Career & Success

Masterclass: Communicating with Confidence

Confidence and mindset can alleviate anxiety and improve almost any pitch or meeting.

October 19, 2021

Welcome to Grit & Growth’s masterclass on communicating with confidence, featuring Matt Abrahams, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer in strategic communications. Whether pitching to investors, reporting to your board, or motivating employees, Abrahams has tips and tricks for managing anxiety and making an impact with both what you say and how you say it.

Abrahams knows a thing or two about communicating. Whether he’s teaching MBAs at Stanford GSB or hosting his podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart, he advises entrepreneurs on the value of “speaking up without freaking out” — which is also the title of his best-selling book. Abrahams believes confidence and mindset can be developed to alleviate anxiety and improve almost any pitch or meeting. He’s also on a personal mission to stop entrepreneurs from beginning their presentations with “Hi, my name is _______, and today we’re going to talk about_________.”

“That is boring. It’s silly because you’re showing a slide that has your name and your topic on it. I like to joke that every good pitch should start like a James Bond movie. No, not with sex and violence, but with action, get people participating and focused… and that’s what will help people get interested in what you’re saying.”

Top Seven Masterclass Takeaways

  1. Some anxiety is a good thing. It can give you energy and focus. Abrahams suggests using cognitive reframing to use your excitement about your business and vision to manage your fear of pitching.
  2. Use nonverbal cues to convey confidence — even if you’re not feeling it. Gesture more slowly, make direct eye contact, take deep breaths to slow your speech rate. These nonverbal cues will make people think you’re confident, which will actually make you feel more confident.
  3. Record yourself and watch it. Rather than judge and evaluate based upon your own internal dialogue, try to see what others will see in the pitch or presentation.
  4. Mindfulness can help you manage anxiety. Give yourself permission to be nervous — it’s only human. And forgive yourself if you’re nervous or make a mistake. That’s human, too.
  5. Create a compelling hook. Make sure it grabs people’s attention and is relevant. Abrahams explains, “If you do something different, you automatically stand out. You’ve got my attention just because you did something different.”
  6. Learn to tell your story fast and slow. Have a two-minute, 10-minute, and 30-minute version to deliver depending upon the situation.
  7. Consider cultural differences and pay attention to social status. Low context and high context cultures require different approaches. And hierarchy and social status should impact how you communicate.

Listen to Abrahams’ insights, advice, and strategies for how entrepreneurs can communicate with greater confidence and learn how you can improve your next pitch, board meeting, or presentation.

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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

Darius Teter: Before we get started with our episode, I want to ask you for your input to shape the future of this podcast. Here at Grit & Growth, our goal is to help you grow your business, to create a solid company that has a positive impact on society. So as we develop new episodes, we would love to hear what you think, including topics you would like to learn more about and people you want to hear from. We’ve included a link in the show notes where you can share your thoughts and make your requests. It is stanfordseed.co/podcastsurvey. All as one word.

I’m really looking forward to learning more about you, our listeners, and to delivering content that helps you meet your goals. So thanks for taking the time to do that.

Last week on Grit & Growth, we talked about strategies for communicating your big idea. We learned a ton about structuring your words to effectively capture and to keep your audience’s attention, while connecting with them emotionally. We also learned that the impact of what you say is crucially dependent on how you say it.

Matt Abrahams: Appearing confident, and therefore being treated as confident by your audience, you yourself will begin to feel confident. So we create this virtuous cycle. So how you feel and what you do interact to give you that confidence that you need.

Darius Teter: Research tells us that at least 70% of communication is non-verbal. So the ability to project confidence will go a long way toward determining whether your communication achieves its intended goal. But confident speaking is easier said than done. So we followed-up with our guests from last episode, Stanford lecturer Matt Abrahams, to get his advice on how to communicate with confidence.

