Career & Success

Think Fast: You Asked, We Answered

In this episode, we address audience questions that range from how to handle interrupters to how to craft an authentic, clear email.

August 14, 2020

| by Matt Abrahams Shawon Jackson

A few weeks ago, we asked our listeners to send in their communication conundrums and ended up with an inbox full of thoughtful, specific questions.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, host and Stanford GSB lecturer Matt Abrahams is joined by Shawon Jackson, MBA ’21 candidate, to share techniques on crafting written responses, dealing with constant interruptions, and confronting the power dynamics present in most communication. Jackson is the founder of Our Voices Matter, a public speaking program for high school students of color and a dual-degree student between Stanford GSB and Harvard Kennedy School.


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business and hosted by Matt Abrahams. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. Communication can be tricky and messy. We’ve all been in situations with our coworkers, bosses, friends, and family that haven’t had clean and clear resolution. We started this podcast with the goal of helping you hone your communication and expand your toolkit for dealing with these types of challenging situations.

And while we’ve covered a wide range of topics so far, we thought that we would take a different approach for this episode by addressing specific communication challenges and conundrums that you, in our audience, face. A little bit ago we put out a call for questions, and we were thrilled to receive a wide range of inquiries from all over the globe. Thank you to all of you who submitted questions.

Today, we’d like to address a few of these questions. To help coordinate this Q&A process I am excited to invite Shawon Jackson to help me. Shawon is an MBA student at the GSB. He is someone who not only cares deeply about communication, but he actively works to help others be not only better communicators, but better people.

Shawon founded the organization, Our Voices Matter, a culturally sustaining public speaking program that empowers undervalued high school students to be advocates for social justice wherever they decide to go in life. The program helps students build their communication skills and critical consciousness simultaneously. Shawon and I have had wonderful exchanges about the importance of developing and honing communication skills. His insightful questions and thoughtful responses make him an ideal partner for what we’re doing in this episode. Welcome, Shawon.

Shawon Jackson: Thanks for having me today. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Matt Abrahams: I am so inspired by the work you’ve done with Our Voices Matter. It’s clear that you’re really impacting your students and their communities. Let’s go ahead and get started.

Shawon Jackson: Sounds good. Before we get to the questions your audience sent in I’d like to start with a question that some of my students ask me frequently in the Our Voices Matter program. “How do you know what to talk about in the first place?”

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Yeah, where do you start? That’s a frequent question I get. You know, the best way to approach that, I think, is really think about your audience. Think about who they are and what it is they need. What would benefit them?

So, I often encourage people to do some reconnaissance and reflection to take time to think about who the audience, what they know, what their attitudes are, and based on that begin to hone your communication and focus it on meeting those needs.

From there, you can do some research. You can talk to people. Do some focus-grouping, and check in with them to see if what you’re thinking about makes sense, and where you’re going is a good direction.

Shawon Jackson: I think that’s an excellent point. I really agree with that in terms of thinking about who your audience is, and it’s something I will continue to emphasize with my students to make sure their communication actually leads to some positive impact in the world. All right. Now, we’re going to dive into audience questions. Our first question comes from Patricia [Pelliceno]. It has to do with being interrupted. Let’s listen.

Patricia Pelliceno: How do I deal with being interrupted in social situations when a group of people are talking and in professional settings when I am trying to convey and idea?

Matt Abrahams: Yes, Patricia, dealing with interruptions both in social and professional situations can be very challenging and quite frankly, frustrating. So, here are a couple of things to think about that might help you. In advance, especially, in professional situations if you can set expectations upfront, set some boundaries, if you will.

So, if you are giving a presentation, and you know what people are going to want to interrupt or have contributions to make set expectations by saying, “I’d like to have just two minutes to share my overall vision for what I expect we’ll be discussing and where I think this should go.”

By setting that expectation hopefully, people will give you that amount of time to get your point across. It also helps you sound more credible and confident by asking for that time and setting those boundaries. Now, if somebody actually does interrupt you something you can do is to leverage a paraphrase.

Paraphrasing is where you highlight something that somebody said and gives you the right to take the floor back. So, if somebody interrupts simply take something that they’ve said, comment on it and then, gain the floor back. Taken together, Patricia, I hope those give you some ideas about how to make sure that you avoid being interrupted if possible. And if it does happen you can take the floor back when needed.

Shawon Jackson: Those are some great thoughts, and I appreciate you sharing that. And I really agree with your point on expectations. When I’m communicating with people, and I fear being interrupted I like to use signposting where I say, “I have three things I want to talk about today. One, about our theory of change. Second, about logistics and the third about how we move forward.” And I think when you set expectations that way you give people a clear sense of where you’re going so that hopefully, they don’t interrupt.

