[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than two million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we show you the science of communication. Have you ever been afraid to speak, or present? Are you afraid about not having the skills, or tools to communicate your ideas to the world? We dig into the science and strategies of mastering skills, like speaking and presenting, crushing the anxiety that often accompanies these high-stakes moments and share evidence-based strategies for becoming a master communicator with our guest, Matt Abrahams.
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In our previous episode, we discussed happiness. Can the pursuit of happiness backfire? Why are people more depressed and anxious than ever in a time when the world is physically safer and healthier than it's ever been in history? We looked at the crisis of meaning in our society and examined how we can cultivate real meaning in our lives beyond ourselves and move towards an existence of purpose with our guest, Emily Esfahani Smith.
Now for our interview with Matt.
[0:02:45.6] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Matt Abrahams. Matt is a professor of strategic communication for Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. He's the co-founder of BoldEcho Communication Solutions and the author of the book Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. His videos and training techniques have been viewed tens of millions of times on TEDx and much more.
Matt, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:08.8] MA: Really happy to be here with you, Matt.
[0:03:10.7] MB: Well, we're super excited to have you on the show. Obviously, your name is great and I think that you've got some really cool stuff to share with the audience that we can dig into.
[0:03:17.7] MA: Excellent. Looking forward to it.
[0:03:19.3] MB: To start out with – I'm curious and I think you share this. It was in I think one of your TED Talks that you got into this whole world of how we can communicate with each other more effectively through speech debate when you were much younger in your life. I'd love to hear that story and hear your involvement, because I was a debater for a number of years in high school, and so I always like to connect and hear people's stories from being in speech and debate and that kind of thing.
[0:03:41.9] MA: Well happy to share this story, although it's quite embarrassing. I was a reluctant participant in speech and debate. As a high school freshman, my English teacher had us all stand up and introduce ourselves at the first day of class. Because my last name is Abrahams, I went first. After I introduced myself, he came up and said, “This talking thing seems to work for you. I need you to go to this speech tournament.” I had no idea what he was talking about.
I had a week to put together a speech. He said, “Do it on something you're passionate about.” I was at the time and still I am very passionate about martial arts. I did a speech on karate. I show up one cold Saturday morning and in a suit that was too short and too tight. I was so nervous to give this speech that I forgot to put on my special karate pants. Any of you who have done martial arts know that they're pants that have a little extra room, so you can move around.
I started my presentation with a karate kick, because I was told do something to get your audience's attention. Matt, I'm sure you can tell where this is going, I ripped my pants doing this karate kick in the first 10 seconds of my 10-minute talk. At that moment, I just learned the impact of anxiety on communication. Few people have angular moments in their life that set them on a trajectory, but upon reflection that moment really set my passion for figuring out the role of confidence in speaking and what it means to come off as authentic and be a really engaging communicator. Speech and debate is something I continue doing after that moment, mostly to prove to myself that I could do it. It definitely affected my entire life and career.
[0:05:20.0] MB: I want to dig into this. I know you've got some incredible strategies and tactics that you've researched yourselves and uncovered in the science and the data. Before we get too deep down the rabbit hole, I'd love to start with the question that you accidentally uncovered with your karate kick. How does the –
[0:05:36.8] MA: Physically uncovered too. Yes.
[0:05:38.3] MB: That's right. Yeah, there you go. How does anxiety prevent us from being the best communicators that we could be?
[0:05:45.8] MA: There are two ways in which it affects us. First and foremost, if you have ever watched a nervous communicator communicate, you as an audience member feel nervous and uncomfortable yourself. Because of that, it prevents you from actually connecting and remembering and engaging with the speaker. One form of impact is on the audience. The other form is that because of our increased self-awareness, because of the distraction of the physiological symptoms that result, it doesn't allow us to be our true selves to be able to communicate fully and be completely involved and engaged. Both sides of that equation, its effects on us, as well as effects on our audience really, really hamper us from sharing our ideas, telling our stories and really being present with others.
[0:06:35.5] MB: I think it's really interesting that you bring the component of the audience into this equation, because a lot of people, especially those who fear speaking, or don't have a lot of confidence in when they're giving, even in small situations like presentations, or meetings, etc., focus solely on their own experience. When in reality, it's a two-way street. I know that's another thing you talk about deeper into this as well.
