Share Your Story with Matt Abrahams

November 28, 2023
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

— Maya Angelou

What if you had the most incredible product or idea, but didn’t know how to communicate it? 🤔

It’s an all too familiar story – and one of the biggest things holding people back from the connection, opportunity, and success they want.

Make no mistake – your ability to communicate is directly correlated to the results you get.

So, to help you communicate like a pro, we’ve got one of the world’s leading communication experts joining us in today’s episode...

Matt Abrahams is a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, where he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting, receiving the school’s Alumni Teaching Award. Matt also teaches public speaking and co-teaches Improvisationally Speaking in the Stanford Continuing Studies Program.

When he isn’t teaching, Matt is a highly sought-after keynote speaker and communications consultant and coach. He has helped numerous presenters prepare for high-stakes talks, including IPO roadshows, Nobel Prize award presentations, and appearances at TED and the World Economic Forum. His online talks garner millions of views and he is host of the award-winning podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart, The Podcast.

His book Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting has helped a wide audience manage speaking anxiety and present more confidently and authentically. His new book Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put On the Spot has just been released.

In this episode:

  • How to turn your fear and anxiety into a strength
  • The 6-step framework to thrive in spontaneous conversation
  • How to build a network of influential people in your corner; and
  • Why the thing holding you back might just be your superpower.

Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Matt Abrahams!

James Whittaker:
Matt, great to see you! Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Matt Abrahams:
I am thrilled to be here, James! I look forward to our conversation.

To kick things off, is there a story of struggle or success from when you were younger that would ultimately put you down the path you went on?

I can pinpoint to the actual day and time that this path started for me. I was a 14-year-old boy. I was encouraged by my freshman English teacher to attend a speech tournament on an early Saturday morning. We, in his class on the very first day, had to stand up and say what we did that summer. And at the end of the class he comes to me and says, "You're good at this talking thing. You need to go to this speech tournament."

So I prepared all week. I prepared a speech on martial arts. Karate has always been very important to me. I get there. I am so nervous, James. The room is full of my friends, their parents who are judging this event, and the girl I like is in the room. I got so distracted by my anxiety, I forgot to put on my special karate pants. You can see where this is going, the ones that have a little extra room. I started my 10-minute speech with a karate kick and ripped my pants from zipper to belt loop in the first 10 seconds. I was mortified. Somehow I managed to finish that presentation. And from that moment and since that moment, I have been focused on how anxiety can impact communication and prevent many of us from sharing the really important things that we want to get across.

Fear of public speaking is so interesting because we're okay talking to people one on one, but you add in one more person and eventually you reach a point where it's insurmountable. Hopping on a stage and speaking in front of a thousand people would terrify most people. Jerry Seinfeld once said “At a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy!”

Absolutely. Anxiety is part of being human when it comes to speaking in front of others. And for some people it can just be a small number. For others, it can be a big group. But it is something that we can learn to manage and in so doing allow the world to hear our thoughts, our beliefs, and really perhaps have a big impact.

Did you have any things either positive or negative from when you were younger that reinforced some things for you?

Well, as you mentioned with the last name that starts with a “Ab” I was always going first. So I became very comfortable having to speak in the moment, and I think that's helped me throughout my life and throughout my career. Also, it's helped me appreciate others who haven't had that opportunity to do that practice.

I certainly have made many mistakes in communication in my life and I've learned a lot about it. One of the things that I vividly remember is a quote that my mother says. I was giving a presentation in one of my classes and my mother wanted to come see this particular class because she'd heard a lot about it. So I had her sitting in the back of this class I'm teaching, and at the end she comes up to me and shares this bit of advice that just echoes loudly in my head. She said, "Matt, you need to tell the time and not build the clock." 

She said, "Matt, you need to tell the time and not build the clock."

And what she meant by that is I was going on and on and I was giving so much detail thinking that I was enlightening and educating everybody. And her point was I talk too much, just get to the point, help people. So I use that. 

I hear that echoing in my head to remind me to be more concise and clear. People are discovering what they want to say as they're saying it and they take us on that journey, when in fact we can just get to the point and really help people with something that's memorable.

When did you learn that communication was going to be a superpower for you?

I think when it really hit me was when I left graduate school I had some student loans to pay, so I went to work in the corporate world. And it became very clear that there was a difference in people's ability to communicate and how it was correlated with their success.

There were some people who were amazingly bright where I worked and they weren't able to articulate themselves in a way that advanced their points of view. And then there were some people who weren't as dedicated, committed to their jobs, and yet they were expert communicators and I saw how that really furthered their career. 

