Career & Success

Three Guiding Principles for Successful Communication

In this episode, Matt Abrahams shares top takeaways from 75 episodes and answers listeners’ questions.

February 15, 2023

For the 75th episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, we hosted a live “Ask Me Anything” event with host and strategic communications lecturer Matt Abrahams.

In this global gathering, listeners called in with questions ranging from making a first impression and giving negative feedback to presenting virtually and the worst communication advice Matt’s ever received. In addition to audience questions, Matt shares outlines his top three guiding principles for being a confident speaker and leader.

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

Woman’s Voice: I am Leah, I’m calling from Australia. It is 3:00 AM here.

Man’s Voice: Hey, so I’m Danny calling in from Germany. First of all, Matt, this is amazing that you’re doing all of this. I really appreciate that you’re taking the time to answer all of our questions.

Woman’s Voice: Hi, Zinia here. I am from Manila, Philippines.

Woman’s Voice: Hi, this is Archana. I’m from India with calling in from London today.

Woman’s Voice: My name is Anna. I’m originally from Mexico, based in Mountain View, California. So my question is…

Jenny Luna: Hello and welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Clearly, I’m not Matt Abrahams. I’m Jenny Luna, the executive producer for our show. And you just heard from some of our listeners who joined for the live event last month, where we celebrated our 75th episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart. In that live episode, Matt shared communication skills to help all of us become better, more confident and clear communicators In a minute, we will share those here, but you’ll also hear the Ask Me Anything where Matt answered questions from listeners like you from all over the world. We had almost 1200 people register. We had participants from all continents except Antarctica. We are incredibly honored and grateful to you, our listeners. Thank you for tuning in and thank you for supporting us. Now here’s Strategic Communications lecturer and our host Matt Abrahams.

Matt Abrahams: Well, hello, hello. So excited to be here with all of you and thank you so much to Jenny for getting us kicked off and for all of the hard work Jenny does to bring our episodes to you. I am thrilled to have an opportunity not only to share some key best practices for effective communication, but to take your questions. So thank you for spending part of your day with us today and we’re really excited to get going.

To start, I thought I’d introduce you to some key communication practices that I think can really make a difference in helping you be more confident, clear and connected in your communication. So I’m going to start with advice that if you are a listener of the podcast, you have heard many times, and that is, it’s really critical to know your audience. It starts with them. Many of us make the mistake when it comes to communication of starting with what we want to say rather than thinking about what our audience needs to hear.

So before we do anything in our communication, we have to do some reconnaissance, reflection and research. We have to think about who our audience is and what it is they need because if we can make our messaging relevant and salient for them, they’ll listen, they’ll learn and they’re more likely to act. So there are a few things I want you to think about the audiences you speak to. First and foremost is their knowledge level relative to the topic that we’re discussing. Do they know a lot or do they know just a little? We’ve all been in that where somebody has talked to high level or too low level for our knowledge and it just doesn’t feel good. If you already know it, then you feel like you’re wasting your time and if you don’t know enough, you feel lost. And that can be really disconcerting.

So, we have to think about knowledge level. We also have to think about attitudes. Is our audience likely to be supportive of what we’re saying or perhaps not supportive? And we’ll adjust our messaging depending. And then finally, we need to think about points of resistance or hesitation towards what we’re asking. Is it that it costs too much money, takes too much time, requires too much change? We must focus our messages to adjust and address the resistance we have. So just like all of our guests mentioned, it’s all about your audience, it’s not about you, it’s about them. There are three additional concepts I’d like to layer on top of knowing your audience. And the first is making sure that you have a clear goal for your communication. In all of my strategic communication classes, I teach at the business school, we really talk about the importance of having a goal.

Now, to my mind, a goal has three major parts. It’s about information, emotion, and action. In other words, what do you want your audience to know? How do you want them to feel and what do you want them to do as a result of your communication? And there’s one added bonus of having a clear goal. It gives you a way to judge and assess the success of your communication. You know, when I go all over the world doing this work, teaching communication skills, I’ll often ask people and I’ll say, how do you know if your communication was successful? And you know the most frequent answer I get, I got through it as if survival is the best metric of success. Now, of course, that’s ridiculous. The best metric of success is: Is your audience leaving knowing what you want them to know? Feeling how you want them to feel? And doing what you want them to do?

