Listen, and learn how to overcome your speaking anxiety in this talk with our guest Matt Abrahams, Lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Business & Podcast Host of Think Fast Talk Smart. We talk about speaking anxiety sources & solutions, presentation structure: What? - So What? - Now What?, techniques to handle the fear of forgetting, and creating your anxiety management plan.
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Note: Podcast transcription edited to improve readability.
Desiree Timmermans 00:07
Welcome to the podcast Help to Grow Talk, where we talk about growing your communication skills. How can you better communicate and change the way you live, work, interact with others, and help make the world a better place?
Matt Abrahams 00:21
“The number one fear people report to me when it comes to speaking anxiety is that they are afraid of forgetting.”
Desiree Timmermans 00:30
You just listened to our first podcast guest Matt Abrahams. Matt is a lecturer at Stanford University, Graduate School of Business, and host of the communications podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart. In this episode, Matt and I talk about anxiety and the communication techniques that help you to overcome it. My name is Desiree Timmermans, podcast host at Help To Grow Talk. Let's kick off the podcast.
Desiree Timmermans 00:55
Matt, thanks for joining, and welcome as the first guest to kick off this podcast. Anxiety often prevents us from feeling confident to communicate and present. The good news is that in your book, Speaking Up without Freaking Out, you provide 50 techniques for confident and compelling presenting. So, Matt, my question to you is, what are common anxiety sources and solutions?
Matt Abrahams 01:27
Well, first, thank you for having me on your podcast. It is an honor to be here and an honor to be your first guest.
Desiree Timmermans 01:34
Well, you are welcome.
Matt Abrahams 01:35
Thank you. You are exactly right. Anxiety is something that looms large in many of us in our communication. High-stakes communication makes many people nervous. And really, there are lots of symptoms and sources of that anxiety. So, many of us, because speaking in front of others is a threat, respond with our fight or flight response. Our heart beats faster, we perspire, we shake. All of that is normal and natural. Additionally, there are some sources that initiate and exacerbate this anxiety. For example, many of us strive to do our best we want to do it right. And unfortunately, there is no right way to communicate; there are better and worse ways, but no one right way. We need to remove that pressure we put on ourselves. Others of us are made nervous because we are afraid of the goal we are trying to achieve. When I speak, I want you to understand it. If you are a student, you want to get good grades. If you are an entrepreneur, you want to get funding. All of those are future state outcomes. What is making us nervous is being afraid of the future. So, symptoms and sources are at the heart of our anxiety. And the great thing is, there are some things we can do to manage them.
Desiree Timmermans 02:51
So, tell us, what kind of techniques do we have available?
Matt Abrahams 02:54
I will try to be as efficient as I can. When managing symptoms, there are some things we can do to reduce the physiological responses we feel. First and foremost, the most important thing is to take a deep belly breath—the kind of breath when you do yoga or tai chi—really filling your lower abdomen. Low and slow is the mantra. And interestingly, it is not so much the inhale. It is the exhale that is important. I also have a podcast, and I enjoy doing that very much. I interviewed a very well-known neuroscientist. And, as part of that conversation, he shared that the exhale is what is most important. The rule of thumb, or shall I say the rule of lung, is that you want your inhale to be twice as long as your exhale: if I take a three-count, a six-count out. So, that will help with the rapid heart rate, the rapid speaking, the wispy breath. If you do some big broad movements, like stepping toward your audience or gesturing broadly, that will reduce the shakiness. The shakiness comes from the adrenaline coursing through your body. And the adrenaline's job is to move us. It wants to move us out of harm's way. So if we actually collect that movement in a purposeful way, it reduces the shakiness. And in many cases, stepping toward your audience with big, broad gestures makes you look confident. And then the last thing I will share in terms of symptoms is that our blood pressure goes up when we are nervous: we pump more blood, our heart's beating faster, and our muscles constrict. So, we are pumping more blood through tighter tubes, and we get hotter. It is like when you exercise. We have to cool ourselves down to reduce the sweating and the blushing. And I have found what works best is to hold something cold in the palms of your hands. The palms of your hand, just like your forehead or the back of your neck, are thermo-regulators. Before I speak, whenever I speak, I will always hold a cold glass of water in my hand. Those are ways to manage symptoms.