[0:06:58.8] MA: Yeah. To me, a foundational tenant of all effective communication is being audience-centric. Your job is to be in service of the needs of your audience; be it the presentation audience, those in a meeting, or even in an interpersonal conversation. My mind is always thinking about the impact of this stuff on the audience. If and when you and I get into discussing techniques for managing anxiety, we'll talk about some things you can do to change your relationship with the audience so that it can help you feel more comfortable and confident when you present.
[0:07:31.4] MB: Well, let's come back to – before we dig into some of the techniques and strategies, I want to talk about where this anxiety is coming from and why so many people have fear, or get anxious around speaking and communicating across a myriad of circumstances throughout our lives.
[0:07:48.5] MA: Yeah. I and other researchers fully believe that this is built in. It's hardwired. We see anxiety and communication across culture, and typically across age range. This is something that is ubiquitous and a part of the human condition. That leads us to think there's something biological in our evolutionary history, and I happen to affiliate with the camp that says really what's at stake whenever you communicate in a high-stakes situation is your status. I'm not talking about who drives the fanciest car, who gets the most likes on a post. What I'm talking about is from an evolutionary perspective, thousands of years ago, your relative status to others in the group associated with, meant everything.
It meant your access to resources, to food, to shelter, to reproduction. In anything you did that put your status at risk was literally life threatening. Communicating in front of others can be very risky in terms of your status. That is why I and other academics believe that we feel this anxiety that comes up in interpersonal situations, performance situations, testing situations, it's all from that risking of status.
[0:09:04.8] MB: It's funny, the very first episode that we ever did of Science of Success is called the biological limits of the human mind, and we talked about how evolution has in many cases baked in these behaviors and shortcuts, which often work out really well and have a survival benefit, but in modern society can typically or frequently short-circuit in ways that we couldn't really predict or imagine.
[0:09:27.8] MA: I think that's happening to us when it comes to this anxiety around speaking. Now certainly being aware of your situation, being aware of the significance of what your communication and interactions might mean in the short-term and long-term, that does have advantages to us still to this day. Because it is so significant, this risking of status, it puts us in a situation that doesn't necessarily fit with many of the situations we find ourselves in on a day-to-day basis.
[0:09:56.0] MB: Yeah. I think this is a great contextualized example of one particular avenue of how the brain can short-circuit and how these biological limits can hinder us, but there's actually a ton of science and research and strategies as well around how to combat that and ultimately become a more effective communicator.
[0:10:12.5] MA: Yes, there are.
[0:10:14.0] MB: Well, let's dig into a little bit more around some of these solutions for being a better communicator and specifically around dealing with the anxiety that comes from communicating.
[0:10:25.1] MA: Sure. From my perspective, there are two fundamental approaches you have to take managing anxiety. One is dealing with the symptoms that we experience; the physiological and cognitive symptoms. Then there's the actual sources of anxiety that make it worse. For example, many of us when we get nervous, we blush and perspire. That's because our core body temperature is increasing. When you feel under threat and that's what speaking in high-stakes situations is experienced as internally by your body; it's a threat, so the fight-or-flight response gets activated. When that happens, a whole bunch of neuro-hormones are released; cortisol, adrenaline, etc. What that does is it causes your body to get tense, if you're about to runaway or fight, getting tense is actually a good thing. That causes your blood pressure to increase. When that happens, your physical temperature goes up and that's what leads to blushing and to sweating.
A wonderful thing you could do, and this happens to me, my big symptom of anxiety is blushing. If you hold something cold in the palms of your hands before you speak in a high-stakes situation, you actually reduce your core body temperature. That reduces the sweating and the blushing. I ensure you and everybody listening, at some point in their life been cold and held warm coffee, or warm tea and felt how it warms them up, we're just using this in reverse to counteract a very normal symptomatic response to our anxiety around communication.
That's a symptomatic approach you can take to reducing one symptom. Now in terms of the sources of anxiety, there are many sources that exacerbate anxiety. For example, many of us when we are communicating, feel as if we are being evaluated by our audience. In fact, we are. A great way to manage this source of anxiety is in essence to distract your audience. Get them focused on something else, so they're not focused on you, and this gives you a little bit of a breather, gives you an opportunity to collect yourselves.
