ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
We all know the feeling of being asked to speak, or feeling like we should speak when we aren’t really expecting to. The boss suddenly wants your opinion in a big meeting, a colleague asks you to kick off a client dinner with a toast. You’re giving a prepared speech at a conference but then you have to take audience questions after. Some people have no problem addressing a crowd off-the-cuff.
For most of us though, it’s nerve wracking and incredibly hard to get right. There’s so much advice out there on how to give great presentations, but not nearly as much on how to talk well when we’re put on the spot.
Enter Matt Abrahams. He’s a lecturer at Stanford University and the host of the Think Fast Talk Smart podcast. He has a new book called Think Faster, Talk Smarter, and an HBR article titled “How to Shine When You’re Put On the Spot.” Hi Matt.
MATT ABRAHAMS: Hey Alison, it’s great to be with you.
ALISON BEARD: To start, can you give us a sense of just how important the ability to speak spontaneously is for leaders and managers? As I said, I think we focus a lot on public speaking and presentation skills, and practice those, but we don’t spend as much time on impromptu comments.
MATT ABRAHAMS: Absolutely. Spontaneous speaking is prevalent everywhere in our personal and professional lives, and as you said, most of us, if we spend any time working on our communication, it’s in a planned sense, when we’re writing our agendas for our meetings, or thinking about our slides and our structure for our presentations. But the reality is we are asked all the time to speak on the spot, answering questions, giving feedback, making small talk, we really do need to spend some time focusing on this type of communication.
ALISON BEARD: How did you get interested in this subject of spontaneous speaking?
MATT ABRAHAMS: So there are really three different streams that came together to lead me to be interested in this, one was from my own personal life. My last name is Abrahams, starting with A-B, I was always first in school, from elementary school through high school, I was always first. I knew where I would sit, and whenever the teacher had a question they always would go in alphabetical order, so I’ve been spontaneous speaking my entire life.
When I was at the business school, the deans came to me and said, “Matt, we have this big problem. Our students, some of the most brilliant young minds in the business world, are choking when they’re cold called by their professor.” You know the mean, evil, cold call, “What do you think?” And they had the answer, they just couldn’t get it formulated and out, and so the deans asked me, “Can you create some content?” And that’s what really got me into researching it.
And as I did more and more work I came to realize that third stream, which is when I would teach my communication classes, I realized just how deficient we were being in that we weren’t covering one of the most prevalent types of communication, that is spontaneous communication, it was all about planned communicating.
ALISON BEARD: So what do you see as the main differences between good prepared speaking and good spontaneous speaking?
MATT ABRAHAMS: Well, by definition, spontaneous speaking is happening in the moment, and we have to be able to adjust and adapt. So our communication has to be very agile, and it requires us to listen and be present in a very different way. When we’re planned, that is we have our agenda, we have our slides, we have a well-defined path we’re taking our audience on, or our meeting participants on. When you’re in the moment you have to adjust and adapt. I liken it to athletics and playing a sport, you need to be agile and adjust to what’s happening in the moment. You can’t just run the play as scripted, you have to adjust.
ALISON BEARD: I would imagine that anxiety plays a very big role here. There are people who just get nervous in those types of situations. So what advice do you have for how to calm those initial nerves, either when you’re thrust in the spotlight, like you just described, or you’re getting ready to go into an environment where you know you’re going to have to do a lot of this.
MATT ABRAHAMS: Anxiety looms large in all communication, yet there are things we can do to manage our anxiety. We can focus on two things: symptoms and sources. So the goal is to give us relief from each.
Symptoms are the things that we physiologically or psychologically experience. One of the best things you can do is to take some deep belly breaths, the kind you would do if you’ve ever done yoga or Tai Chi or Qi Gong, where you really fill your lower abdomen. And interestingly enough, it is the exhale that is more important than the inhale.
So the rule of thumb, or as I like to joke, the rule of lung, is to have your exhale be twice as long as your inhale. So if I take a three count in, I take a six count out. So if you are called upon in the midst of a virtual meeting, before you click unmute, take a deep belly breath or two. If you’re stepping into an environment, let’s say some kind of social mixer where you think small talk will happen, take a few deep belly breaths before you enter in the room.
But we can also address the sources of anxiety, and there are many of these. The one that looms large for many has to do with the goal we’re trying to achieve. Whenever we communicate we have a goal. So if I’m answering a question for you, I want to answer it well. If we’re making chitchat or small talk, I want it to progress, I want to avoid embarrassing myself. All of these goals are future oriented, that is I’m worried about a negative potential future outcome, so anything I can do that helps me be present oriented can help.