So it really struck me that communication is critical. And I remember all the things that I've learned, all the academic research that I had behind me and said, "This is something that I want to commit to helping people get their point of view out."

Are there any specific questions that you ask yourself in terms of goal-setting or thinking bigger or achievement more broadly? Are there any specific questions that you ask yourself or a process you go through on a regular basis to maximize your potential?

I'll answer this in two ways. So I think all communication, and most actions that we take, should be goal-driven. And to me a goal has three parts, information, emotion, and action. In other words, what do you want your audience to know? How do you want them to feel? And what do you want them to do?

Whenever I enter into an interaction, I'm always asking myself, "What's my goal here? What do I want the person or people I'm speaking with to know? How do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do?" So that's my mantra that really helps me focus on what I'm saying.

All communication, and most actions that we take, should be goal-driven.

Then the other thing I remind myself, because I still get nervous, I still get anxious in certain circumstances, I'll remind myself that I have value to bring. Often, when I am asked to speak or asked to teach, it's because people think there's some value that I have. And that makes me really focus on the needs of the audience rather than get caught in my head and that doom loop that can happen where you think about “I'm not worthy” or I don't really have something of value here.

So those are the two things that really help me focus and help me deliver value, I hope at least.


You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Matt Abrahams, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀


That relationship with yourself, it's such an important one, making sure you recognize that you have value. Also, always being focused on what you can do to improve your own abilities.

Absolutely.

I teach all the time that there are only three ways to get better at communication – quite frankly, at anything: it's repetition, reflection, and feedback. You need to get the reps in, you need to practice, but you have to reflect because if you don't reflect, you fall victim to that definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. 

And then you have to get feedback. You have to look outside yourself to get input and information. So I personally try to practice that in everything I do and I encourage everybody to take time to get the reps in, reflect, and then also get the feedback.

Who's a mentor that stands out and what lesson did they teach you?

I have many mentors, but I have two that really stand out to me. So one is my martial arts instructor. I've been studying martial arts for 40 years. And he is an amazing person, very grounded, and has very simple ideas: be present, be in service to others, and learn from what you've done. You have to make mistakes to learn. Very important lessons and lessons that I keep reminding myself of. And in the martial arts, these lessons can come hard, sometimes literally hard.

Additionally, another mentor of mine is my first real formal boss that I had. She was amazing. She was so concerned about people, not just the work they did, but the people themselves. We were in a startup moving a mile a minute, and she saw that I was burning out. I wasn't sleeping. I was working really hard. We were trying to grow really big. She came to me and she said, "You're taking the next three weeks off." I said, "I can't. I can't miss it." She goes, "We will cover for you. You need to take care of yourself. We need you at your optimum."

Be present, be in service to others, and learn from what you've done.

And so I just remember very vividly her really focusing on people and on their needs. And the other thing she taught me that I always remind myself, I'm very goal-driven and I always see that goal out there in the future. I remember her saying very clearly, "We not only have to respect the goals we have, but we have to sometimes turn around and look how far we've come and appreciate that change."

I always try to remind myself as I'm pushing myself to some future goal to remember the successes that I've had and how those are actually enabling and equipping what I have coming in the future. And I try to pass that along to my students, to my kids, to my friends, because I think that's a valuable lesson. You can be very driven, but if you don't appreciate what you've accomplished to help you get to that next step, it means one, you're not enjoying as much, and two, you don't also remember, although that hard effort that can then fuel what comes in the future.

What are you looking for in a student in one of your classrooms? Who's someone that you want to connect with further or someone that you want to mentor their growth a lot more personally?

Well, I look to mentor and help everybody grow. And I have to share with you that I'm always humbled by my students. I don't go a day without reminding myself that I would not qualify to be a student in my classes. My students are so impressive.

What I look for really is somebody who's open, somebody who's open to feedback, somebody who's open to trying new things, and anybody who has that attitude is somebody I want to connect with. And most of my students come that way. That's why they choose to take the class that I teach. But I'm all about really somebody who is there in the moment willing to try new things and grow.

When you look at corporations and big companies, what are the biggest mistakes that they're making in terms of communication?

They don't prioritize it, number one. They see communication as a necessary evil. They feel it's something that takes too much time. It's all about drive, drive, drive. Invariably, communication comes back up, and I am often brought to triage situations where they didn't invest in it.

To me, if you're running a business, you really have to think about the people, process, and infrastructure you have around communication. So when you're interviewing people, you need to help them understand that communication is important and you need to assess their communication in the interview. So it's not just their answers. How are they answering? What kind of respect, what kind of depth are they going into?