So, once you know your audience, you craft a goal. That goal leads you to structure a message. We need to put our messages inside a structure. Our brains are wired for structure. There are lots of structures you can use and those of you who’ve listened for a while know that I am a huge fan of the what. So what now, what structure? There are many structures, but this happens to be my favorite. You start by talking about what it is you’re discussing, your idea, your belief, your product, your service, your offering. And then you explain why it’s important, why is it important and relevant to the people that you’re talking to? And then finally, with the now what you explain what comes next, maybe it’s let’s have another meeting, or let me show you what I’m talking about or what questions do you have? So it has momentum built in, I think the what?

So what now, what structure is so powerful, not just for speaking but for writing. You can write emails in this structure. Then now what is the subject line and the what in the, so what are the body of the email? If somebody asks you for your feedback, the what is your feedback, the so what is why it’s important and the now what is what you’d like them to do differently or continue doing? Now I wanted to take a timeout in my classes. I call this a meta moment where we look at what we’ve just done. I actually used this structure to teach you this structure and I gave you some examples of how to use it. In fact, everything I’ve said so far has been in this structure. It’s very powerful. Now there are other structures that you can use and I encourage you to find structures that work well for you.

Having a structure helps you as a communicator because it gives you a map that you can remember and it helps your audience because it packages things up in a logical ordered way, and that’s what our brain’s like. So we start by knowing our audience. We then create a goal, no feel, do, and then we formulate a structure for our message to accomplish that goal for our audience. Now, once we deliver our message, we next have to think about what happens when our audience responds. And so my final tip and trick is to leverage paraphrasing. I think paraphrasing is so important, and you hear me in our podcast episodes, trying to practice it. Paraphrasing is where you distill down the information that you’re hearing or reading, you want to bring it to its essence. In other words, it’s the bottom line of what you’re hearing. And this bottom line allows you then to connect or question for what comes next.

So, we don’t just paraphrase to paraphrase, we paraphrase to then move on. So I encourage all of you to think about paraphrasing, and you can practice this when you’re in a meeting and you’re not talking, or it’s a topic that’s not directly relevant for you. Be thinking to yourself as you’re listening to others communicate, what’s the bottom line? What’s the takeaway When you’re reading something, challenge yourself to say, what’s the bottom line here? By drilling that, just like if you’re learning a new sport and would do the drills in that sport, this trains you to do it well. It really helps you focus. Now, paraphrasing can be used for many things. One, it’s a great way to signal that you’re listening and to validate others. So for example, if you are talking and ask me a question, I can paraphrase that question one to validate, yes, I heard you, thank you.

But I also validate the fidelity or accuracy of what I heard. There’s no sense me a answering a question you did not ask. So by paraphrasing, you can say Yes, Matt, that’s the question, or no, I really meant this. Paraphrasing also allows you to think paraphrasing is what we call a lower order cognitive skill. What that means is that I can paraphrase and still be thinking about what I want to say next. So it’s a wonderful way to buy yourself time. And then finally, I think paraphrasing is perhaps the most polite way to interrupt somebody or to move a conversation forward. We have all been part of meetings or presentations where somebody goes on too long and what we really want to say is, please stop or shut up. We’ve heard enough, but that’s not appropriate. So what we can do is we can paraphrase, we can highlight something of value or importance that the person has said, name it, maybe even comment on it and then move on.

So, imagine I’m in a meeting and somebody in the room is talking too much and I’m the leader of the meeting. I might highlight something they say, I might say, oh, cost is really important. In fact, Jenny, I’d love to hear your thoughts about cost. Do you see what I did there? I interrupted the person, validated what they were saying about cost, and then I literally took the content and moved it to somebody else. So I’ve just told that person and everybody else in the room we’re moving on. So paraphrasing is a tool for validating emotions and information for buying yourself time and for moving conversation forward. So taken together, knowing your audience, having a goal, no feel do and building out a structure like what? So what now? What can really help you make your communication more clear, concise, and focused. And having the ability to paraphrase helps you interact with your audience and move the conversation or the presentation forward. I truly hope that these skills are helpful for you and can help you hone your communication.

Matt Abrahams: Hi everyone. It was amazing to be live with our Think Fast Talk smart community. Thank you to those of you who joined us live. And thanks to all of you for tuning in. Now, I thoroughly enjoyed taking questions from listeners from all over the world. Let’s start off with two questions that directly relate to ideas from my talk.

Caller 1: Hi Matt, this is Matt from Switzerland. You know, you have shared tons of great communication advices through Think Fast Talk Smart, but what is the worst communication advice that you have ever given or received? I leave the choice to you.