So for example, I can focus on your response. So if we’re involved in chit-chat, small talk, I can really focus on your response, be very present oriented. I might comment on something in the room that I notice if I am giving a toast or a tribute, again, focusing me on the present moment. So there are things we can do in the moment that help reduce the physiological psychological symptoms we have, as well as the sources that bring that anxiety around.
ALISON BEARD: And it does seem like the advice for prepared remarks is that you practice to relieve your anxiety, and this is a situation in which you can’t practice.
MATT ABRAHAMS: So in fact you can prepare yourself in many ways, like an athlete might do or a musician, where you can go through several drills. So if you anticipate having questions asked, you can get others, or imagine, or even use generative AI to craft questions for you that you can practice answering. The goal here is not to memorize answers, the goal is just to go through those practice rounds so that you feel more comfortable in the moment. So if you’re an athlete, you might dribble a soccer ball around cones, or a basketball around cones, to prepare yourself when you’re in a game with a competitor who you have to dribble around. So there is preparation you can do. That’s the irony of getting ready for spontaneous communication, is you can actually prepare to be in the moment and agile as the circumstance brings whatever it does to you.
ALISON BEARD: In thinking about this, I realize that the people who are truly best at this are, first, very quick thinkers, and second, have a great facility with language. They know lots of words, they know how to use them well. If you aren’t in either of those camps, how do you get really good at this if you don’t have those natural building blocks?
MATT ABRAHAMS: So I would agree that people who are able to adjust and adapt, that is to think quickly, people who have a good command of words and language, they have a little bit of an advantage, but I would argue that anybody can get better at this. So for example, there are things you can do to give yourself a little bit of time to think. In these circumstances we feel this incredible pressure to respond right away, but it’s okay to pause. Additionally, you could ask a clarifying question, that gives you a little bit of time. I am a huge fan of paraphrasing, so if somebody asks a question or asks for feedback, you can paraphrase what you’re hearing to give yourself a little bit of time and to demonstrate you really want to address the circumstance well by getting some clarification. So there are things you can do to build in some time to allow yourself to get composed and to think.
Now, when it comes to what you say, I am a huge fan of structure. Structure is absolutely critical, I believe, in all communication, but especially in these spontaneous types of communication. So if I know a particular pattern or a map for answering a question, or giving feedback, or making a toast, then the specific words I say I can actually focus on because I know the recipe that’s going to get me through the response I need.
ALISON BEARD: So give me some examples of those structures that you’re talking about.
MATT ABRAHAMS: I’ll start with my favorite structure of all time, and it’s a simple structure of three questions, what? So what? Now what? The what is your idea, your position, your service, your product, your belief, the so what is why is it important to your audience that you’re speaking to? What relevance does it have for them? And then finally, now what is what comes next? And here’s why I love what, so what, now what so much, you can use it in so many circumstances where you have to communicate spontaneously.
Let me give you a few examples. Imagine you ask me for some feedback. Well, the what is my feedback, the so what is why it’s important, and the now what is what I recommend you do differently. So we come out of a meeting, you say, “Matt, how’d that go?” I’m going to say, “Alison, you did a great job, except when you talked about the implementation plan, you spoke a little quickly and didn’t give as much detail as you did elsewhere.” That’s my what. The so what is, “When you speak quickly without detail, people think we’re not as prepared, so next time what I’d like for you to do is give these two specific examples and slow down a bit.” What, so what, now what. So I knew how I was going to give you the feedback, all I had to do was insert the information.
Similarly, if you’re writing a text, a Slack, or an email, the subject line is the now what, and then the what and the so what become the body of that email. So it can help in writing and in speaking. If you’re describing a product, what’s the product? Why is it important? Now, can I show you a demonstration? That’s again what, so what, now what.
ALISON BEARD: Okay, so let’s hear a few more structures, let’s say I’m trying to pitch my new line of women’s clothing.
MATT ABRAHAMS: Excellent, great, I have a wonderful structure, I believe, for quick pitching. So this is an elevator pitch, or executive summary, of your product. So you have a new line of women’s clothing, so here are the four sentence starters to get you going, what if you could, so that, for example, and that’s not all.
So listen to how I put those into work for this. What if you could wear something very comfortable that’s very practical, that allows you to feel good about yourself, yet doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, so that when you’re in a situation where you might have to be exercising or switching your outfit very quickly, you can do so very confidently. For example, imagine you have planned to do a group exercise class immediately following work, and you need to actually be able to switch quickly. This clothing, and this clothing brand, is for you. And that’s not all, it’s very stylish so that you feel confident and comfortable as you do the work that you do.