Matt is a certified expert. Besides teaching at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he has written a book, produces a podcast, and runs a website, all dedicated to effective public speaking. Together, we’ll cover techniques like cognitive reframing, mindfulness, and Matt’s crusade to end bad hooks. I’m Darius Teter and this is a masterclass by Grit & Growth with Stanford Graduate School of Business. The show where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs. I know it’s only been a short time, but Matt let’s reintroduce you to our listeners.

Matt Abrahams: Okay, excellent. My name is Matt Abrahams. I am a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I teach strategic communication. And one of my great pleasures is also to host the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast.

Darius Teter: When we talk about building confidence in our communications, we have to think about where most people start from, anxiety and even fear. We’ve all heard the phrase. It’s some crazy percentage of people who fear public speaking more than they fear death. Why? Why is that?

Matt Abrahams: So that’s a great question, and one that has confused people for a long time. And those of us who study it really believe it boils down to our evolution. It has to do with our status relative to other people. And I’m not talking about status, like who drives the fanciest car, who gets the most likes on a post. But when our species was evolving, we would travel around in bands of about 150 people. And your status in that group meant a lot. If you had higher status, you got access to resources, food, shelter, reproduction. And if you had lower status, it meant you were scraping by and survival was very much in doubt. So anything you would do that would jeopardize that status could really negatively impact you. And so it’s ingrained in us, we believe, to be nervous when you speak in front of other people.

Darius Teter: Because it really might be life or death.

Matt Abrahams: It could be back in the day. I don’t think it’s as serious now, but-

Darius Teter: If you weren’t that good with the club and the spear, you better be damn good at telling stories, right?

Matt Abrahams: That’s exactly right. Yes. And instead of PowerPoint, you’re drawing on cave walls quickly.

Darius Teter: Otherwise, no food for you. Well, I’m one of those people, that’s a very anxious speaker. I’ve had to take beta blockers to get up on stage. I’ve had multiple rounds of coaching, one-on-one communication coaching, all kinds of torture devices like live video and then playing it back for me and everything. I’m not sure what’s working and what isn’t working, but I definitely am one of those people who is sympathetic to that statement of fear. You did an episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart where it’s hacking your speaking anxiety. And your guest at that time said, “There’s no difference between the physiological response to something that you’re excited about and something that you’re scared of or nervous or dreading.” So putting our entrepreneur hat on. Can entrepreneurs use the excitement about their business vision, about what they want to do to overcome their fear of pitching to investors or pitching to their board or convincing friends and family to invest in their big idea?

Matt Abrahams: You bet. In fact, reframing — we call it cognitive reframing — is really a powerful tool for managing anxiety. Your body is very economical. It has one arousal state primarily. So what triggers that arousal could be anxiety, could be excitement, but the same thing happens. Your heart rate beats faster. You perspire more. You breathe more quickly. And again, we can see that as anxiety, which many of us label is bad. And we could also see it as excitement, which many of us label as a good thing.

So I often coach people and the students I teach to take that physiological experience and say to yourself, “I’m adding something of value here. This is something I’m excited about. This is something that can help others.” And by focusing on that and reframing those physiological responses as positive, it certainly can go a long way to reducing anxiety. I will make one slight correction, Darius, to something you said. I don’t know that we can ever truly overcome our anxiety, I think we learned to manage it and manage it well. But I actually think some anxiety is a good thing. It does give you energy. It does give you focus. So I’m not sure we will overcome it, but I do think we can certainly manage it.

Darius Teter: You’ve written this fascinating book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, which is such a perfect title.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you.

Darius Teter: And you say in the book that speaking with confidence involves this complex mix of physiological and psychological factors. Can you expand on that crucial point just a little bit? I realize this is an entire book, but how can you encapsulate that complex mix for our listeners?

Matt Abrahams: So the way in which you think impacts the way you act, and the way you act actually impacts the way you think. And so this first notion we’ve been discussing (how you frame something) if you see it as self-focused versus other-focused. If you see it as anxiety versus excitement. If you see it as opportunity versus threat. So the way in which you frame something absolutely influences the way you experience it. So clearly if you put yourself in service of others, see your communication as an opportunity, see the physiological responses as excitement, that will help calm those nerves and help you focus on delivering a clear and concise message.