Matt Abrahams: Now I certainly know that I’ve given bad advice, for sure, but the worst advice I have ever received was when somebody told me to memorize everything that I was saying and to practice it at twice the speed that I would normally deliver it. Their argument was, if you can speak your talk twice as fast memorized, then you really have it. Well, that just goes against everything I know to be true and personally feel comfortable with. Memorizing is a huge trap. While you think it’s helping you, it’s actually working against you because your brain is focused on what you’ve memorized. So half of your attention is comparing what you’re saying to what you were supposed to say. So you only have half of your focus on the actual saying of it and connecting with your audience.

And the saying something twice as fast just puts a barrier between you and your audience. You need to speak at a normal natural rate. So the worst advice I ever received was to memorize and speak twice as fast. I tried and it was miserable, and I literally, right before I had to give the talk, and it’s a talk that’s out there, you can actually watch it. It’s a — that I gave, I’m not going to name it because I don’t want to offend anybody, but I just said, no way. I’m going to do this my way. And while the talk might not have been great, I certainly felt much better about it.

Caller 2: Thanks everyone. I am Andres and I have called from Bangalore and I’m very thankful for you giving your time and experience. My question is around, you talked about understanding the audience, but if we have to present to a large audience where you have say 20, 50,or say hundreds of people, how do you try to understand the expectations or knowledge or background of such kind of audience and make your presentation effective?

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for that question. You’re, you’re absolutely right when you speak in front of a large group that that’s very diverse and you might not know them. It’s really hard to understand everything about them, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. So again, going back to this notion of reconnaissance, reflection, and research. So, if you’re invited to an event, let’s say you’re at a conference, talk to the organizers of the conference. What do they know about the attendees? Do you know the names of the companies people are coming from to your presentation. Can you do some research on the companies? Understand what they think is important, look at the bios of the people who work at that company. Use tools like LinkedIn and Google and other tools to search up people. So there is some work you can do. Now, inherent in that question, I believe was another question, which is what do you do if the audience, because it’s so large, is varied in things like knowledge level or attitude.

So, some people know a lot, some know a little, some are in favor, some aren’t. What do you do? First, you have to really think about who is the target set among the larger group. And if so, tailor your message to that target group. If not, you have to scaffold and build that information so that people are more o on par, especially when it comes to knowledge. So let me give you an example. Let’s imagine you’re in a room. It could be a large audience, a smaller audience, and you know, some people know a lot and some know a little, here’s what we know from research: First, you should acknowledge that. So when you start, you say, in this room, we have some people who know a lot and some who know less. What we know from research is that this actually bolsters your credibility.

People see you as more credible because you’re acknowledging that you’ve done some homework and you know who’s there. The second thing you should do is let people know that you’re going to spend the first few minutes of your talk, of your presentation, of the meeting, scaffolding or building some foundational skills and then you’ll get to the deeper level. This does two things for you: The people who don’t know a lot are very thankful because you’re going to help them learn. And for the people who do know a lot, you just told them that they have to wait just two or three minutes to get through that rudimentary stuff. So they’re going to stick with you if you simply start with the foundations and the basics, the people who know a lot are going to check out. So we do have to spend time. We might use technology, we might ask people who can help us to figure out who’s in the room and if there’s some variation, we can work hard to figure out how to scaffold that information. Thank you for that question.

Jenny Luna: We also had some practical questions about how others see us in general and in interviews. Here are the questions and Matt thoughts.

Caller 3: My name’s Anish. I’m calling from the UK. My question was basically how do I communicate negative feedback to a colleague, especially when there’s an action step involved? As I say, if something needs to be done urgently, but I don’t want them to take offense to negative feedback or start an argument or anything like that.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Thank you Anish for the question. And thank you for calling in all the way from across the pond. So, feedback is a really challenging situation, especially when it’s constructive or critical. My perspective is that feedback is actually an opportunity to problem solve. So what you’re trying to do in the initial giving of the feedback is to invite the other person to collaborate with you. We want to avoid defensiveness, and a lot of times we come from a place of frustration of high emotion because the person isn’t doing it right, whatever right is, or they’ve messed things up. And we need to distance ourselves from that emotion. Maybe take a walk around the block, talk to a friend, write out how you’re feeling, but try to put those emotions not away, but under control. And then think through what is the best way that I can invite this person to actually interact on this topic.

So rather than coming at somebody and saying, you messed up and you’re doing this, which can make people defensive, you might want to phrase it as questions and say, I’ve noticed a few times that this is what I see. How can we work together too? So by making the feedback an invitation, it reduces defensiveness and invites collaboration. Now certainly there are times where feedback must be direct, must be specific, and you need people to stop things right away. That’s not where you ask a question. But there are many times where thinking through our emotion, thinking through what might be motivating the behavior, and then finally focusing on how to ask as a question, your feedback so that you can invite the people in can be really, really important to you. Thanks for that question, Anish. I hope there was some value in that. I’d love to hear some more questions.