I'll give you an example of what I mean. In my coaching practice, I was fortunate to coach an executive who's doing very well in his career, but he keeps getting really nervous every time he presents. What we do is every time he gives a big presentation, he starts with either a video clip, or a poll, and the audience pays attention to that clip or that poll, giving him a little bit of a break to collect themselves. While they're distracted, which by the way is actually getting them more engaged with his content which is a good thing, he has that opportunity to collect his thoughts. When it comes to managing anxiety, you have to attack both the symptoms and the sources to help you feel better.
[0:13:06.4] MB: I think that's such a great distinction, and something that – I mean, I've interviewed and discussed and read tremendous amount about dealing with anxiety and dealing with fear. I don't think I've ever seen it so cleanly broken out into solving symptoms versus solving sources. I think that's a great framework.
[0:13:22.8] MA: Yeah. It helps a lot of people. The sources pieces tend to be a little more overwhelming for people. If you scaffold your anxiety management by starting with some of these symptoms, you begin to feel traction and feel as if you're getting a hang of managing your anxiety, and then you can begin to approach some of the sources, which are a little more complex to address.
Not only does it give you a wider variety of techniques you can use, it actually gives you a progression that can help you feel like you have more sense of an agency in this actual combating your anxiety.
[0:13:58.7] MB: Well, let's dig into, I think the holding something cold is a great example. I'd love to hear a few other strategies, maybe starting with the symptom bucket; how we can in real-time, we're about to give a speech, or we're doing something and we feel that anxiety creeping in, what are some of those things we can do to address those symptoms as they're coming on, or as they're happening?
[0:14:17.7] MA: Sure thing. Happy to share several with you. Several people when they get nervous, get a little shaky, and that's the adrenaline coursing through your body. If you do something that engages big muscles, you allow that adrenaline to dissipate. Most nervous speakers make themselves tight and small, and they hold that in so they actually shake more. If you were to start a presentation, or a meeting, by doing a big broad gesture of welcoming people, just say, “Welcome to the meeting, or I'm so excited you're here in my presentation,” and extend your arms wide and take a step towards your audience, you're engaging big muscles. By engaging those big muscles, the adrenalin dissipates and you stop shaking, and that can be really helpful.
Another thing people struggle with in terms of symptoms is they feel that their breath is short and that they end up speaking very quickly, because they're breathing quickly. Nothing works better than taking a deep calming breath, something you might do if you're taking yoga, or doing Tai Chi, or Qi Gong. That'll slow you down and slow down your heart rate, which many people when they get nervous can feel pounding in their chest.
Another thing that helps, a lot of nervous speakers speak so fast. There's this idea that if we speak faster, we'll get done sooner. If you gesture more slowly, you will actually slow down your speaking rate. It's very difficult for the brain, because of cognitive load to speak fast and gesture slow. We tend to sync those up. You'll notice people who speak quickly tend to gesture quickly. We can use that to our advantage and slow down our gesturing to slow down our speech rate. Those are just a few techniques that you can use to combat some of the symptoms that we experience.
[0:16:00.7] MB: That's great. That's really funny. I naturally speak very quickly, especially I think it's that exact nervous energy that wants to be done as quickly as possible. The act of slowing down my gestures I think is a great personal thing that I'm definitely going to implement.
[0:16:15.9] MB: Yeah, I think you'll see some change right away with that.
[0:16:19.0] MB: Let's flip to dealing with the sources, which I know can be a little bit more thorny and then get a little bit more complicated. What are some of the strategies, or things – you touched on one of them obviously, but some of the other techniques that you've seen and the science shows are some of the most effective ways to do that.
[0:16:36.8] MA: Sure. Let me share two with you. First, we've known for a long time that people who perform, get very nervous. Performance anxiety is something well-known in the literature. Any of your listeners, yourself included, Matt, if you've ever done any acting, singing, dancing, or played a sport, you know what this performance anxiety feels like, because in each one of those activities, there's a right way to do it.
If you're an actor, you have to speak your line in the right way, in the right place. If you're an athlete, you have to do what your sport requires at exactly the right time and the right way. Some sports even keep track of the errors and mistakes people make. We feel tremendous pressure in these performance situations. Now the problem is many of us take our communication as a performance, so we feel there's a right way to do it and we want to do it right.
The reality is in all my years of teaching and coaching, there is no right way to communicate. There’s certainly better and worse ways, but there is no one right way. We have to do what in the academic literature we call cognitive reframing. We have to reframe the speaking situation, not as a performance, but see it as something else. Research that I was involved with a long, long time ago in graduate school and some of my colleagues did research on is this notion of converting, speaking as performance to see it as a conversation.