Now, there are things that you can do physically that will help you appear more confident and ultimately make you feel more confident. For example, if you gesture more slowly, you make direct eye contact, you take deep breaths to slow your speech rate down. These things will help you appear to others as if you’re confident because you’re demonstrating what we expect to see in confident people. And based on appearing confident and therefore being treated as confident by your audience, you yourself will begin to feel confident. So we create this virtuous cycle. So how you feel and what you do interact to give you that confidence that you need.

Darius Teter: When I was getting coached on public speaking, they always said, “Find a friendly face in your audience.” And if you need to plant a friendly face, have your buddy sit in the second row and smile and give you the thumbs up every time you look in their general direction. And when I used to present to my board of directors in my previous life, the CEO always sat next to the chair of the board. And our CEO was this lovely guy. But whenever I was presenting and I looked at him, he was just giving me the stink eye. And it wasn’t like he was really mean, it’s just that was his face, he just had this deadly serious face. And so I had to always avoid that guy when I was making presentations, because it would just sink me like it was the opposite of it. It was a sort of self-reinforcing, negative feedback loop.

And I like the point about self-focus over other-focus because one of the things I learned was when you’re up there and you’re trying to speak publicly, you get wrapped up in this internal dialogue with yourself. “Oh I must look ridiculous. Oh, I’m nervous. It must show, oh my God, I’m sweating. Oh my God. You know, I’m stuttering. How is anybody even still sitting in the room here? This is so bad.” But it’s all internal, nobody can actually see any of that. You’re just psyching yourself out. As opposed to thinking, “This audience is so cool and I really want to give them something interesting, and this is going to be fun for them.” Get it out of your head basically. Is that what self-focus versus other-focus means?

Matt Abrahams: Partially. Self-focus versus other-focus is when you put yourself in service of others, it takes the pressure off of you. It moves that spotlight away from you to others, for sure. So, that’s part of it. I do want to comment on that notion of overvaluation and judging. First and foremost, when people see us, they have a very different experience than we perceive ourselves as giving. Why? Because they don’t have access to that internal dialogue. So one of the things I recommend, and it’s very painful, as you mentioned yourself, is to record yourself and watch it. And the students I teach, the people I coach, they will almost unanimously say, “Gosh, I look more confident than I felt.”

And that’s again, because we don’t have access to that internal dialogue. But I’ll tell you, Darius, that point you made about judging and evaluating, that is a huge roadblock that gets in the way of a lot of people’s confidence. I spend a lot of time in the work I do — and in fact, several of the episodes of my podcast have focused on this — of taking this notion of an improv mindset. In improvisation, it’s all about being in the moment. It’s about serving the audience. It’s about saying yes and moving forward, rather than judging and evaluating. And if you allow me, I’m just going to tell this real quick activity that we do to really highlight this for all of our MBA students at the business school.

I do this workshop where I have people play this game called Shout the Wrong Name. And the only goal is you point at different things around you and you loudly and proudly call the things you’re pointing to anything but what they are. And here’s what happens. And this is amazing to me and it happens to me as well. And it amazes me even more. People will point at something, let’s say a chair and they’ll say, “Oh, cat.” And then they’ll say, “Oh, cats have four legs, chairs have four legs. Oh, cats kind of sit. We kind of sit.” And all of a sudden they’re judging calling something the wrong name as if it isn’t wrong enough.

Darius Teter: Like they screwed up the assignment.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Well it’s that they weren’t even wrong enough. They were wrong, but not wrong enough. So this judgment, this evaluation that we do to ourselves really gets in the way of us just connecting. And it certainly contributes to our level of anxiety. So a lot of what I do with my students and the people I coach is help them understand that internal dialogue and help them focus that dialogue elsewhere, so that they can actually do a good job in a confident manner. And it’s hard but once you make that work for you, it makes a huge difference.

