Help To Grow Talk: Communication Skills

2. Communicate With Mastery - A Talk With JD Schramm (USC Annenberg)

January 25, 2023 HELP TO GROW Episode 2
Help To Grow Talk: Communication Skills
2. Communicate With Mastery - A Talk With JD Schramm (USC Annenberg)
Help To Grow Talk: Communication Skills
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Learn how to make your words count every time you write or speak in this talk with JD Schramm, Lecturer at USC Annenberg and a Keynote Speaker, Communication Consultant, Coach & Author. We talk about his book Communicate with Mastery. You never have a perfect call, talk, or email, but the goal in communication is: to get better and better.


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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?

JD Schramm: 0:20

"And so with communication, we always have to give ourselves that chance to go back and revisit something and say: you know, let me say that a little bit differently, or I don't think what I said was as clear as it could have been. Let me try that again."

Desiree Timmermans: 0:36

You just listened to our guest, JD Schramm. JD is a Lecture of Communication at USC Annenberg, School for Communication and Journalism. And he's a Keynote Speaker, Communication Consultant, Coach, and Author. In this episode, JD and I talk about his book Communicate with Mastery, which provides the tools to grow your speaking and writing. My name is Desiree Timmermans, your podcast host. Let's go!

Desiree Timmermans: 1:06
JD, welcome to the Help to Grow Talk Podcast, where we are going to talk about Communicate with Mastery, which is also the title of your book. So my first question is, of course, can you tell us a bit more about the book and how did you come up with its title?

JD Schramm: 1:22

Delighted to Desiree. Thank you for the invitation. And it is a title that I have a lot of affection for, and I almost lost the battle with my publisher. They wanted to name it something different. I will tell you in a moment. For me, communicate with mastery is acknowledging that we never communicate perfectly. We never have a perfect call, or a perfect talk, or a perfect email, but the goal is in communication: to get better and better each time we do something. 

And so the concept of mastery, taken from the work by Dan Pink here in the States, is that if you think of a straight line and a curve getting closer and closer and closer to it, but it never touches that line. And that's the way it is with communication. We want to get closer and closer and closer, but know that we're never going to get it perfect. So, the framework, or the distinction of mastery as an approach for communication, is how I have taught at Stanford for 13 years, and it is how I teach now at USC and other places where I've spoken or delivered workshops. But my publisher wanted to call it: communicating masterfully. And I was like: no, no, we can't, that's an adverb, we don't use adverbs in titles. And they were able to let me keep it as my title.

Desiree Timmermans: 2:44

That is great to hear. And when we are communicating, how can you make sure, or at least get close, that every word that you say or write that it counts? How can you do that?

JD Schramm: 2:56

Well, I will answer in two parts, Desiree. That may sound like they disagree with each other on one side. Yes, everything we write and everything we speak counts. And we want to be thoughtful and considerate as we craft that email. Every time I go back to an email, I usually make it shorter when I do the edits because I can be more precise and specific, especially if it is a high-stakes email.

In today's world, we do a lot of video. And sometimes, if I do a second take on something, I will actually say it better the second time. And so there is that value that everything we say counts. And we also have to give ourselves some grace that we're still going to get it wrong. We are still going to use the wrong pronoun when we address somebody, mix up the pronunciation of someone's name, or not completely explain what we want our employees to do. 

And so with communication, we always have to give ourselves that chance to go back and revisit something and say: let me say that a little bit differently, or I don't think what I said was as clear as it could have been, let me try that again. And almost always, our audiences will appreciate the vulnerability of acknowledging that you didn't get something completely right. And they will appreciate the chance to ask questions, verify and make sure they understand what we mean. So yes, everything counts, and we can always go back and correct it.

Desiree Timmermans: 4:32

And do you also have some examples? For instance, for speaking with conviction? I found a nice example from Nancy Duarte, the research she did on Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King.

JD Schramm: 4:47

Yes. In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte. And she has a TEDx talk that is really good on the secret structure of great presentations, and she uses examples of great presentations from But the simple underpinning is: you want to be able to talk about the way things are and the way things could be, the way they are today and the way things could be. I use her talk, um, often and regularly. 

I think the other talk that I often share with people, just because I think it is so compelling, is a talk by a young man at Stanford who was not one of my students but was part of a program that I created while I was there: Shawan Jackson. And he talks about the cost of conformity and the challenge of everybody trying to speak in the exact same way, actually: losing our originality. And he's got a wonderful talk out on the cost of conformity. He went on after graduating and found an organization called Vocal Justice, where he works with high school students on effective communication without losing their identity.