ALISON BEARD: Very good.
MATT ABRAHAMS: So the structure, see, just in the moment, you gave me a spontaneous opportunity to speak, and how did I do it? I relied on the structure. When you have to speak spontaneously you have two fundamental tasks, what to say and how to say it. The structure provides you the how to say it, so all I have to do is put the information into it, the what goes into the structure, and it becomes much easier.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, it’s like a shortcut. So let me ask you about that how, because I think there are also people who aren’t necessarily saying the most amazing things when they speak off the cuff, but they say them with such intonation or delivery that the audience is really left with a good impression, even though if you looked at a transcript of their words you would think, that doesn’t make sense, or that’s not intelligent. So is that another tactic? How do you get better at just sounding great?
MATT ABRAHAMS: Whenever you speak, what you say and how you say it are critical. And so you’ve got the content and the nonverbal presence and delivery component, and you do need to work on the delivery component. What you were just asking about is there are some people who have mastered the delivery component so that their intonation, their focus, their passion, makes it sound like what they’re saying is important, and then the content isn’t on par with that. We as communicators need to balance the two out, so we can absolutely work on our nonverbal presence. The single best way to do that is to practice and record yourself to see what others see. There is a perception gap between what we think we are doing when we communicate and what others see, and so we must watch ourselves, we must get feedback.
The reality is this, the only way to get good at communication is the same way we get good at anything else, repetition, reflection, and feedback. You’ve got to practice and get the reps in, you have to reflect what’s working, what’s not working, and then you have to get feedback from others to help. So we can balance out that difference between our nonverbal presence and delivery, and the content that we speak.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think that I’ve found, particularly with podcasting, my initial reaction coming from the print journalism world was to write out what I was going to say and try to read it word for word, but what I realized is that when people are hearing impromptu communication, they actually want to hear some filler words, they want to hear some pauses, they don’t want to hear you be perfect. So how do you encourage people to get more comfortable with stumbling, making mistakes, but actually sounding more natural?
MATT ABRAHAMS: This is a big challenge. We get in our own way when it comes to spontaneous speaking. This desire to do it right, or do it well, actually precludes the ability to actually do it well. It’s a simple cognitive load process here. So when I am speaking, if I am constantly judging everything I said, either against a script which I’ve created and deemed the right way to say it, or I’m just evaluating and judging and saying, is this the best way I can say it? We are using precious cognitive bandwidth to be evaluating and judging that, and that reduces the cognitive bandwidth we have to focus on what we’re actually saying. So one of the biggest tricks to becoming more confident speaking in the moment is to reduce that evaluation, dial it down. I’m not saying we should never think when we speak, that’s absolutely not the case, we need to. But some of us have that volume cranked up so high that it gets in the way.
I have the audacity, Alison, in front of my Stanford MBA students to say, “Strive for mediocrity.” And these MBA students have never heard that before. I mean, their jaws literally drop. And then I walk them through this argument that you are trying to do things so well that you’re actually hampering the ability to do it at all. So the whole saying that I tell my students is, “Strive for mediocrity so that you can achieve greatness.” When we take the pressure off of ourselves, when we focus on the present moment, when we remind ourselves that we have value to bring, when we remind ourselves that others just want to get this information and remove that pressure to do it right or do it well, we actually have the capacity to do it amazingly well. So this is a big issue you bring up, and we have to remind ourselves that we have value to bring, that we can actually provide insight to people in the moment, and it’s not about saying it exactly the right way every time.
ALISON BEARD: A lot of people struggle with talking too much when they’re put on the spot, right? They just jabber on and on and it leads to a terrible conversation and a terrible impression. And you advocate for more brevity, but how do you be brief without being unmemorable?
MATT ABRAHAMS: We have all listened to the person who rambles on and on, and in spontaneous speaking situations, like answering a question or giving feedback, for example, people are thinking about what they’re saying while they’re saying it, and that causes them to ramble on and on.
So I would suggest two ways to help focus our messages. One, really think about your audience in that moment and what’s most important to them. If you can make the content relevant and salient, it will help you focus and it will help your message be tighter, and because it’s more relevant, people will be more engaged with it.
Second, think about, in that moment, what’s the goal you’re trying to achieve? Whenever we communicate, we have goals, and a goal to me has three parts: information, emotion, and action. What do I want the person to know? And I prioritize that. What’s the most important thing for them to know right now given their needs? How do I want them to feel about it? We have known for a long, long time that emotion matters. Emotions get into our brain differently than information, it stays longer, and can motivate action more. So what’s that emotion?