Darius Teter: I hear that. I was thinking about how much of what you’re saying is aligned with basic principles of mindfulness. Being present in the moment, being focused outward, suspending judgment of yourself and others, listening with curiosity and intent. It sounds like some of the same practices for mindfulness, would also be extremely valuable for how you communicate.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. And in fact, mindfulness is very helpful to managing anxiety. In addition to all the things you mentioned, two things come to mind. One, mindfulness teaches that you give yourself permission to experience the things you’re experiencing. I can’t tell you the number of people who will tell me, “I shouldn’t be nervous. I know this stuff.” And then they get upset and more nervous because they’re nervous, which is this negative, self-fulfilling prophecy. If you just give yourself permission, say “I’m a human being, getting up in front of people, talking about something that’s important to me — that really makes sense that I would be nervous.” And give yourself permission to experience that nervousness. And the other thing that mindfulness teaches is to forgive yourself. It’s okay. It’s okay to be nervous. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. That’s part of being human. So mindfulness can really be a helpful approach to managing anxiety.

Darius Teter: Now that we’ve got some strategies for escaping our own sometimes destructive internal monologue. How do we get into the minds of our audience? So I want to pivot now a little bit to the specific communication challenges faced by entrepreneurs, the importance of having a good hook, of drawing in the listener. What’s a good hook?

Matt Abrahams: Can I share what a bad hook is? I am on a personal mission, Darius. And if you and your listeners can join me, I would love to have this crusade move forward. I am on a personal mission to stop pitches, meetings and presentations from starting with, “Hi, my name is, and today we’re going to talk about…” That is boring. It’s banal and often silly because you’re showing a slide that has your name and your topic on it. So a good hook is something that captures people’s attention. It is critical that we get people’s attention and then engagement is actually sustained attention. So we actually have to sustain it, in that hook is where you do that. I like to joke that every good pitch should start like a James Bond movie. No, not with sex and violence, but with action. Get people participating and focused and that’s what will help people get interested in what you’re saying.

So you have to start by getting attention. And then the next thing you have to do for a good hook is to have relevance. People have to understand, “Oh, I should focus on this. And here’s why…” And that, “here’s why” part is the relevance piece. So a good hook has an attention-getting step and a relevance step. So it could be starting with the first thing you do is you show a picture of a woman suffering from cancer and you say, “This is Molly. She has stage 3 cancer. She just began to receive treatment. If she were anywhere else in the world, she would’ve had this treatment six months ago and her prognosis would be different.” So you could start that way. I heard this great pitch and I can’t remember what it was. “What if one brand and another brand came together and had a baby? That’s what my company is, the love child of…” And then they went in, it was just a cute way, but because they use those two analogies, you automatically understand what they’re trying to do.

Darius Teter: Wow. So you can’t see my other screen that’s open right now, but it has a presentation I’m supposed to give at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning and it starts with my name and my topic.

Matt Abrahams: So, let’s change those.

Darius Teter: Let’s start the crusade with me. I’ll have to rethink what I’m going to do tomorrow.

Matt Abrahams: There we go. Every crusade starts with one step.

Darius Teter: Not every situation will be the same. A pitch is different than a board meeting. Asking a VC for money is different than asking a family member. Matt says that having confidence will increase an entrepreneur’s versatility, no matter the audience.

Matt Abrahams: I think every entrepreneur should be able to tell their story from a big stage to a small conference room or a coffee shop table. They should be able to tell their story in 30 minutes, in 10 minutes and in two minutes. I think it varies per person. There are people who are much more oriented to conversation and interpersonal connection, and they like doing that. And that’s where they feel comfortable. And there are other people who appreciate the distance and the number of people that they can reach at once. And they like a bigger stage in a bigger room, but if given an opportunity to pick one. In my coaching and teaching career, it’s interesting. People choose lots of different situations for different reasons.