Desiree Timmermans 04:49
So, you have to take care of yourself. It is also with food, a good night's sleep, and exercise.
Matt Abrahams 04:55
I call that hygiene. You know, just like if you are an athlete before you do an event: you would eat well, sleep well, and do a little stretching and exercise. The same thing applies to speaking: we should eat well before and sleep well. Many people will eat sugar or drink caffeine because they want that energy or didn't sleep well the night before. And that actually works against you. So everything you said, that is exactly right, treat your body well, and it will treat you well when you speak. Now, if I may, there are some things we can do for the sources as well. If you are so afraid of not doing it right, you want to do it right so badly: we need to reframe that. Instead of seeing it as doing it right, we need to see our speaking rather as a conversation. Most of us, when we have conversations, don't put the same pressure on ourselves that we do when we are giving a formal presentation or a meeting contribution. So instead of seeing it as a performance, where there is a right way to do it, see it as a conversation. And you can do that by using conversational language and asking questions. Questions or conversations if you think about it. That is one way. And then the other way to combat that fear of the goal not being achieved, that future state, is to become present-oriented. And you can do that by doing something physical, taking a walk around the building, you could do that by talking to people in advance, and getting very focused on what you are saying. You can do that by listening to a song or a playlist like athletes do. Anything that brings you into the present moment will cancel out those concerns about the future consequences. So, those are ways of dealing with symptoms and sources. You were kind enough to mention my book. In the book, we list many, many more. The idea is that I want everybody to know there are things that you can do to reduce your anxiety and enhance your confidence.
Desiree Timmermans 06:40
Which is why I mentioned it is the good news. And I actually really liked the title of your book.
Matt Abrahams 06:47
Thank you. And the pandemic forced us all to communicate in a very rigid way. And that only brought anxiety to people. And the good news is that we can do things about it.
Desiree Timmermans 06:56
And do you see a difference in face-to-face presenting or with video and audio?
Matt Abrahams 07:01
I am old enough to remember when we used to fantasize about having just video like: I could give a presentation, and nobody will be in front of me. Wouldn't that be great? Well, we got that wish. Most people are more nervous presenting virtually because you don't have that immediate feedback. You don't know if what you are saying is landing. It makes it very challenging for a speaker when they don't have that. And on top of that, the tools we use give us all these features, which are wonderful, but it distracts your attention. I have to monitor the chat, see if anybody's raising their virtual hand, and check out people's videos. We are actually overloading ourselves. It makes our anxiety go up. That said, you can learn to manage it as well. But it is not the panacea we all thought it was going to be for sure.
Desiree Timmermans 07:44
And how can we better handle that: just keep it super simple and one message at a time?
Matt Abrahams 07:50
I think the message is very important. And I hope we have a chance to talk about messaging in our conversation. So, I do think less is more when it comes to messaging and anxiety in many cases. Often what is great is to just reduce the amount of distractions that you have. Don't use all the features. Just use one or two, or better yet, have a partner whose job is to monitor the chat and who is raising their hand. And then, they can either step in and talk to you directly as part of your meeting or presentation. Or they can send you the messages through one channel, so you can see it and say okay. So, I do think there are things we can do to reduce that burden on us. Also, when you are virtual, you have to be more engaging; you have to do things to make sure people are paying attention. You have to take polls, get people typing into the chat, and ask questions, so you can get that feedback that you are sorely missing when you don't have it. So yes, there are some things you can do. I don't know that it is just simplify. I think that is part of a larger strategy.
Desiree Timmermans 08:46
I did read your book, and I saw the video. And in there, you mentioned a kind of structuring your presentation, which is, of course, really important. First, we have the objective, which is important, but structuring is also very nice. And then you said in your video: What? So What? Now What? Can you tell us a bit more about this structure for presentations?
