with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, I speak to Matt Abrahams, author of ‘Think Faster, Talk Smarter’ on managing your reputation before you enter a room, thinking on your feet, and getting to the point.

Matt is a leading expert in communication with decades of experience as an educator, author, podcast host, and coach.

As a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting. 

Matt is also a sought-after keynote speaker and communication consultant. He has helped countless presenters improve and hone their communication, including some who have delivered IPO road shows as well as TED, World Economic Forum, and Nobel Prize presentations. 

He is the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot and his previous book, Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting has helped thousands of people manage speaking anxiety and present more confidently and authentically.

In this episode we talk about:

✅  How you can actively build your reputation and make great first impressions

✅  Why you need to train for spontaneous, on-the-spot conversations

✅  What martial arts has taught him about managing his physiology when communicating effectively

✅  His 6 step method to think faster and talk smarter, and

✅  A fool-proof way to construct the perfect email.

Connecting with Matt Abrahams

You can connect with Matt via his website or LinkedIn.

Books and resources

Similar Episodes on Communication

“Tell the time, don't build the clock. Many of us are clock builders when we communicate, but if we can structure our messages to be concise and clear, we can be much better communicators in any situation.”

On employee development

  • Furthering employees’ careers by developing their talents and their skills is paramount to having a successful business and to attracting and retaining employees. So, education is a critical component of employment and every business, it's the way you are agile. It's the way you adapt and it's the way you adjust.
  • Many companies see training as a necessary evil. I don't believe it at all. In fact, I think education could be a proactive support. It can be a large part of why people come to a company, and stay at a company. And I learned a lot about how to exert influence when you don't have direct power in the circumstances.
  • When you are developing training and education globally for a company, you have to rely on the goodwill of a lot of people because you need subject matter experts, you need cultural and context matter experts. I learned a lot about how to collaborate, how to incentivise people that didn't directly report to me. 

On impression management

  • It is the totality of your presence that matters. So, when it comes to impression management, you need to think about the totality of how you show up, not just in the high stakes situations where you really curate your impressions, but in the everyday interactions. That's really important and it is the entirety of your impression that matters.
  • I challenge people in the workplace to really think about what the values you stand for are. How do you execute those values? How do you demonstrate those values? And that's what matters for impression management.
  • Take the time to check in with people to see if what you think your impression is jives with what theirs is. We are not the best judges of our communication or how we come off to others so finding trusted others who can give you insight and input is really important.
  • Reputation is the echo that enters the room before you do. And it ends when you leave.

On flow – what it is and how to harness it

  • Flow is all about when you get out of your own way. However, it's hard to live your life constantly in flow. I think the goal is to be able to get into flow when it's valuable and then to be out of it when it's not.
  • But the opposite is to be very aware of what's going on and very concerned about everything; to be in your head, judging and evaluating. And it's important to recognise the difference.
  • So the ability to move in and out is really important, but to recognise when you're in those states and what helped you get there is super important.
  • The problem with flow is when you want to get into flow, you get in the way of actually getting into flow. So you have to put yourself into a place where you can let go and then you can ease into it.
  • But it starts with something that you have to focus on and something that you find challenging, but not so challenging that you can't accomplish it.
  • It can simply be just being present, through meditation, through breathing, through doing something physical, where you're very present in what you're doing.

On what martial arts taught him

  • I began to learn the power of presence that is being in the moment, the ability to listen. To me, listening isn't just about what's said, it's how one is in the world and paying attention to that.
  • I've loved the life lessons I've learned in the karate studio. It's given me patience. It's helped me really be present. It's helped me understand the connection that we can have. It can become quite an inner journey. It's helped me stay calm in intense situations. And all of that has made me a better person, a better teacher, a better partner, a better friend. I find it very rewarding.

On why breathing can help communication

  • Breathing is a really important tool for all communication, not just to calm yourself down, but also to regulate your voice, to connect with people through pausing. So breath work is really, really important in communication.
  • You need to build vocal stamina. Most people aren't going to get up one day and just go run a marathon. They have to train first. You can't expect to speak for an hour without training first. So I encourage them to read out loud for 10, 15, 20 minutes a day just to build up that stamina so that they can actually be engaging the whole way through.

On what clients seek in him

  • The two main things I work most with people on are anxiety and anxiety management. It would surprise you who these people are – very senior leaders of very big international companies who still have some anxiety, especially around high stakes situations.
  • Everybody I work with I try to help them create an anxiety management plan. It's a series of three to five steps that you can take to help manage your anxiety.
  • The other big thing I work with people on is structure. I believe communication works best when there is a framework around it. Most people simply list and itemise what it is they're thinking. They take the audience on a journey of their discovery of what it is they want to say. And our brains are not meant for, nor are we good at, remembering lists and items. Rather, having a structure, a story, a beginning, a middle and an end, is really important. 

On how he gets into speaking mode

  • Three simple things: 
    • First, deep breathing helps me relax, helps make sure my voice is in the right place.
    • Next, I say a tongue twister three times fast before I go to present anything, it's a way of warming up my voice. Even though I speak all the time, many people think I don't need to warm up my voice, but if you've ever been an athlete, you know you should warm up. It also helps me get present oriented so that I'm not worried about all the things in the future.
    • The final thing I do is I remind myself that I have value to bring. Many of us can feel imposter syndrome that feels like we're not deserving of the interaction that we're having. So I remind myself that I was invited to be there.
  • Adrenaline is part of your body's fight or flight system. Most of us get nervous; it’s part of being human. So it's normal and natural. Adrenaline's function is to move you from threat to safety. So it's about movement. It's trying to get you to move. That's why we get shaky. So let's do what it's asking us to do. Let's move, but let's move with purpose. Move in a way that is consistent with what you're trying to accomplish rather than distracting or detracting people. Deep breathing can also help because it helps get you grounded.