Most people are not as anxious, or anxious at all when they're having a conversation. If you can see your communication is conversational, it will help you feel better. How do you do that? Well one, is if you're practicing a presentation, or for a meeting, practice it conversationally. Sit down at a coffee shop or with some friends and just talk it through. If you practice it as if it's a performance, you're just reinforcing that performance approach.
Another thing to do is to use conversational language. Nervous people distance themselves linguistically. They’re use words like, “One must consider,” instead of, “You should consider.” Use words like us, you, we, that's all conversational. Then finally, and this will resonate well with you Matt, I know based on what you do, asking questions. Questions are incredibly conversational. If you can use those techniques of practicing conversationally, using conversational language, using questions, you help yourself see you’re speaking as conversational, rather than performance. There's a long history of research saying not only does that make you as a communicator feel less nervous, but it also engages your audience more because we respond more to conversational approach. That's one source and one way to deal with it.
Another source has to do with our time orientation. When I was an undergraduate, I did some research in this notion of time orientation. What we know is what contributes to people's anxiety is their worry about potential negative future outcomes. In other words, we're worried about what could go wrong. The students I teach are worried they're not going to get an A, the entrepreneurs I coach are worried they're not going to get funding. If we can somehow get people not to be future-focused, and that is anxious, but help them be present-focused, they can then short-circuit that anxiety.
There are lots of ways to become present-oriented. Matt, you've probably seen athletes who before they do their sport listen to a song or a playlist. You’re doing something physical, walking around the building, shaking hands with people. I do a silly thing that helps me get present-oriented. I count backwards from 100 by a challenging number. Most recently I started it with 17s. Try counting backwards from a 100 by 17s and you have to be present-oriented to do that.
There are many sources of anxiety and there are things you can do. You can frame things from being a performance to conversation, you can change your time orientation from being future-oriented to being present-oriented, and those will help.
[0:20:41.2] MB: This week’s episode is brought to you by our partners at Brilliant. Brilliant is a math and science enrichment learning tool. You can learn concepts by solving fascinating challenging problems. Brilliant explores probability, computer science, machine learning, the physics of everyday life, complex Algebra and much more. They do this with addictive interactive experiences that are enjoyed by over 5 million students, professionals and enthusiasts around the world.
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[0:22:48.2] MB: One of the other strategies that I know you've talked about and written about is the idea of greeting your anxiety. I'd love to dig into that a little bit.
[0:22:56.6] MA: Thank you for asking that question. Many of your listeners are familiar with the notion of mindfulness. Mindfulness is so important for so many reasons. An anxiety management technique that comes from the study of mindfulness is this notion of greeting your anxiety ,rather than getting caught up in it.
Interestingly, many of us get nervous because we're nervous, and that sounds silly, but it's true. You've probably experienced this. If you're starting to get nervous about a communication, maybe you want to ask someone on a date, or maybe you have something important to say in a meeting and you start to feel your heart beat faster and the sweat on your brow and then you say, “Oh, my goodness. How did I get here? Why am i trying this? Why isn't it somebody else? I I'm not prepared.”
All of a sudden, you're spiraling out of control because your anxiety is carrying you away. We can stop that by simply invoking a mindfulness practice, which is greeting the emotion that we're feeling at the time, and give ourselves permission to experience it. We simply say, this is me feeling nervous. It makes sense that I'm nervous. I'm going to do something that's important to me, that's a consequence and significance. In so doing, you give yourself space, you give yourself a sense of agency and control over something that many get carried away from.
Mindfulness teaches us that this doesn't just work with anxiety. It works with any emotion. Applying this approach and giving yourself permission to experience the anxiety is really, really empowering.
[0:24:26.3] MB: I wanted to dig in it out and ask about that one specifically, because that's something that has worked really well for me. I think we've talked about that technique, or variations of that and in past interviews on the show, and that's something that personally I always have found cultivating that self-compassion and that permission to be anxious, or angry, or whatever in the given situation is a great way to break the loop of getting anxious, about being anxious, or angry about being angry, etc.
[0:24:52.8] MA: I like how you said that. It is breaking the loop. Part of the challenge I think is in what I find in my work is a lot of people don't talk about their anxiety around speaking. We end up feeling like we're the only ones who have it, which is absolutely not the case. In fact, 85% of people report being nervous in high stakes situations, so it's the rare person who doesn't feel nervous. Because we don't talk about it, because it's not something that we share, it's hard for us to give ourselves that permission and be compassionate with ourselves, because we feel we're broken, or it's wrong for us to feel it, because we don't think others have it. Just understanding that we're not alone allows us more permission to be kind to ourselves when it comes to dealing with our anxiety and communicating.