Desiree Timmermans: 5:54

That is great. And if we talk about effective writing, I wrote 80 blogs based on interviews with technology professionals. And they spoke about data quality, for instance, data management and DevOps. And then, I listened, transcripted all blogs, and started writing the blog. And I learned so much from it. And I actually, listened to your book, and I see that some things come back. So maybe you can add something about writing for impact?

JD Schramm: 6:23

The most important thing in writing for impact is that process that you described that you went through of getting it down before you publish, print, and distribute. There are two frameworks that I use, and most of the work I do is business writing, although at USC right now, I'm also teaching scholarly writing to master students. But in business writing, I talk about the ABCs of business writing; it should be active, brief, and clear. In business today, our leaders do not have time to read a 10-page memo, let alone a 3-page memo. And so I have really going to get to the essence of the message and be very audience-centric as I send it. How is she going to read this? Is she going to look at it on her phone? Is she going to look at it on a screen? Is an assistant going to print it out and hand it to her? And, so, I want to know how this document is going to actually reach her. And I want to think of that audience, that senior leader, as I write the document. If I am writing to a group of people, I want to consider whether someone is going to look at it one way, and I want to be sure that it is as powerful regardless of when or how they see the document.

JD Schramm: 7:42

And I want to make my purpose very clear upfront, probably in the headline of the email or the subject line of the memo, or the title of the report. Don't make me guess. Don't just say: Update on Frontier's Project. But: Frontier's Project is going well, or Frontier's Project hits roadblocks. Let me know right up front what is the main message, and then develop a very clear structure to support that message.

JD Schramm: 8:11

The other framework, which I always give homage to the people who created it: Mary Munter and Lynn Russell created the AIM framework. It is very simply a triangle, and at the base of it: who is my audience; what is my intent; what is it I want them to do as a result of this presentation, this memo, this phone call? And then, at the top of the triangle is the M, the message. And the problem many of us make is that we jump to message without slowing down to consider: who am I sending this to, and what is it that I want them to do as a result of this? So, using the AIM framework - whether we write or speak - and the ABC framework when we write, I think, allows us to have greater impact.

Desiree Timmermans: 8:56

I fully agree with you. And I think what is really important is practice, practice, practice. And that's also something that you say in your book. It's not about being perfect; you have to become aware. What are your roadblocks? Where can you work on? And that's how you can become better at communication.

JD Schramm: 9:14

Exactly. And if you can do that practice with somebody giving you gentle but helpful feedback, that can get you that much better. To have a colleague at work, a mentor, or somebody who's not reporting to you or not supervising you but who can coach you on your writing or speaking. It allows that practice to just make you even stronger.

Desiree Timmermans: 9:36

Indeed. And our guest on the first podcast Matt Abrahams, he also pointed me to a tool. It's called Poised. And it records when you have a meeting and gives you feedback: how do you speak; do you speak fast or slow; what do you want to improve? So that is really great with technology nowadays. And then, if you don't feel safe, for instance, talking with somebody or feeling scared: you can first use this app, get used to yourself, and then open up and discuss it with somebody else.

JD Schramm: 10:08

Absolutely. I'm delighted every time I learn one more tool that's out there that can help me be not only more effective but efficient at getting there. That it doesn't take me 10 hours to prepare for a 10-minute talk, but that it allows me to efficiently do great preparation, a good tool to use as well.

Desiree Timmermans: 10:29

I agree. And what I also learned is, as you said, it is about the essence. That's also something that you have to practice. You can do that with everything you do. When you talk with somebody, when you read something: what is the essence? And in the beginning, it's quite frustrating, especially when it's a long article or you are talking and doing two things. But in the end, if you practice that, you become better at it, and it really helps. And then it also becomes fun.

JD Schramm: 10:57

Absolutely. And if you can get to that essence, both in what you are trying to communicate, but major pieces of communication that are directed to you. You know, for me to quickly read an email from my boss and be able to see: what was it he was trying to say? Or sit in a town hall meeting and hear what our senior leader is sharing with us about how they see the direction of the company and really boil it down to its essence. And even sometimes, I will repeat that back to someone. I will say: you know, at the heart of this, I have been listening to you for about 10 minutes, what I am hearing most is X. And verify that I got the essence correct. It allows for both parties to communicate more effectively.

Desiree Timmermans: 11:41

And also, I heard that some of your students said you asked them: what is your purpose? And then they said: well, I want to have a good grade for this course. And then you said: is it only that, why not change the world, for instance? Suppose you want to change the world and give your audience a call to action: how do you give that message? How do you inspire people?

