Career & Success

Quick Thinks: How Being Present Improves Communication

In this “Quick Thinks” podcast episode, Stanford improv experts share advice on getting out of our heads and into the moment at hand.

April 24, 2020

| by Matt Abrahams

Although it may feel uncomfortable, letting go of our prepared notes and staying in the moment can help us communicate more effectively.

Host Matt Abrahams speaks with Stanford University lecturers and improv theater experts Dan Klein and Adam Tobin on how being present in the moment allows communicators to more authentically connect with their audience.


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.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Being in the present moment and listening intently can help both your impromptu and planned communication. In our first podcast episode on spontaneous speaking, I was joined by fellow Stanford lecturers Dan Klein and Adam Tobin. Today I am thrilled to share an important portion of that conversation that didn’t make it into the episode.

My name is Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communications at Stanford GSB and welcome to a “Quick Thinks” episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart.

So here you go: this bonus clip from my conversation with two Stanford improv experts on how being in the present moment helps us to be a better communicator.

Matt Abrahams: We often don’t take the time to be present enough to listen, to understand truly what’s needed in that moment, so we can respond accordingly. Because we’re in our heads, because we’re judging and evaluating, we might miss some nuance or make some assumptions that get in the way of being successful in spontaneous speaking.

Curious to know your thoughts about that listening and that present-orientation.

Dan Klein: Wait, what did you just ask me? I’m sorry.


Adam Tobin: Look, if you’re like, locked into a script or locked into this idea of how you’re going to do it, and something is going on, you’re totally not connecting with your audience, with their needs.

Imagine you’re giving a talk and there’s a fire alarm and the sprinkles go off, and you keep giving your talk. It’s the opposite of actually connecting your material to people. You have to be there and you have to keep bringing the current circumstances to your material so you can get it to people.

Dan Klein: Rafe Chase is a brilliant improviser and director here in the Bay Area, who has created amazing theater for more than 30 years. His advice was, “In the moment when you find yourself thinking about yourself, either in the past of the future, how I did, or how I’m going to do, don’t beat yourself up, but let that be a little trigger/reminder that there’s something to notice right now.” And that’s always true. There’s always something to notice right now.

Adam Tobin: And I would say one of the most powerful ideas that improv gave to me personally and then I’ve applied to speaking and pitching movie ideas and to teaching and this room right now, is “it’s not about you, it’s not just about you. It’s really about them.” It’s about your listener. It’s about your partner. It’s about making your partner look good. And if you can get that awareness out of yourself … There is a great improv maxim that is, “Do what needs to be done, don’t do more, don’t do less, do what needs to be done.” And you only know that if you’re paying attention.

Matt Abrahams: That’s right. And a great way I think for people to help get in that present moment, not when you’re playing improv games, because improv games invite that, but taking time to greet your audience, take time get to know them, ask questions. It brings you into that present moment. You can’t be worried about everything that could happen if I’m shaking your hand and asking you a question. Another way to make sure that you’re listening well and understanding is using paraphrasing. I’m a big fan of paraphrasing, such that you hear the information and demonstrate you heard the information. There’s no sense communicating if you’re not communicating on the topic that’s needed in that moment.

Adam Tobin: I just had an insight about paraphrasing, which is that you’re kind of extending The Now. Right? So now keeps moving past you, but what paraphrasing does is, what they said, you’re saying again, and living in that space for a little moment. Right? Yes, it reaffirms fidelity, “Did I get that message right”, it affirms what they said, “Oh I heard you and you said something.” But also, it’s like, before we rush on to what we think about that, or what that means, let’s take a moment and be in that for a second, and it doesn’t take a long time, but it’s in the now.

Dan Klein: There’s another piece here. I connect this with teaching, and also to speaking, because teaching is a variation of speaking. Sometimes we really want to get a laugh. A laugh gives us indication that everyone is with us and it’s working. It’s a bit of an ego boost. It also says that we’re alive and together. There are some laughs that are actually costly: If you’re just doing your jokes, if you’re making fun of somebody. You might get the laugh but it won’t actually build that connection. But there is a laugh that you can get which comes from highlighting something funny or interesting that someone else did. So if someone does something funny to be celebrated, as the teacher or as the host, to call it out, you get that laugh, but you get it in service of the other person and of the message. I think it’s true in talks as well. If something happens in the room, that you can call out, it gets the laugh, it’s not you generating a joke and saying ‘look at me.’ It’s being present in the moment.

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