[0:25:37.6] MB: I want to go a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole and talk about some of the self-defeating beliefs that can often perpetuate, or exacerbate our anxiety.
[0:25:48.7] MA: There are many. One of them has to do with perfectionism and that's close to that notion of getting things right. People want their communication to be perfect, and they want the situation and the experience that the communication occurs in to be perfect. You get into that analysis paralysis phase, where you're thinking and so concerned about everything that it prevents you from actually doing anything.
I do a lot of work that is incorporating more and more from the world of improvisation. There are some really powerful learnings from improvisation that can help people who are nervous speakers, or working to become more confident speakers. One of the key tenants in improvisation is this notion of dare be dull. Everybody is striving for greatness. We all want to give that right answer, or say the right thing at the right time, and that perfectionism gets in the way.
If you just dare to be dull, do what needs to be done, say the piece that needs to be done, you actually by reducing the pressure you put on yourself increase the likelihood that you will actually say the perfect thing, or the better thing. One thing we have to work on is reducing that sense of perfectionism.
Another thing I would say, another self-defeating approach is a lot of us start in our communication by saying, “This is what I need to say.” We make it very specific to us. As I alluded to earlier, it's all about your audience. It's not what you want to say, it's what they need to hear. That sounds like verbal jujitsu, and I'm just moving words around, but in fact it's a foundationally, fundamentally different approach. If you make it about your audience and not about yourself, you get out of that self-defeating spiral of analyzing everything you're doing and evaluating everything you're doing, and you realize that you have something valuable to say to your audience and this act of communicating is helping them, and that really can change how you feel and the experience from the audience's perspective.
[0:27:49.1] MB: I loved the example from improv that you – I think you have a speech where you went through an exercise, and you point at things and say the wrong thing. Would you explain that to the audience, and for whatever reason –
[0:28:02.8] MA: It's a really fun exercise. It's called shout the wrong name. You can play this game anywhere. If your listeners are not familiar, improv is an approach to – it came out of the acting world, but it's really an approach to life. It typically is comprised of playing games, and these games have a deeper philosophical and life intended meaning. One game is called shout the wrong name, where you literally point at things, or look at things and you say anything, but what they're really called.
If you're sitting in a room and there's a window, you would point at the window and you would call it a cat, or you would call it ugly, or you would call it a fireplace. It's anything but what it is. I use this game to prove or show to people just how much we evaluate ourselves. After we play the game for a little bit, I ask people, I say, “What was that experience?” People say it's hard. I say, “Why is it hard?” Often, what comes up is people are judging the wrongness of the words they use.
They look at the window and they say it's a fireplace. Well, fireplaces are like windows, so that's not really good. I should have called it maybe an animal. They're doing all this judging and evaluating, which serves to stifle the actual being present in just doing what needs to be done. When people have that epiphany through that game, they really get this idea that we have to get out of our own way. We have to just allow to have come up what comes up.
Then we uncover other things in that game. People stockpile. When I describe the game, my immediate question afterwards is who knows the first five things they're going to say? [inaudible 0:29:39.3] almost everybody in the room raises their hand, because your brain is wired to help you. When there's a challenge, you want it to help you. Sometimes that help gets in the way of actually experiencing the moment. That shout the wrong game, name game is really fun, and I would encourage all of your listeners just to try it on their own and see what it brings up for them, but it's a lot of fun to play.
[0:30:01.4] MB: For whatever reason when I do that exercise, I just start laughing. My brain for some reason is like really funny to point at my speaker and call it a banana, or something. I don't know why, but it just makes me laugh. I think it's a great exercise, and I think as you said, it builds that muscle of breaking the pattern and forcing yourself to be present and be okay with imperfection.
[0:30:23.2] MA: It absolutely does. If any of your listeners are not in a place where they can do that, or feel that's a little challenging, you can do the same thing. I challenge all of you right now listening to fold your arms in front of your chest like you normally would. Now I ask you to do the same thing the opposite way. That experience that you just felt like, “Oh, my goodness, this feels weird and awkward and I can't believe it.” That's the same thing that comes from the activity of shout the wrong name, and it's the same thing that Matt and I are talking about that, that permission to give yourself freedom in your communication and in your actions.