Matt Abrahams: Shawon, that’s exactly right. I think setting expectations and setting that signpost or preview can really help people know what’s coming and know when it’s their turn to share. Excellent point.

Shawon Jackson: The next question comes from Ryan Brown and focuses on applying concepts from spoken communication to written.

Ryan Brown: Hi, my name is Ryan Brown, and I’d like to know what advice or recommendations you have for using some of the recommendations and guidance from Think Fast, Talk Smart when presenting in emails, or pitch decks, or other written types of communication. Thanks.

Matt Abrahams: So, Ryan, you know, everything that we cover on the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast, and everything I teach in my Strategic Communication classes, and when I do my consulting, it really applies not just to spoken communication, but written communication.

Many people tell me that after they’ve really focused on the oral communication parts of what I teach that they see direct benefit in their writing. So, a few things I’d like to highlight. Again, it gets back to the very first question Shawon asked. You have to know your audience, and you have to tailor what you write just like you tailor what you speak to that audience down to the linguistic level. The words that people expect and know.

Additionally, you have to have the mantra about being clear, concise, and engaging. Effective communication written or spoken must be clear, concise, and engaging. And one way to do that is to leverage structure. You’ve heard me talk about structure often in this podcast. Structure helps you as a communicator when you’re speaking or writing, and it helps your audience as well to understand.

So, if you’re writing an email perhaps you should consider the what, so, what, now, what structure. You start by talking about what it is. You then talk about why it’s important to the person you’re speaking to. And then, you conclude by asking what it is you want of that person. That structure helps your emails and your spoken communication be concise.

If you’re writing a pitch or a persuasive presentation think about another structure. The problem/solution/benefit structure. Articulate in detail what the problem is. Then, talk about your suggestions for solving that problem. And then, you can discuss the benefits to enacting your particular solution. Again, that structure helps you be clear, concise, and engaging.

And Shawon, if you’ll allow me one more bit of advice. When you are writing it is really important to do two things. Ask somebody else to proofread your material not just for grammar issues, but for logic. Does it flow well? And read what you’ve written out loud.

When we write and then, when we read it without speaking it we sometimes skip over some things that actually when spoken stand out, and we realize we need to change what we’ve written. So, it’s about your audience, it’s about structure, and it’s about the way in which you edit and proof before you’re done.

Shawon Jackson: Those are excellent points, Matt, and I think the point on being concise is especially important with written communications. People receive so many emails every day, and you want to make sure that your message gets directly to the point. And I especially appreciate what you said in terms of structure leading with what your key message is upfront so, people understand what they should be getting out of your message.

Matt Abrahams: You know, Shawon, I’d like to turn the tables now because we’ve got a question that I think is a perfect one for you to answer. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the next question that comes from William [Copens]. His question is about advocating for change when you don’t have a lot of power.

William Copens: As a student, how can you make change in your school systems where the administration is set in their ways and you have far less power?

Shawon Jackson: This is an excellent question, and you’re right, it is when we think a lot about in the Our Voices Matter program where students worry that administrators won’t listen to them. There are a few thoughts that I would offer on this question. The first is to think about how you can communication as a collective. It’s easy for someone in power to ignore one student or one individual, but it’s hard to ignore 100.

Now, that doesn’t mean that 100 students have to talk to an administrator, but what it does mean is before you engage in that conversation think about the stories and quantitative data you can collect from many students to show that you’re communicating as a community.

And when you communication as a community, as a larger collective you’re increasing the power that you have in that conversation and showing that you’re thinking about more people besides yourself. The second thing that I would offer is to understand what the administrators care about and understand what their communication preferences are.

You might consider, for example, having a meeting with the administrators simply to understand what their priorities are, what their top concerns are, and how they like to receive information. And it goes back to what you said earlier, Matt, about knowing your audience so that you can design your communication in ways that will resonate with your audience.

And the third piece of advice that I would offer is around a pitfall to avoid. Sometimes, when you’re preparing for meetings with those who have more power you want to compromise a lot. And while you should tailor your communication to resonate with your audience you want to be careful not to compromise on your values too much early on, if at all.

People ultimately respect those who stand firm in their beliefs, but are willing to negotiate the specific solutions that allow you to uphold the values that are most important to you. So, to recap I would say you want to one, communicate as a collective. Two, think carefully about what your audience wants to hear. And three, hold true to what your values are and not compromise too much along the way.