JD Schramm: 12:04

I think it's really twofold, Desiree. On one side, it is really an inside job for the speaker to be clear about their motivations and the topic they're sharing. Audiences today can sniff out if somebody's inauthentic, shallow, or vapid in a message they are sharing. So before a speaker can really step out and change the world, they have to verify that's what they're committed to and want to do. And that it aligns with their heart and mind: that the 18 inches from the heart to mind are aligned and connected. And once that is in place, it is tapping into that connection with a message that resonates. Now, sometimes that message may have alliteration or rhyme to it, or it feels like a little bit of an ad campaign, and that's appropriate for what that person is sharing. And sometimes that message is just crystal clear and simple. I think of the climate activists Greta Thunberg. Part of what made her so powerful was her personal stand not to waste energy flying around the world talking about climate change.

JD Schramm: 13:35

And it was like: wow. Like she was really walking the talk in that regard. And I think there are so many examples of a disconnect between what somebody says and what they do. Being able to align that and then come up with the message that allows you to, as you say, change the world.

Desiree Timmermans: 13:54

I understand. And I am very interested: if you hit a roadblock when you, for instance, are presenting to an audience, sometimes you black out, and you don't know what to do anymore. Were you or once in such a situation, and what did you do?

JD Schramm: 14:14

Yes, I have found myself in that situation, even as a keynote speaker and a trainer who focuses on communication. For me, the first tip is: familiarize, don't memorize. Often when somebody is in that blackout that you described, it's because they tried to memorize the talk word for word. They were concerned. They had to know it exactly. And they had a manuscript. They memorized it word for. So the first tip is: familiarize. Know how you're opening, Know the key pieces, and know the skeleton framework, but don't memorize it word for word.

JD Schramm: 14:50

Second, have multiple backups where you can get reminded of what's an x. I will have an outline: usually, that's folded, and in my pocket, it may be in a folder on the podium. So, have some tricks or places where you have got your outline, slides, or notes. And even if you have to acknowledge to the audience that you're referencing your notes, I encourage my speakers to do that in a way that you don't give up power. You don't want to say: oh my God, I have forgotten what's next; let me look at my notes. But you can say: I want to be sure I get this exactly right; I wrote this down last night, and let me read it to you. Same thing. I'm pulling out a piece of paper and reading it to you. But I can say that in a way that honors my audience and gives strengths to my message, rather than diminishing myself in front of my audience. So those are some of the tricks and tips to make it through. 

And then, after the fact, I always want to analyze: what happened there; what threw me off; was it my prep; was it the lights, was it what I wore, was it technology? And I want to try to prevent that from happening next time. Again, that concept of mastery: I want to get better and better. And so, the next time that I am in this situation: what can I do differently? So that I don't have difficulty remembering what I was going to say.

Desiree Timmermans: 16:20

And is there something you want to share that I didn't ask you yet?

JD Schramm: 16:24

I want to encourage the listeners on the Help to Grow Talk Podcast: I want to encourage you not to get caught up in vanity metrics. You know: I have a TED Talk, and it is just crested 2 million views. There are TED Talks out there with 65 million views. There are Ted Talks out there with 700 views. The number of views don't matter. What matter is the impact you have on the people who do view it. And so, do not be as worried about how many people are in the room, and how many people view it online. Just because we can get those stats and we can look at them doesn't measure the impact that we have. And keep your eye on: this makes a difference for one person. If this makes a difference for one family or community, that is what my goal is. And be thoughtful about impact over vanity metric.

Desiree Timmermans: 17:22

That is important. And that is also why we communicate: to explain something, to make sure that we understand each other, and, as I said, to make the world a better place. That would be great.

JD Schramm: 17:32


Desiree Timmermans: 17:34

JD, thank you very much. I really encourage our audience to read your book: Communicate with Mastery.

JD Schramm: 17:41

Thank you so much. Thank you for this time. I enjoyed it very much.


Thanks for joining us for another episode of the podcast Help To Grow Talk. This episode was produced by Xavier Petit and me, Desiree Timmermans. For more information and episodes, subscribe to wherever you get your podcast or visit:

Tune in next time!

Book: Communicate with Mastery
How to make sure that every word you say or write counts
Examples about speaking with conviction
Writing for impact
Practice to become better in communication
Get to the essence
Change the world: how do you inspire people?
What to do if you hit a roadblock?
Impact over vanity metrics