[0:30:55.6] MB: Just to clarify, you're saying cross your arms one way and then cross them the other way?
[0:30:59.0] MA: Yeah, so fold your arms in front of your chest like you normally would. Let's say you're cold, or somebody said something that really challenges you. Now cross them the opposite way, so have the other hand on top.
[0:31:09.6] MB: I can't even – my brain is breaking when I'm trying to do this.
[0:31:12.7] MA: Exactly. That's how patterned we are, and that's what that activity, as well as the shout the wrong name activity is showing us is uncovering our patterns that we use in a day-to-day basis, the habits we have. Sometimes we have to change those habits into choices, so we can have a broader toolset to confront our communication or other opportunities in our lives.
[0:31:34.2] MB: What are some of the other lessons or strategies that you've discovered, or uncovered from improv comedy?
[0:31:41.2] MA: I'll share two with you. The first has to do with seeing communication as an opportunity. Often, we feel so threatened. Take a question-and-answer session, say you're interviewing for a job, or you've just given a presentation and your audience is now going to ask you questions; many of us feel very defensive in that situation. We have to protect our position. We have to defend the threat of the questions.
That puts us in a very different space, a very negative space, it affects our nonverbal presence, we tend to be tight and enclosed, it affects our responses, they tend to be short and curt and not detailed. What if you were to see those situations as opportunities? To see them actually as a place where you can expand, where you can help somebody else. That would change your entire approach. You would be more open, your answers would be more clear and in-depth and detailed. Improv teaches us that.
In fact, the most foundational principle in improvisation is yes and. This notion of somebody asks you something and you say yes to it and you move forward. That openness, that seeing the interaction as one of opportunity, not threat can profoundly change how we communicate and interact.
The second piece that comes from improv and this is going to sound strange to people, improv is actually a lot about structure. You think that's counterintuitive, because you think people are just making things up on the spot, and they are, but they're doing so within a defined set of rules, or practices. If you play an improv game like shout the wrong name, there's some rules to that game. Most improv activities have rules and boundaries, and those provide the structure.
A colleague of mine who I work with when I do some improv work, he likes to say that if you give children a blank field and just say go play, they'll play and they'll be creative. If you give them a jungle gym to play on, their creativity goes through the roof. The physical structure of the jungle gym invites more opportunities for them to be creative. The same thing is true with communication. Using structure helps you.
You've all heard people just ramble, hopefully I'm not doing that right now, but when you ramble, it's hard to pay attention as an audience. It gets confusing. If you provide information in a structured way, it helps your audience. Structure can help, as well as just adopting an opportunity mindset, rather than one of threat.
[0:34:09.3] MB: Great learning, and it's funny. I've toyed at the idea of actually taking improv classes. I have no desire to be a comedian or anything like that, but really just to force myself through the training of learning that communication skill set and being uncomfortable with it.
[0:34:25.2] MA: I cannot encourage you more Matt, to do that. Improvisation when taught right, is not about acting and performing and being on a stage. It's about exactly what you were talking about. In fact, in the classes I teach at the business school, as well as the consulting I do, the next step I often encourage people to consider is taking improvisation for exactly the reasons you highlighted. Do yourself a favor and try it. It's a lot of fun and will really help your confidence, as well as your ability to respond in the moment in your communication.
[0:34:55.7] MB: Confidence is a topic that I think is worth digging into. Is there a difference between the strategies that you've shared and talked about around decreasing anxiety, versus some of the strategies that you've seen, or the research shows for building confidence around speaking and communicating?
[0:35:12.7] MA: That's a really insightful question, and thank you for asking that. A lot of us, myself included most of the time conflate those two terms. In fact, they are a bit different. To me, confidence has several components. One of which is managed anxiety for sure, but additionally confidence has two other pieces. It has this notion of presence. A confident communicator is one who is immediately present with his or her audience. They're not the people who are going to start their slide presentation and get through it no matter what happens.
There's a level of meta awareness in confident speakers who adjust and adapt their communication to what's happening in the moment. That's what I mean by presence. Confident speakers are present when they're involved in their communication. Additionally, confident speakers convey emotion. I don't mean they're necessarily pounding their chests screaming, but there is an emotion in what they're saying. Confidence is about that allowing yourself to show emotion when you speak.