Matt Abrahams 09:07
I am a huge fan of structure. Structure is what can really help you with your anxiety, and it can also help your audience. We have all suffered through people who just ramble on or give us bullet points on slides. Our brains are wired to receive structured information. I was fortunate enough to interview other neuroscientists who shared the fact that when you give a structured message - a story, if you will, something that logically connects your ideas - you activate fewer brain systems. It makes it easier for your brain to process the information. When somebody rambles on, and your brain lights up because it is trying to figure all that out. And that is very taxing. So, if you structure it, it is easier for people to receive that information. And by the way, it makes it easier for you to remember your message. And as you say, many structures. My favorite is the one you mentioned: What? So What? Now What? In much of our communication, this can help us. Let me explain how it works. ‘What?’ is the idea you are communicating. Maybe it is your product, your service. It is what you are trying to let people know about. ‘So What?’ is why is it important to the person that you are talking to? We have known for a long time that if a message is relevant, people will pay more attention to it. If I can explain why what I am saying is relevant for you, you are more likely to pay attention and remember it. And then the ‘Now What?’ is what comes next? Maybe it is: let me show you an example, or let's set up another meeting or sign on the bottom line, or what questions do you have? So, it has momentum - it's not just me talking - it then invites some next action. What? So What? Now What? is a great way to communicate information. I have a smirk on my face because I just gave you an example of it. I just used ‘What? So What? Now What?’ to teach you ‘What? So What? Now What?’. I told you what it was, why it is important, and how you could use it. It is a great way for answering questions and packaging up information. Now, of course, you have to practice it. It doesn't always come naturally. And here is the benefit for anxiety. The number one fear people report to me when it comes to speaking anxiety is they are afraid of forgetting.
Desiree Timmermans 11:21
That is also what if have.
Matt Abrahams 11:22
Yeah, you are normal, you are human. All of us do. But if you know a structure, then you are less likely to forget. I like to say it is like having a map. If you have a map, it is hard to get lost. The structure is your map. If I am talking to you, and I have just told you the ‘What?’ and I blank out, I can say: 'oh yeah, ‘What?’ is always followed by ‘So What?' It is my way of getting back on track. It helps you think and structure your content, and it helps you remember your content. I am a huge fan of structure. And I love that you saw the What? So What? Now What? strategy, it is my favorite.
Desiree Timmermans 11:52
And it is also funny that when you are lost for words and have to think about your framework, it is really: What? So What? Now What?
Matt Abrahams 12:01
That is exactly right. That is part of why I like it so readily available to people. And it is just three simple questions. And if you answer those three questions, you got your structure. Thank you for letting me share about that. I am very passionate about that structure.
Desiree Timmermans 12:13
I think it is very interesting and helpful. And besides structure, what else can help us? Because I often fear that really, I am lost for words. So, what I do is I prepare it, and I have a kind of framework. And when I forget something, I go back, but I noticed that you have some tricks. When you are really lost for words, for instance, you ask the audience to pause or… You can better tell, tell us what do you do?
Matt Abrahams 12:42
Yes. Let me take a moment to give some suggestions about the fear of forgetting because it is the number one fear. First and foremost, I asked people to rationalize the fear. Fear is an emotion, and it is not always rational. So, I always ask people to do this: for your next upcoming communication - whatever it is, be honest with yourself-: what is the real likelihood that you will forget, 100% to 0%? And most people will say the likelihood of me forgetting is maybe around 20-25%, at the most. And I always remind people, if that means 75 to 80% of the time, you are going to remember. And if I were a betting person, I would take those odds. Those are pretty good for me. Second, I ask people to think about; if you were to forget the worst happens and you do blank out, what is the worst thing that would happen? Well, you be embarrassed. It would be incredibly awkward and maybe, in some ways, limiting to you in the future. But then I immediately asked people, have you ever in your life been embarrassed, done something to make people feel awkward, and maybe had some limitations as a result? All human beings can answer that question: yes, we have all done that in our lives and survived. The rationalization part helps us realize that it is not as likely as we are afraid of it. And, in fact, if it does happen, it is not the end of the world. So, just knowing that reduces the likelihood you are going to blank out because you feel a little better about it. That is number one. Number two, having a structure will reduce the likelihood of blanking out. We just talked about that. If you do blank out, I have two bits of advice. One, do what you do if you lose your keys or phone: retrace your steps, go back to go forward. Many of us in our communication we repeat ourselves, and repeating yourself helps you get back on track, and it is not too uncomfortable for your audience. So that is recommendation number one. Number two is exactly what you alluded to: you need to buy yourself a little time. And a great way to buy yourself time is to distract your audience. So I love asking a question. I am going to let you and all of your listeners in on a little secret. If you were to see me teach my Stanford MBAs and you were ever to hear me say the following: "I would like to pause for a moment to have you think about how what we have just discussed applies to your life." If you hear me say that, it means I have totally forgotten what I need to say next.
