Matt Abrahams, lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business has revealed tips to sound confident when put on the spot.
Speaking during an interview with McKinsey Global Publishing’s Eleni Kostopoulos, Abrahams takes a closer look at the pitfalls of spontaneous speaking and shares best practices for combating anxiety while perfecting the art of communication. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve been teaching and coaching communication skills for a long, long time. After my coaching sessions, many of my students and the people I coach have said, “This is great. I feel really good about preparing planned presentations where I have my slides and I practice. But I still struggle with the day-to-day, every-moment type of communication.”
If you think about it, most of our communication happens in a spontaneous way. We don’t have our deck and our practice materials. People ask us questions; they ask for our feedback. We have to sell our ideas in the moment. We make a mistake, and we have to recover.
That process made me think, “How do we shine better in that moment when we’re put on the spot?”
Did anything surprise you in the research, writing, or response?
I know many people have struggled with this. But when I tell people what the book is about, universally, people react, saying, “Oh, I need that.” People are able to recount for me very specific situations where they said, “I could have used it there. It really would have been helpful in this circumstance.”
I think the biggest surprise was just how ubiquitous the concern about effective communication is. While conducting research for the book, I learned so much. I have grown in my depth and appreciation of communication and spontaneous speaking. I have also realized the importance of structure and storytelling.
Why do people get so anxious when communicating spontaneously?
People become nervous for many reasons. More than 75 percent of people report being nervous in high-stakes communication, be it planned or spontaneous. Past experience could be a factor, as well as high stakes and the importance of the goals you’re trying to achieve. Those of us who study this at an academic level believe that nervousness is wired into being human. We see this across all cultures. We see it develop typically in the early teen years and progress from there.
There’s an evolutionary component to it. One of the most helpful tips is normalizing the anxiety that you feel. You’re not alone.
We all know people who are really good at speaking in the moment and at communicating in general. Chances are, they’re nervous, they practice, and they’ve had a lot of experience. It’s very rare that a person is not anxious.
What’s an ‘AMP’ and how can it help?
The first book I ever wrote is called Speaking Up without Freaking Out. It is completely focused on managing anxiety related to communication. After people learn the 50 anxiety management techniques that are based on academic science, I ask them to create their own anxiety management plan, an “AMP.”
I call it an AMP because anxiety can actually amp you up. It can be good for you as long as you can manage it. In an anxiety management plan, you identify three to five techniques that will help you manage your anxiety.
When managing anxiety, you need a two-pronged approach. You have to manage symptoms and sources. Symptoms are physiological—what goes on in our body and our mind. There are things we can do to address them, like taking a deep belly breath and gesturing more broadly and slowly to slow down our speaking rate.
We become nervous that the goal will not be achieved. If we can take our focus away from that potential negative future outcome, we can actually focus on the present and not worry about that goal.
There are also things we can do to manage the many sources of anxiety. One relates to the goal we’re trying to achieve. When we communicate, we want to communicate well. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve a specific goal. For example, my students want a good grade. The entrepreneurs I coach want funding. Your team might be concerned about the approval of your project.
Those are goals, and we become nervous that the goal will not be achieved. If we can take our focus away from that potential negative future outcome, we can actually focus on the present and not worry about that goal.
My anxiety management plan has three steps. The first thing I do is hold something cold in the palms of my hand before I speak. That cools me down. Secondly, I say tongue twisters to warm up my voice and also to get myself in the moment. Third, I remind myself, “I am in service of my audience. I am here to help them.” That really gets me other-focused rather than self-focused. That’s my anxiety management plan. I encourage everybody to find a plan that works for them.
Watch the full interview HERE