In doing so, by being – having that presence and by allowing emotion, you truly can be authentic, so there's a lot of connection between confidence and authenticity. Again, this is all predicated on managing your anxiety, but there are things that you can do to bolster your confidence once you've got anxiety under control.
[0:36:33.8] MB: What are some of those confidence building strategies?
[0:36:36.8] MA: Well, we've talked about a couple. One is having that audience-centric approach really being there for your audience. Another is to imagine yourself in conversation with your audience. I'll give you a very concrete example. Confident people adjust and adapt. One way to prepare yourself to adjust and adapt is rather than having a whole list of bullet points that you want to cover, or information on a slide, simply approach your communication as a series of questions that you want to answer.
If you were to look at my lecture notes when I lecture to my students, you'll see it's just a series of questions. When I am lecturing, I am answering the unasked questions of my students. In so doing, it puts me in a very different place. I'm very present, I'm using inclusive language, I am connective with my audience and all of that displays or comes across as being confident. Really thinking about how you relate to your audience demonstrates that confidence.
One last thing I'll mention about confidence; confidence is a balancing act between warmth and strength. Confident people have found a way to balance warmth, being open, being emotionally available, with demonstrating their competence, their knowledge area, what expertise they have, and that's something that we have to think about. A lot of us err, especially if we're younger, or newer in a position, err on the side of this strength where we like to pound our chest and share what we know, why we are justified in being in the interaction, or even in the room that we're in. That can be a mistake, so we need to make sure that we're constantly balancing our warmth and our strength in our interactions. Confident speakers have learned ways to do that.
[0:38:28.6] MB: How do we add more warmth to our speaking?
[0:38:31.6] MA: Yes. Some of it is linguistic; again, asking questions, inclusive language. Some of it is nonverbal, so nodding and staying open in our body posture, pausing. Paraphrasing is a wonderful warmth-enabling tools, so when somebody says something, you take what they say to validate it. It doesn't mean you repeat exactly the same words, but you comment on either the emotion, or the gist of the idea. Those are ways to show warmth to people.
It could also be pre-interaction work. If you have a big meeting tomorrow, you could write somebody in advance and say, “Hey, looking forward to it.” In fact Matt, you did that for me for this very podcast. A very nice e-mail came to me saying, “Looking forward to chatting with you.” That is signaling warmth before we ever connected. There are things you can do in the moment, as well as in advance, and certainly everybody knows if you do an interview, or have a nice interaction with somebody, sending a thank-you or a follow-up, all of those demonstrate your warmth to help others see that you really are a caring person.
[0:39:30.2] MB: That's a great toolkit. I think that's something that I've heard. The reason I was curious, I personally struggle with the warmth component. I think I've sometimes fall too far in the strength side, especially the show since we focus on science and evidence. Whenever I'm speaking, I'm always like, “These are the facts,” you know what I mean? I think, I want to add in a little bit more warmth to it.
[0:39:48.5] MA: What I have found, I work with many technologists, many scientists and it is about the facts and the stats and the data, but if any of the data, the facts, the stats the technology are having – think about the impacts and ramification they have. If you're saving trees, if you're saving time, if you're saving money, if you're saving lives, there's emotion there that you can tap into and that warmth can come from that piece of it. It doesn't have to be the science itself, but it could be the implications of the science where you can really demonstrate warmth and concern.
[0:40:17.9] MB: That makes a ton of sense. Thanks for the feedback. I want to come back to this strategy you talked about of using questions as the structure of the outline for your speaking. I think that's a really compelling strategy. As somebody who grew up in the world of speech and debate and that stuff, I have a similar approach, which is I can almost never give a speech word-for-word, or memorize the specific things. I can almost only talk off of talking points and which is the flip side of a question in some ways.
[0:40:46.6] MA: Yeah, I totally get where you're coming from. I'm very similar. In fact, I actively discourage people from memorizing. Memorizing feeds into that whole performance mindset we talked about a while back. I like using questions. Let me share with you a way that might help you and others. There is a structure that I am so passionate about. It is called the what, so what, now what structure.
I believe most of our communications can be fit into this structure and you'll notice all three of those are questions; what, so what, and now what? If you are answering a question, this is your life Matt, I know you ask questions, you answer questions. You can answer a question with that structure, though what is the answer, the so what is why it's important, and the now what is what you do with the answer that you were just given.