You have to build in processes around communication.

You have to build in processes around communication. What tools do we use, when do we use them? And then you have to build an infrastructure and an infrastructure can be physical, like what tools are you using? But also when do we meet, who do we meet with? How do we meet? All of this needs to be defined. 

And if you build that in early and build that into your culture, then communication can become an enabler and not something that becomes a challenge.

You mentioned job interviews there. For someone who's approaching a job interview, are there any specific questions that they should make sure they include in the job interview or things that they should keep an eye on before they enter that room?

So I have a whole process for job interviewing, so let me go through it very quickly. First it starts with research. You have to really understand the company and the potential people that you're interviewing with. So you have to do cyber stalking, you're checking LinkedIn company profiles. Talk to people who might have worked there or interviewed there.

You then need to be thinking about specific themes that you want to convey about yourself. With those themes, you need to stockpile some evidence, support, stories you can tell, maybe data you can give, maybe a testimonial, a previous boss giving you an award. Stockpile those so when you go into that interview and then the question comes in, you think to yourself, "This is a question that associates with this theme and I can pull out this particular example." So it becomes an act of assembly rather than an act of creation. And most of us can be better and feel more confident when we're assembling information. So it's critical.

As an interviewer, the thing I'm always looking for is the way in which somebody answers their question. So it's not just their answer, but how do they answer it? Do they answer right away? Do they reflect? Do they pull in and connect different ideas? Do they demonstrate that they understand why I asked that question? Those are the things I'm always looking for in the people I interview.

As an interviewer, is there one question specifically that you ask that you know is going to perhaps get some vulnerable answers or to knock them off course with some of the pre-prepared answers that they might have?

So I never try to knock people off course.

Well, in terms of being able to see their natural body language and the way they might handle, not a crisis, but an uncomfortable situation.

I have some standard questions that I ask, but I think where I really get at what you're asking is the follow-up question. So I'll say things like, "Tell me more. What helped you come to that conclusion?" And that's like peeling back a couple layers and that's where the vulnerability comes out. That's where the interest comes out.

And I learned that in martial arts, really. The initial move is not what's really important. It's the moves that follow after that. So I will often, on my podcast, I will often ask a question, and then the follow-up question is where the real juice comes. And the other thing I'll do is I'll pause and I'll just give space. In that space, people feel permission to share more and maybe a little bit of awkwardness. And that's also where I get some really insightful information.

Is there a particularly dark day that stands out in your career and if so, what did you learn from it?

There was a time where I had to lay off about a third of my team. So I was in high-tech for about a decade, went through the amazing bubble of the early 2000s. And when we hit the wall, we hit the wall hard. I was told that this particular part of my team was safe. There was no problem. 

I actually confirmed that that was true and told the team, I said, "We've got layoffs coming. All of us are safe here for now." Then literally the next day I got the call and said, "We got to take them out." And that was so painful for me. I really, really connect with my employees. I was so upset, I actually left the company as a result of this, but I told them I would be the one who would let go of this team because I was so concerned and connected to them. It was a very challenging day.

I think I learned a few things. One, I learned that you can't trust everything you hear, and that was a really hard lesson because we all work so closely together. The second thing I learned is that there's an opportunity in this moment. For these people who are my close friends, we'd struggled together, we'd grown together. As I was giving them the unfortunate news, I used it as an opportunity to also encourage them to expand and to grow. 

And I'm really happy to say that several of them went on to amazing careers that were unrelated to what we were doing. They actually seized on that moment, the opportunity it afforded them, and they're doing amazing things in the world.

That just reminded me … there's a Zen koan and it's all about maybe. So when something really good happens, rather than just embrace it, be calm and say maybe, and then when something bad happens, same thing. Instead of feeling sorrow and regret, just say maybe because something good can come from it. And I certainly saw in that situation with my colleagues the benefit that it had in their lives. So that was a very challenging time.

One of my favorite books of all time is Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. The difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset, which I know you referenced extensively in your new book.

Letting people know – as much as they can in an emotional state – that this is an opportunity that could call them to a higher game. It opens up space for what might be the next best career opportunity from there.

Absolutely. Carol Dweck's work is very meaningful, and I do reference it in the book. 

The thing that I really fixate on is this notion of not yet. Many of us when it comes to spontaneous speaking, that's speaking in the moment or communication in general, we just feel it's not us. That's not our thing. We don't have that gift of gab. And I really like the growth mindset approach of not yet. It's not that you can't, it's just not right now. And you can do things to actually grow and enhance your skills.