Caller 4: Thank you. I’m Prana. I’m calling from India. They say, first impression lasts, and how would you make your first impression? Some say start with a story. Some say start with a humor. Some say start with a quote and which, how would we know that? Who would receive it better? Which one would be the better way to start your speech or some addressing that you have to give?

Matt Abrahams: So, so you’re absolutely right. First impressions are important. They, they anchor future impressions. It doesn’t mean you can’t change what people see of, of you or how they think, but it, it’s a bit harder. So, so to be thoughtful about how to come across when people first meet you or when you first start a communication, it’s pretty important. Now the question of what’s the best way, you know, my MBA students get very frustrated with me because I get a lot of questions like this, and my answer is always, it depends. It depends on what you know about your audience. If I’m speaking to a very technical data, data-driven audience, it might be in my best interest to establish a good connection and a good first impression to use Some data. It might be, if I’m speaking to a general audience that’s starting with a story or telling a joke might make the most sense.

So, so we start with what we think will resonate best with the audience, what their expectations are and what will connect. The second part of that is what’s authentic to yourself, right? If I am not comfortable telling stories or trying to be funny to simply tell a story and to be funny, because I think that’s what’s going to help my audience see me, well, sets me up for, for bad outcomes. So start with what you think is important for the audience and try to conform to that. And then think about what’s authentic and true for you. And I encourage all of you as a third bit of advice to practice and test things out. So if you’re giving a big presentation or facilitating a big meeting, think of two or three different ways to start and see how that resonates. Test it with other people, practice it and see how it sounds and that’s going to help you.

What I will tell you is this, and, and anybody who knows me has heard me say this, my biggest pet peeve, the thing that bothers me most about all communication is how people start meetings. And I think it is a bad idea and just plain ridiculous to start presentations and meetings by starting with, hi, my name is, and today I’m going to talk about. Boring, banal, and often really silly because I’m in front of a slide that has my name and the title of my presentation or somebody has an agenda that says the same thing. I think you should start all your communication, just like action movies start. How do action movies start with action? Ask a question, tell story, take a poll, then introduce yourself. How would your favorite action movie, whatever it is, feel if when you were watching it, it started with the title and the credits and then the action came? It would be a very different experience than the way I bet your favorite action movie started with some kind of action, and then they told you who was in the movie and what it was. So first impressions matter, jump right into it rather than, than ease your way in with some kind of preamble. And I think that’s going to help you the best.

Jenny Luna: Our final question came from a father-daughter pair and addresses virtual communication.

Caller 5: It’s actually my daughter Maddie’s question. Just my computer.

Matt Abrahams: Okay, well where are you and Maddie calling in from?

Caller 6: From Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, beautiful location. What’s your question, Maddie?

Caller 6: Has the advent of Zoom meetings changed your approach to communicating in virtual groups?

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Virtual communication, whatever tool it is, Zoom, Teams, Google Meets, WebEx, you name it. It has changed many things about the way we communicate. Now, some things stay the same. You should know your audience, you should have a goal, you should leverage structure you, but a couple things become even more important. Let me name them. The first is being concise. Virtual communication has mandated that we be more concise and clear why people are more easily distracted. And as many of us learn during the pandemic, we can cram in more communication in a day. Many of us had many more meetings and did a lot more communicating when we were in the pandemic. So you have to be more concise and clear. The other thing that virtual communication has mandated is we have to be more engaging when we’re physically in a room together or sharing the same space.

I can read cues and clues from you that I can’t when we’re virtual. So that means I have to manufacture opportunities for me to see if you’re tracking, if you’re interested, if you’re engaged. So I might use some of the tools that something like Zoom or Teams provides. Like I’ll take a poll, I’ll have you use the chat, I might use a shared whiteboard. These are all engaging techniques so I can get information that if we were in person, I could read just by watching what you pay attention to and how you respond. So, so Maddie, it, I, it has dramatically changed the way we communicate, yet some of the things still remain the same. And the reality is this virtual is not going away. Uh, we’re going to be more hybrid, which I think is even more challenging where you’ve got some in the room and some on the zoom and you have to balance that out. But this, the ideas of trying to be engaging more clear and concise still remain.

Wow. Great questions and a great experience. Thanks again to all of you who joined us live and a big thank you to all of you who are listening in now. We are always excited to hear from you. We have several ideas of how we will connect and interact in the near future. For now, please register for our Think Fast Talk Smart the newsletter by going to Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And please invite your friends, family, and coworkers to listen in.

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