Matt Abrahams: Wow, a lot to take away there, and I certainly think that answer will help William in his situation and many of the people listening in when you find yourself in a situation where perhaps, the power structure or status structure is not in your favor.

I’ll just echo one thing that you said there, Shawon, that I think is really, really critical is that when you start working collaboratively with others not only do you benefit from just having more voices to advocate for what you’re advocating for, but you also benefit from the diversity of insight, and opinion, and experience that those people bring that can help you actually hone your message.

Make it tighter, clearer, and resonate more with those that you’re speaking to so, very helpful answer there. Thank you. You know, Shawon, before we end I’d love to ask you to answer the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Shawon Jackson: Let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: All right, so, question number one. If we were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven-word presentation slide title what would it be?

Shawon Jackson: This is a tricky one, but my answer would be, “Ask yourself, what’s your goal?”

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Tell me more about why that is so important to you.

Shawon Jackson: I think with communication it’s easy for us to get caught up with all of the ideas we have in our head, but if we think about what our goal actually is we can start to filter out some ideas that don’t help us achieve that goal. Another reason why this question is important to me is because it helps you understand that you are the best person to communication specific ideas or if you need to bring in someone else.

And I think if you know what your goal is you can figure out, with some self-reflection, whether or not you’re in a good position to advance the agenda that you have, or if you need to have a team of people communicating with you, or if you need to have someone else sharing that message instead.

Matt Abrahams: The notion of having a clear goal for yourself to help guide your communication, but also, and I love how you added this, this notion of making sure that you’re the right person for that goal is really, really insightful so, thank you. Let me ask you question number two, and I’ll be very curious for your answer for this. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Shawon Jackson: A communicator that I admire is Bryan Stevenson. He is the founder of a nonprofit called The Equal Justice Initiative that fights for criminal justice reform in the United States. They started off as an organization that was supporting people who had been wrongly convicted primarily in the South.

And what I really admire about Bryan Stevenson is that he acknowledges hard truths in a way that does not villainize any one person, and he speaks about these difficult truths be it racism in the United States or the prison industrial complex without making you feel helpless. He really invites you on to reflect on these difficult moments and think about what we can do to make things better moving forward.

And I think that ability to acknowledge a difficult moment about where our country is coupled with some inspiration about how we can move forward is incredible and something that I try to do in my own communication. And the last thing that I admire about Bryan Stevenson is his use of personal stories.

He does a beautiful job of portraying the highs and lows of an individual’s life as opposed to restricting them to one particular moment. And I think that nuance with storytelling helps to humanize the people he’s talking about and allows the listeners to develop a stronger connection with that individual that he’s sharing the story about.

Matt Abrahams: Wow, I absolutely look forward to watching some of his communication and learning from him in many of the same ways that it sounds like you have learned from him. Question number three, what are the first three ingredients that go in to a successful communication recipe?

Shawon Jackson: I love this question, Matt. It is an awesome question.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Thank you.

Shawon Jackson: Three ingredients for me. One, a clear goal which goes back to what we talked about earlier. Recognizing what it is you’re actually working towards and how you may or may not be best suited to achieve that goal. Two, self-awareness. We all have different strengths when it comes to communication. And so, you want to do some reflection on that to make sure you’re leveraging that when you’re communicating your ideas.

And three, empathy. It’s so important when we’re communicating with others that we understand what their interests are, what their needs are to make sure that we’re actually engaging in dialogue with one another as opposed to talking past each other. So, I would say a clear goal, self-awareness, and empathy would be the first three ingredients that I would put in to a successful communication recipe.

Matt Abrahams: I really don’t see how that recipe could come out poorly with those three ingredients. Clearly, very helpful. One focused on the message, one focused on yourself, and then, one focused on the impact are really, really important. Thank you, Shawon. This has been absolutely a delight for me to collaborate with you.

I wish you the best as you continue your impactful work with our Voices Matter. And for those of you wanting to see Shawon in action I invite you to watch his awesome low keynotes talk he gave on Problematizing Persuasion. For those of you not familiar, a low keynote is the GSB’s version of essentially, a TED talk.

You can find Shawon’s talk online, and it is truly amazing in terms of the communication skill deployed, but the message is so important and critical. Again, Shawon, thank you so much for joining us.

Shawon Jackson: And thank you for having me, Matt. I really admire the work that you’re doing and how you’re pushing so many of us to improve our own communication. And it was a pleasure talking with you today.

Matt Abrahams: And thanks to everyone who submitted questions. Our podcast is in service of our audience so, thank you for your participation and response. Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. Produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. You can learn more at To download other episodes please go to wherever you find your podcasts.

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