Desiree Timmermans 14:57
That is really honest, Matt.
Matt Abrahams 14:59
Well, I am being honest with you. But my students don't know that. They think: oh, he just wants me to think about how important this is. And I do, but it gives me that little space to collect my thoughts. What happens when we do blank out? We panic. And when we panic, it doesn't help us think logically and clearly. We need to give ourselves a little space. So, all of your listeners, yourself included, I am sure can come up with a question that you could ask - in the middle of whatever your communication is - that makes sense. It might be let's pause for a second and think about how that applies to what we talked about in our last meeting. Or let's pause for a second and think about how what we have just discussed changes or is in alignment with our vision. And all you need is a few seconds to catch your breath. So, there are things you can do if you blank out. But the reality is, it is not that likely. And just knowing that reduces the likelihood of it happening.
Desiree Timmermans 15:46
Which is a good thing. There are techniques for us to handle that. And I saw in your book that you even give people 50 techniques.
Matt Abrahams 15:54
At least 50 techniques.
Desiree Timmermans 15:55
Which three of the other 50s are, at this moment for you, really important to share with our audience?
Matt Abrahams 16:02
My biggest goal for that book, and any work I do on anxiety, is for everybody to create their own anxiety management plan. Everybody is different. So, people respond differently. That is why the book has 50 techniques. I am happy if five to seven of those techniques work for people, because everybody is different. I will share my anxiety management plan with you. I have been doing this for years. First and foremost, I take deep belly breaths. We have already talked about that, and it really helps me. Second, what I do is: I remind myself that I am in service of my audience, that I have value to bring. Many of us feel very inadequate, impostor syndrome when it comes to speaking. And if we remind ourselves that there is a reason we are speaking - it is because of our job, our expertise, our knowledge - it becomes more about: 'what I can do for you?' rather than focusing on me. So by reminding myself that I have value, that really helps. And then the final thing I do - I will tell you, this is very silly - I actually say tongue twisters before I speak. In fact, before you and I started talking today, I actually said a tongue twister a couple of times. And I do this for two reasons. One, it brings me into the present moment. You can't say a tongue twister right, and not be in the present moment. And two, it warms up my voice. You know anybody listening in who is an athlete or a musician, you know that you should warm up before you start. Otherwise, you could get hurt or you won't be as nimble. Same thing with speaking. You know, most of us on a virtual meeting, we go from complete silence, we click join, and we start speaking. We should warm up first, and saying tongue twisters is a great way that I have found to warm myself up. So, that is my anxiety management plan. That and many other techniques are in the book.
Desiree Timmermans 17:43
And what is the tongue twister?
Matt Abrahams 17.45
Okay, everybody, listen. Here is why I like it: it is short, and if you say it incorrectly, you say a naughty word. So, here we go. My favorite tongue twister is: I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit, and on that slitted sheet, I sit. And I can completely imagine that you know what the naughty word is if you say it incorrectly.
Desiree Timmermans 18:07
Yes, definitely. When you go out walking with the dog.
Matt Abrahams 18:11
Yes, exactly. That's the best way I've heard anybody say it. So again, the whole goal is just to get present oriented and to warm up your voice.