Darius Teter: It’s an interesting point about having the two minute version, the five minute version and the 10 minute version. When I worked in my previous job, we actually had a card. I was working for a nonprofit so we were always pitching. And we had this laminated card and the card had three columns, and the first column was the elevator pitch, which assumes you have about 12 seconds. You know, what do we do? The middle column was like the two sentences. And the third column was if they’re stuck with you eating a bagel, you can do this.

Matt Abrahams: The elevator gets stuck.

Darius Teter: The elevator gets stuck. So I appreciate the idea that you need different versions that still hit the same notes. In the Stanford Seed program, we work with entrepreneurs from all over the world. So I was curious, how does culture influence how we communicate? Does the mantra, know your audience, extend to knowing their cultural norms?

Matt Abrahams: So there’s this notion and I’m not sure how familiar lots of people are with this. It’s more an academic view, but it’s very true. The notion of high and low context cultures. And we do see that. So a high context culture is a culture that takes context, the relationships, the environment, the situation as something that’s very important in the interactions with other people. And low context is the opposite, the environment is less important. North America, the United States tends to be a low context culture. The example often used is Japan as an example of a high context culture. And of course these are generalities. But what it means is and what I see in my students is some students come in very focused on the relationship that exists, the environment in which the communication is taking place and are sensitive to that in ways that others aren’t. And part of my job is to help people understand that there’s a difference. And then this difference comes from culture, from upbringing, from experience, and you just have to appreciate that.

So sometimes the traditional or stereotypical American, you know, “Let’s just get down to the facts. Let’s just start negotiating right away.” Can be very off-putting to somebody who wants to focus on relationship, environment and context. Similarly, somebody who focuses on relationship, environment and context coming in might be seen as slower or as less motivated or energetic about a point of view. When in fact that’s not true, it’s just the way that people initiate. So long-winded answer, there are differences. The one that I see the most has to do with how quickly somebody tries to connect and how direct somebody is in their communication. And it can be summed up between high and low context cultures. From my perspective, it all comes down to really understanding your audience and really taking the time to appreciate their approach and then adjusting where appropriate your approach to match what will help accomplish your goal is critical.

Darius Teter: I think the other thing that I’ve noticed working all over the world is the respect for hierarchy and how that can affect how people communicate. So I used to work for an international bank and the leadership was heavily Japanese. And I learned very quickly as a quite a young person that it didn’t matter how strongly I disagreed with something in a meeting, I needed to do that somewhere else. And it was perfectly okay to challenge authority quietly in a room, but not to get up in a meeting and say, “I disagree.”

I was a knucklehead. I was 28 years old. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned pretty quickly. But it radically affected my communication style in meetings during the eight years that I was there. And I think that understanding that sometimes, well, people will come into a room and the way they talk to you is based on their feeling about where they sit in the hierarchy compared to you. And so sometimes that can come off (as the listener) as overly differential and lacking confidence. But in fact, it’s a lifetime of learning that there’s certain modes of communicating to convey respect.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, hierarchy is very important, social status is absolutely important, and in certain areas around the world, more important than others. But being sensitive to that and at least considering how it should affect your communication is fascinating. And I’ll just put in a plug for one of the episodes on Think Fast, Talk Smart, where I interviewed GSB professor Nir Halevy. And he studies what he calls psychological distance and psychological distance between two speakers can really affect the communication. And so something interesting that takes what you’ve just said even to a deeper level about how it influences who we speak to and what we say to them.

Darius Teter: And on that important note, we wrap up this masterclass. I’d like to thank Matt Abrahams again, please do your part to support his crusade against bad hooks. And if you want to hear more from him, he has an amazing book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. In addition to his fabulous podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart. And he curates a website of public speaking resources called nofreakingspeaking.com, which we’ll link to in our show notes. Check them all out if you can.

This has been a masterclass from Grit & Growth with Stanford Graduate School of Business. And I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you want to find out more about how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs throughout Africa and South Asia, through Stanford Seed, visit us at seed.stanford.edu/podcast. If you like this episode, don’t forget to hit follow and share it with a friend. Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves. With writing and production from Isobel Pollard and Andrew Ganem. And sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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