On preparing to deliver content

  • There's some memory research that suggests that you should chunk content into a beginning, middle and end, and then you should practise those pieces separately and in different orders.
  • What it does for you is two things. One, it makes sure that you touch every part of the presentation when your mental focus is at its best, which is usually early on. Most of us worry most about how we start and we figure that once we get going, we'll figure out how to end. And then we get to the end and then wonder how to end it!
  • When you actually put it all together, it forces you to really think about how you connect. And those transitions between places make a huge difference. People who are really good at communication are able to connect the different pieces together so that it's very smooth. Those who aren't as good at it, it's very clunky instead of a nice bridge between sections.

On where people make mistakes in communication

  • The fundamental issue with communication is that you have to understand your audience. The biggest mistake people make is they think that their communication is all about what they want to say. Rather, it's about what the audience needs to hear. 
  • Too many people fixate on the words; and while words are important, it’s how you deliver those words, both in the quality and tone of your voice, but what you do with your body to see if it's congruent or not, and can be equally and sometimes more important. 
  • Sometimes we delude ourselves by fixating on crafting slides and choosing what fonts and colours. And while all that is important, we over-invest our effort there. And then we work against ourselves because we don't give ourselves enough time to practise. We don't check in with others to see if we're coming across the way we do. We’re so involved in what we're saying because of our knowledge and passion that we're not making it accessible to an audience.

On 6 steps to preparing for spontaneous speech

  • Most of our communication is not planned. It's not the presentation, the pitch, the meetings with agendas as leaders. We are constantly speaking in the moment, answering questions, giving feedback, introducing ourselves, fixing the mistakes we've made, making small talk.
  • All of those are what I call spontaneous speaking. And if we've ever had any training on communication, it is mostly in a planned way. Very rarely do we talk about how to speak in the moment.
  • The first four are all about mindset and approach. And then the last two steps are about messaging. How do I structure a message and focus it?
    • Step 1: “Think faster” and I don't mean the clock speed of your thoughts, I mean pattern recognition. What makes an athlete great at what they do is they are able to recognise patterns very quickly and based on those patterns, they can respond quickly. And so we can actually prepare to be spontaneous, like an athlete, who might do a whole series of drills so when they're in the game they can respond in the moment. 
    • Step 2: “Talk smarter” is all about just being more efficient and making sure your communication is clear, concise, and compelling.
    • Step 3: Anxiety Management. As we've already discussed, anxiety looms large in both planned and spontaneous speaking. We can learn to manage it. We have to change the way we see these situations. Many of us see them as threats, yet they could be opportunities. So that reframe is helpful.
    • Step 4: Listening. This is one that people find very counterintuitive, but much of the success you can have in communication comes from listening, not just to the words that are said, but how they're said, where they're said, when they're said. That can give you tremendous insight.
    • Step 5: Structure. We've already addressed it, but rather than listing information, how can you organise your thoughts coherently – start, middle, end.
    • Step 6: Get to the point. How can I make the information in the structure concise? Attention is the most precious commodity we have in the world today, so we not only need to get people's attention, but sustain it and get engagement. So be clear and concise. 

On 3 handy tricks to create structure

  • I call it the Swiss army knife of communication because you can use it in so many circumstances. It's three simple questions:
    • What? What is the information you're sharing? It could be your update, your feedback, your product, your service, your belief.
    • So what? Why is it important and relevant to the person or people you're talking to?
    • Now what? What comes next?
  • For example, if you’re writing an email, if the subject line is the “Now what” ie. what the action needs to be, and the body of the email is the “What”, then the “So what” all of a sudden becomes much easier to define.
  • A good structure does two things for you fundamentally. First thing it does is it makes it easy for your audience to understand you because it is clear, concise, and logical. The second thing it does is it helps you as the communicator to prioritise what you want to say. When I need to say something, I can say it in lots of ways, and this helps me prioritise.
  • Another structure that can be useful is: Me, We, Thee, We, Me.
  • So you start with some issue that's important to you. You then talk about how it applies to everybody. You then talk about what the deity or spirit or whatever you believe in says about it. Then how does that information speak to the congregation, and ultimately, how does it talk to you?

On getting to the point

  • What is the bottom line of what you want to say? And start there. Many of us start at the beginning and we build to what we're getting to.
  • So I say what's the bottom line, and force people to focus on that. What is the minimal number of words you need to use to get me to the bottom line? So I'm really helping people prioritise, but you have to anchor yourself at the bottom line. 
  • When it comes to getting other people to get to the point, I use paraphrasing. This is where you take some key element of what somebody else has said, you speak it back to them, and then you either ask a question or you connect it to something else and move them towards what you want them to discuss that is on the agenda, and then keep things moving.
  • What I have just done is interrupt you politely, because I'm saying what you just said was valuable. And then I ask you a question that requires a very specific answer.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • The best way to get good at communication or anything is three things: Repetition, Reflection, and Feedback.
  • You have to practise. You have to put in the reps. There's no shortcut.
  • You have to reflect that if we don't, we're subject to that definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So we have to take the time to reflect.
  • And then finally, we have to reach out to others. We are not the best judges of our communication; trusted others, loved ones have to give us feedback to help us.
  • I encourage everybody to work on their communication. I believe communication is operationalised leadership. If we don't work on it, there's no way we can meet our maximum potential as leaders and as people.

Deal hope,