And then finally, is there an action that I can clearly end with that I want somebody to do? If you can in that moment think about the needs of your audience and your goal, that helps you focus, so the information you say will be more precise and concise, and it will engage the audience more so, they’ll pay attention more to it. So training yourself to think about the audience and to think about your goal helps. How do you do that? Well, listen to a wonderful podcast like yours, and as somebody is speaking, pause it for a moment and think about, what’s the goal in this moment? What’s the goal of this question? What’s the goal of this answer? Think about when you walk into a room, who’s the audience here? What is it that’s important to them as part of this function or meeting? So by training yourself, you get faster at doing that, and therefore you can do it better when you’re put on the spot.
ALISON BEARD: You’ve talked about the importance of being in the moment, listening to what the other person is saying if it’s in interaction. A lot of people would say, but how do I listen carefully and then also think about what I’m going to say at the same time?
MATT ABRAHAMS: Yes, so I have a whole chapter in the book on listening, and I borrow from one of my colleagues, Collins Dobbs, this framework. Now he applies this framework to conflict and negotiation, but I love it, and it’s called pace, space, grace. When you are in a circumstance where you have to respond spontaneously, you really do have to listen in a different way. Imagine we’re coming out of a meeting, you ask me for some feedback, I hear, oh, she wants feedback, boom, and I start going into my feedback, my list of things that went well and didn’t go well.
But had I really listened carefully and closely by what I heard and what I saw, I might have come to a different conclusion. Maybe I noticed you went out of the back door of the meeting room instead of the front door you always go, maybe your tone was a little quieter and a little more delayed in your rate, and all of a sudden I notice what you really wanted in that moment wasn’t feedback, you wanted support, because you didn’t feel that meeting went well, but I missed it because I wasn’t listening detailed enough.
So what do I have to do? I first have to slow down, that’s the pace part, I have to slow myself down and really reflect on what’s going in the moment. We have this immediate desire to respond right away, slow down, pace. Give myself a little space, I have to take a little distance, maybe I have to move to a different environment that’s a little quieter or calmer. So it’s slow down, adjust the space, and then give yourself some grace, some permission to listen to that intuition that you have, while also listening to what the other person says. So in spontaneous communication we have to listen more intently, we have to listen differently, we have to listen deeper. We have to be challenging ourself the whole time we’re listening, what’s the key essence of what’s going on here? And that allows us to respond more appropriately and more effectively.
ALISON BEARD: And it sounds like by listening you mean things like paying attention to body language, reading the room that you’re in, et cetera, it’s not just taking in the words.
MATT ABRAHAMS: It’s not just the words taking in the words spoken, that’s correct. So listening to me is a much broader idea, it’s paying attention to the words, to the environment, to the context, and that’s hard for many of us. Most of us listen just enough to get the gist of what somebody’s saying, and then we begin to rehearse, to judge, to evaluate, and we miss the nuance that can make a huge difference in the situation.
ALISON BEARD: What advice do you give to people who start anxious, maybe calm themselves down, but then find themselves stumbling and then can’t rebound from that and get really flustered?
MATT ABRAHAMS: Yeah, so getting flustered in the moment or forgetting in the moment can be very challenging to people. I encourage people to have what I call a back pocket question, something that you’ve thought about in advance before you go into one of these spontaneous situations that you can ask. So if I get flustered in the moment, all I need is a little bit of time to collect myself. So could I pause and ask my audience, or the person I’m speaking to, a question that gets their focus on their answer, that gives me a little bit of space to collect my thoughts.
So when I teach, and for those of you who have taught before, sometimes you forget what you said. Did I say this in the previous class? I know I was thinking about it, did I say it yet. So what I’ll do in the midst of speaking, if I blank out or get a little flustered, is I’ll just pause and I’ll ask my students a question, and I’ll say something like this, I’ll say, “Let’s pause for a moment, and I’d like for you to think about how we could apply what I’ve just discussed to what you have coming up.” And my students don’t think, oh man, he’s flustered or he forgot, they think, wow, I can apply this, or I should apply this, let me think about it. So anybody can go into one of these spontaneous situations and have a back pocket question ready to go. So if you’re running a meeting and you get flustered or forget, you could simply say, “Hey, let’s pause, and I want you to think about how what we’re talking about now connects to what’s coming next in the agenda or what we just said,” and all you need is a moment or two to get yourself centered and back on track.