Desiree Timmermans 18:18
Well, the one I liked was when you say: you can warm up your voice by saying teacup, hiccup, teacup, hiccup.
Matt Abrahams 18:27
That is right. That is very true. If you think about the following words: when you say teacup, where do you say it? You say it in the front of your mouth: teacup. And when you say hiccup: you say hiccup in the back of your mouth. So, by doing teacup, hiccup, teacup, hiccup, you warm up your voice. It also helps you become more in touch with your breathing and how you can emphasize certain words. I use that as a technique to teach people how they can actually feel, understand their breath, and how they can use their voice more effectively. It is a great technique.
Desiree Timmermans 18:57
And for a lot of presentations, all these techniques help you also to relax and to make it a fun experience. Sometimes it is not possible, depending on the topic that you need to discuss. But I think for a lot of presentations, it really helps well.
Matt Abrahams 19:13
Absolutely. A lot of us are so serious when we communicate. And I am not saying that we shouldn't take communicating seriously. But if we give ourselves a little bit of space and allow ourselves to have some fun, it can be much more enjoyable for us and other people.
Desiree Timmermans 19:28
And Matt, you have done a lot of podcasts. If I look at our audience, they need a lot of communication techniques that they can easily practice. So, what would you recommend to them? Do you know a kind of book, or maybe a movie, or a podcast, or even an app? What would you recommend to them?
Matt Abrahams 19:45
I have several things to say. So, of course, I think my book Speaking Up without Freaking Out is very helpful. The podcast Think Fast Talk Smart is all about communication. In fact, we just released an episode talking about the impact of culture on communication. Lots have resources there. I firmly believe in coaching and classes. You can search for classes and coaching. I am a huge fan of Toastmasters, an international organization that helps people with their speaking. And there are some apps and tools, as you mentioned. I will share a couple of my favorites: one is called Orai, it is an app for your phone. You have to pay a little bit of money for it, but it can help you with your verbal and vocal presence. There is another one that is called ‘Say It Like So’. Many people say 'like' and 'so' as filler words, so this app helps you reduce those. It is called: Say It Like So. And perhaps my favorite, my newest favorite, is one that is called Poised: poised.com. The other two are on your phone. This one is actually a web tool that you bring up. And it is very rich and currently free and can be very helpful. So, the bottom line is there are several ways to continue to enhance your communication skills, through; books, podcasts, classes, coaching, and organizations like Toastmasters. And through apps and tools like Poised, that can really make a difference.
Desiree Timmermans 21:08
And you are talking about Toastmasters. It is a global organization, I understand, and they organize sessions around the world where you can practice your communication skills, or how does it work?
Matt Abrahams 21:20
Yes, so I am a former Toastmasters. I am no longer a member, but I actually speak and write for them. They are all over the world. If you go to toastmasters.org and type in where you live, you will find them all over the place. They're very reasonably priced. They have weekly meetings; each meeting is roughly an hour. And the meetings are divided into similar structures, no matter where you go. There are opportunities to speak because the best way to get good at something is to do it. They do both planned speaking, where you prepare a presentation, and then they also do spontaneous speaking. And that can be really helpful as well. And then, occasionally, they bring in people who know a lot about communication to teach. So, they have a learning aspect. And I visit many Toastmasters groups. They have a magazine and a website. I am a big fan of theirs. And I think that they do a great service to many of us who are trying to get better at our communication.
Desiree Timmermans 22:10
Okay, that is good to know.
Matt Abrahams 22:12
Desiree Timmermans 22:14
Well, I really learned a lot from this talk. And as I said, again, thank you for being a guest.
Matt Abrahams 22:20
Yeah, so excellent. Well, thank you for this opportunity.
Desiree Timmermans 22:23
Thank you very much, Matt.
Desiree Timmermans 22:26
Thanks for joining the kick-off episode of the Help To Grow Talk podcast. The production of this podcast is in the hands of Xavier Petit and myself, Desiree Timmermans. You can find the episode show notes at: helptogrowtalk.buzzsprout.com.
Tune in next time!