If you are giving feedback and somebody says, “What do you think about the podcast I just did?” The what is the feedback, the so what is why it is important to the person, and the now what is what you'd like them to do differently, or continue doing if it's positive feedback. Using a structure that's question-based, what, so what, now what, can be really helpful, because not only does it help you organize your thoughts, it makes it directly relevant to your audience, because the second point, the so what is all about the value to the audience, and it helps you be concise, because there's a beginning, a middle and an end. Using that question-based approach leverage through a structure can really transform the way people communicate. I in fact write my e-mails in that structure, and people tell me that my e-mails are much clearer than others they receive, simply because there's a structure to them.
[0:42:23.6] MB: I think that's a great mini-learning from this whole conversation is that we've been talking primarily about speaking, but communicating is especially in today's world, there's so many other avenues and venues, and a lot of these lessons could be applied to something like e-mail as well.
[0:42:37.7] MA: Yeah, I totally agree. Every quarter I teach, I'll have a student come up and say, “I just used this when I was writing a presentation, or writing an e-mail and it just blew my mind that I could apply these same practices to that type of communication.” Communication at the foundation is really all the same thing. It's transmission of meaning from one person to another. These techniques apply more or less to any form of communication. I encourage everybody to think about how you can use structure and see things as opportunities in written and spoken communication.
[0:43:11.9] MB: What, so what, now what structure in a funny way uncovers essentially the hidden narrative that we use for most of our podcast episodes, right? The first third of the episode is around what are these ideas and what is the science, and the second half is why does that matter, and then the third, or the latter half of the episode is typically how do you apply that to your own life? It's funny that without even consciously doing that, we've fallen into that narrative pattern.
[0:43:36.0] MA: The secret is out. Yes. It works well, right? You've gotten great response to your podcast. That approach, that structure is really intuitive and resonates with people, and it helps you as the people who create the podcast, so that's cool.
[0:43:49.1] MB: For listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas, tactic strategies that we've talked about today, and I think we've given them some piece of homework already, but what would be an action step, or a piece of homework that you would give them to put some of these ideas into practice?
[0:44:04.7] MA: There are a couple things that come to mind. First and foremost, like any skill you're trying to build like an athletic skill, or something, a language skill. It's all about repetition, reflection and feedback. You need to give yourself an opportunity to get the reps in. As many opportunities as you can, to communicate in the way you want to work on. If you want to work on presentations, find avenues to give presentations. For example, I'm a big fan of Toastmasters. If you haven't heard of Toastmasters, you should check them out. It's an organization dedicated just to giving people opportunities to practice.
Check out universities and community colleges who have courses on communication. Find venues to practice. If you're passionate about a particular hobby, or in some organization you belong to, a religious organization, a public service organization, get up and speak. It's all about the reps. Then take the time to reflect. At the end of any communication, a presentation, a meeting, even an interpersonal interaction, take just a moment or two and think about what worked and what didn't work.
There's that silly definition of insanity, where you do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. People do that with their communication. If you don't reflect on what worked and what didn't, you're likely to do the same thing again. I encourage my consulting clients, at the end of their meetings to dedicate two minutes to just say how did the communication in this meeting go, and what can we do better and differently next time. That reflection piece is critical.
Then finally, find a trusted other, a mentor, a colleague, a loved one, who can give you honest feedback. We are not the best judges of our own communication, because our communication isn't intended for us. It's intended for others. We need to have others let us know if we're hitting the mark or not. The homework is really around repetition, reflection and feedback, and take the opportunity to build your skills. Like any other skill, you can get much better at your communication.
[0:46:03.7] MB: For listeners who want to dig in, learn more be able to find you and your work online, what is the best place for them to go?
[0:46:10.6] MA: Yeah, thank you. I have several avenues people can explore. One, the book I've written, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out covers many of the concepts that we've talked about today. My consulting practice that I co-founded is boldecho.com. We want people to communicate boldly and have their messages echo long after they're gone. Then I curate a website that has a bunch of free resources that I've created in others, and it's called nofreakingspeaking.com. Those are three good avenues to continue the conversation about building confidence and compelling communication.
[0:46:45.9] MB: Well Matt, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing all of these practical strategies and tactics and it has been a great conversation and really enjoyed having you on here.
[0:46:55.1] MA: Thank you, Matt. It's been a fantastic talking to you and I've enjoyed listening to the podcast myself. Please keep up the good work.
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