ALISON BEARD: Talk about some people that you have seen get better at this, through practice, through structure, through calming their nerves, and how it’s helped them in their careers.
MATT ABRAHAMS: In addition to teaching, I coach people as well, and I have countless examples I can give of people who have improved their communication and ability to speak in the moment. Let me highlight two for you. First is a woman who was a former student who came back to me to get some coaching, and she was running a business. It’s a small business, it’s a machinery business, they make parts for airplanes and high impact systems, and she was, in a very short amount of time, she became part of the senior leadership team ultimately running the company. And as she moved up in her role, she found herself having to speak more and more spontaneously, giving feedback, giving toasts, answering questions and this was uncomfortable for her.
And in the work that we did, we really worked on structures to help. We developed what I call an anxiety management plan for her, specific things she could do in advance of communicating and during her communication that would help reduce her nerves in that moment, and it really worked. So for her, it was all about confronting the anxiety she had, and then finding specific structures that would work to help her.
In another case there was an individual whose team was purchased, or acquired, by, the company was purchased or acquired by another company, and this person was on the transition team, and a tremendous number of questions were coming in about how is this going to work? What are we going to do? Are we going to lose people or time or priorities? And so this person was constantly on the spot to respond in an agile, calm way, because people were listening not just for the answers, but how the person answered.
And so what we did is we worked on practicing, and we practiced certain scenarios and situations. We came up with ways to buy him time to process what he needed to process before responding. He became an expert in paraphrasing the questions that came in, and even more so combining questions together and listening for and commenting on common threads. So these are the things that we did to help, in both of these circumstances, for these individuals to feel more comfortable and confident, and they both were very successful in managing those situations.
ALISON BEARD: And do you think this is something that you do need to get really good at to become a senior leader?
MATT ABRAHAMS: I think all senior leaders will tell you that there are times where they have to speak spontaneously, and I think working on this will help. And if nothing else, it gives you a confidence that allows you to approach people and situations in a way that can help such that you don’t have to worry about it and you know, in the moment, I can respond if needed.
ALISON BEARD: I’m going to end by asking you for an example of a structure you would use for a toast, because I think that that’s something that people think, oh, I have to say something really great about a colleague, or a friend, or even my boss, and I want to do it right, but it’s really hard. So give me an example of me giving a toast to my longtime boss.
MATT ABRAHAMS: Excellent, toast and tributes are some of the most frequent, spontaneous speaking events that people do. We all have witnessed and experienced really bad toasts and tributes, they go on too long, they’re too specific, they’re available only to certain people with inside knowledge, people talk more about themselves than the thing they’re giving a tribute to, or the person they’re toasting, so yes, this is fraught with challenges.
I have a structure, it’s called what, W-H-A-T. So you start by why are we here? You identify the circumstance you’re here. Now in some situations you don’t need to do that. If you’re at a wedding you don’t have to say, we’re here at a wedding, right? Everybody gets that.
So you start by explaining, why are we here? You then explain how you’re connected to this particular event. Now, if you’re the manager of the team you don’t have to say, “I’m the manager,” right? But if you’re at a wedding you might say, “And I’ve known the bride for 20 years.” You then give anecdotes. That’s the A. These anecdotes are short, accessible to everyone, appropriate for the situation. And then finally, you toast, or thank, the audience or the person or people involved. So you start by saying, why are we here? How are you connected? Give an anecdote or two, and then give some kind of toast or express thanks.
In following this structure, your toast will be relevant, it’ll be clear and concise and appropriate. The way I like to look at toasts is not as a chore, not as a challenge, but as a gift. You’re giving a gift to the person and to the audience, and when you approach it that way, because so much of spontaneous speaking is mindset, if you approach it as a gift, leveraging a structure, you will give one that is truly well received and appreciated.
ALISON BEARD: Well, all of this advice has certainly helped me, and I hope it helps our audience too. Thanks so much for being with me, Matt.
MATT ABRAHAMS: Thank you, and I appreciate the opportunity to chat.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Stanford University professor and podcast host, Matt Abrahams. That’s Stanford University lecturer, lecturer. That’s Stanford University lecturer and podcast host, Matt Abrahams. He wrote the book Think Faster, Talk Smarter, and the HBR article “How to Shine When You’re Put on the Spot.”
We have more episodes and more podcast to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org podcasts, or search HBR. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen. This episode was produced by Mary Dew, we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt, Ian Fox is our audio product manager, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast, I’m Alison Beard.