —

Adam Tobin: — to —

Dan Klein: — break —

Patricia Ryan Madson: — down.

Matt Abrahams: Ah, very good advice. It’s about persistence, tenacity, and grit in communication. Before I get to question number two, can we just quickly debrief that because some of you had words that weren’t big words, and others of you at moments said words that really drove this in a certain direction, excuse the pun. Talk to me about how it felt to say “the” instead of “trucking.”

Dan Klein: It took me a while to get this, to embody this, because when you’re doing it, you think, well, I’ve got to get a good word. I hope it comes to me to get a good word. If in the rhythm of the sentence what comes to you is not a big word, it’s “the” or “if” or “when” or whatever, that’s what’s needed. Your job is not to say the good word. It’s to say the next word. After playing it for years, I’ve actually lost track —

Patricia Ryan Madson: Yeah.

Dan Klein: — of whether or not I’m saying a content word or just like a glue word. It’s just the next word. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: There’s such a powerful lesson in that, I think, in meetings and in interactions. We feel like I’ve got to do a great job here.

Dan Klein: And sometimes the best thing you can do is either say nothing or just paraphrase what was said. Really powerful.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Or just listen. Yeah.

Dan Klein: Or just listen. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Patricia, I’d like to come to you with our next two questions if you don’t mind.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Okay. Gosh.

Matt Abrahams: Who’s a communicator that you admire and why?

Patricia Ryan Madson: Hm. I think in the past few years, I’ve come to respect Barack Obama greatly. There’s something about his leadership and the way he spoke, which seemed to me natural and believable, that was something we needed in politics and in the world. So I think Obama would be a person that I admire for his speech and his communication skills.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Somebody others have mentioned and for all the same reasons that you did. Last question I’d like to ask: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe? Adam said cinnamon last time, so we know cinnamon is needed.

Patricia Ryan Madson: Trust yourself. Care about the other person. And have fun.

Matt Abrahams: I love it. Have fun, trust yourself, care about the other person. Thank you. Thank you all for joining me once again. I’m going to end the podcast. And Adam, since you are such a great gibberish translator, I’d love it for you to translate my ending into gibberish, if you don’t mind. Would that be all right?

Matt Abrahams: Well, a huge thank you to all of you for coming and joining us. Patricia, Dan, and Adam, it was wonderful to be back with some of you and to include Patricia with us. And the concepts and ideas we talked about, trusting ourselves, helping others, listening — so critical. And here’s to another hundred episodes. I’d love to have you back at 200. And with that, thank you to you, and thank you to our listeners.


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, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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