So I love this notion of not yet. I find it very motivational and I find it empowering.

The Maya Angelo quote I shared at the start, I saw you nodding in the background because you know exactly where it's from. It's from the start of your book: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

What does that quote mean to you?

One of the fundamental motivations for what I do is I believe everybody has important information to contribute to our daily interactions, our conversations in the world. And it pains me to think that there are people who have valuable things to share and to say, but don't because they don't feel they have the tools or that their anxiety gets in the way. 

So what really motivates me is to help people feel more comfortable and confident in their communication so we can hear their voices and understand a diverse set of points of view.

What's the problem you wanted to solve with your new book Think Faster, Talk Smarter and who do you want someone to be once they've finished reading it?

I love that last question. 

The follow-up question!

Yeah, you embedded it! I like it.

So if you think about it, most of our communication is not planned. It's not the presentation, the pitch, the meeting with agendas. Most of our communication happens in the moment. It's the questions we're asked, the feedback we're asked to give, the toast or tribute at an event. It could be the small talk we're having. Most of our communication happens in the moment. I call that spontaneous speaking. And yet we never learn how to do that.

So it's the most frequent communication we do and we aren't equipped well to do it. So that's the problem I'm trying to solve. And what does that look like? It looks like somebody who is confident and comfortable in the moment when they are called up to do whatever it is they're called up to do. Maybe they make a mistake and they have to fix it. Maybe their boss turns to them and says, "Would you mind introducing this person?" It's that confidence and that quiet way of just getting it done. That's the goal of it.

I think that confidence is not about you becoming a completely different personality. You don't need to be someone else. Let's just learn a few of these fundamentals and get that confidence so you can do the best you can in that moment.

The biggest counterintuitive idea in the book and in what I coach and teach is this notion that all of us can, through preparation, get better at this. And people are preparing to be spontaneous. That sounds counterintuitive, but if you've ever played a sport or you played jazz music, you know that you have to prepare. Jazz musicians don't just play any note. They play certain chord progressions that they've learned before. Athletes in the moment of doing their sport are basing what they're doing on the preparation, practice, and drills they've done before.

In doing that preparation, it allows you to be your authentic self, to be in the moment, to be of service.

In doing that preparation, it allows you to be your authentic self, to be in the moment, to be of service. You're not in your head, you're not judging, you're not evaluating. So absolutely, I enjoy any opportunity where somebody has an authentic communicative experience, be it a best person toast, or if it's at an awards acceptance or even in small talk.

Something Dr. Jeff Spencer shared on the podcast before when he was a guest, this idea that preparation precedes performance. First you prepare, then you perform. It's one of the most basic performance fundamentals, but I think it's such an incredible way of thinking about it. 

And I feel like it's the mastery level of speaking. When you can have the sensory acuity of what's going on in the room, which I know you do so well, so you can introduce different concepts, you can adjust on the fly to make sure people are getting maximum value and connection out of it. But you can only do that through getting the reps in like you mentioned earlier and doing all of that preparation behind the scenes.

Absolutely. So the book is called Think Faster, Talk Smarter. The think faster part, people are like, "I already think fast." But what I'm really talking about is pattern recognition, and that's what you're talking about there. So in the moment, I'm seeing patterns that I've drilled and practiced before, so I can respond authentically in the moment.

I do want to just bring up a distinction I make. I believe performance is really important when you're talking about sports or when you're talking about acting or singing. Performance though I think gets in the way when we're actually talking about communication. To me, performance implies there's a right way to do it. In communication, there is no right way. There are better ways and worse ways. So I want people to focus on connection rather than perfection. So it's really about that connection you have with the audience. It's not about doing it right.

When we try to do it right, we actually get in our own way because we're distracting ourselves. Part of our cognitive bandwidth is focused on judging and evaluating what we're doing in the moment. So much so that it precludes us from doing it well. So I make a fine distinction between performance and connection.

I think it's a really important distinction and you lay that out so well in the book. In fact, you actually mentioned leaning in more towards being dull at times and how effective that can be.

So in writing the book and really trying to figure out the right approach to this, I spent a lot of time exploring research in psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, but also improvisation. 

Improv has a lot of amazing rules. And one of them is dare to be dull. Just do what is needed. And I've translated that to the very first day of my Stanford MBA class. I get up in front of my students and I say, "Maximize mediocrity." And you've never seen jaws drop more like this! My amazingly talented, really bright Stanford MBA students are like, "No one has ever told us to be mediocre."

Yeah, not at this university.

Or anywhere. And when I go through the logic that we're talking about where the pressure you put on yourself, the judging, the valuating that you do that gets in the way, actually prevents you from achieving the success you're striving for. So if you actually just focus on getting it done, just answer the question, just give the feedback, just engage in the small talk, that actually frees up cognitive bandwidth to actually do it really well.

So the last thing I say on that first day is maximize mediocrity so you can achieve greatness, and the students understand that and then the rest of our course is all about putting that into practice.

In your new book, you mentioned the six-step think faster, talk smarter method. Can you give us a bit of an overview of what that is and perhaps if there's one or two that really stand out to you?

Absolutely. We've already talked about some of them. 

So the six-step methodology is divided really into two categories, mindset and messaging. When it comes to mindset, it's all about managing that anxiety that we've talked about. It's about making this switch to just getting it done rather than worrying about how you do it. So it's that connection over perfection.

Another step, step three in it is really reframing the circumstance. So many of us see spontaneous speaking as threatening and challenging where we have to defend our position, defend our answers, rather than seeing it as an opportunity, an opportunity to connect, an opportunity to engage, an opportunity to learn. So when we're in that harsh Q and A moment where the person asks us a really challenging question, we can actually say, "Thank you. This is an opportunity for me to extend and expand what we've talked about," instead of “I have to defend and entrench.”

Then the fourth step of the mindset part is really about listening. We don't listen well. We listen just enough to get the gist of what the person is saying, and then we start judging, evaluating, and planning. We need to really listen to get at the crux of what's being said. We have to think what's the bottom line? Because if we don't, we can make a mistake. Let me give you an example. Imagine you and I come out of a meeting and you turn to me and say, "Hey, Matt, how'd that go?" And I hear feedback and all of a sudden I say, "James, well, you did this wrong. You could have done this better. We should have done that."

It's about making this switch to just getting it done rather than worrying about how you do it. 

But had I really listened, I might've noticed you came out the back door, not the front door. You were speaking a little more quietly. You were looking down. What you really wanted in that moment was not feedback, but was support. And by me itemizing all the things that went wrong, I actually did you a disservice and might've damaged our relationship because I wasn't listening fully. So we have to listen fully. And the book gives some prescribed steps about how to do that.

The second part of the methodology, the last two steps are about messaging. And messaging is all about being structured. We do not do well rambling. Our brains are not wired to listen to and encode when somebody rambles. So we need to use structure, frameworks to help.

And then the final step is what I call the F word of communication, not the naughty one, focus. Many of us just ramble and ramble and ramble and don't get to the point. And if we're focused, people will remember what we say. And in this high-paced, virtual world, concision is key.

So those are the six steps, and if you go through those steps, taking your own time, finding your own way, you will actually improve your confidence and ability to speak better in the moment.

If you were sitting down with someone who wanted to really tell an amazing story, maybe for a website, maybe for a presentation, they wanted to tell it in an authentic, engaging, persuasive, vulnerable way, what is the process that you would take them through to understand and map out that story?

First thing I would have them do, as I mentioned earlier, is define your goal. What is it you want? So what do you want them to know, feel, and do, because that really helps you focus.

Second, I would say find a structure, a way to package up that story. I'll give you two examples of structure. If you've ever watched an advertisement on TV, if you've ever pitched an idea, you've probably used problem, solution, benefit. There's this problem, here's how we solved it, and here's the benefit of doing so, problem, solution, benefit. That's a great way to tell a story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our brains are wired to process stories like that that are packaged that way. It builds in transitions.

If you are saying next, so second, you're not connecting. Your job in telling a story is like being a tour guide. The number one rule of being a tour guide is never lose your tour group. You're a bad tour guide if you get people lost. Same thing is true with a storyteller. So a good tour guide sets your expectations, puts you on a clear path, connects all the points along the way. So a structure like problem, solution, benefit is a great way to do it.

There's another structure that I love. It's three questions:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

The ‘what’ is your idea, your product, your service, your belief. The ‘so what’ is why is it important to the person I'm talking to. And the ‘now what’ is what comes next.

So using one of these two structures or many other structures, the whole second part of the book is different structures for different types of spontaneous speaking. So if I was teaching somebody to be authentic, persuasive, and engaging, start with a goal, have a structure, and then think about how can I make this story maximally relevant to the audience I'm talking to? 

And you can do that through the language you use. For example, use time-traveling language, ask people, imagine this, picture what this could be like, think back to when. These terms actually engage the audience. Rather than me telling you, I have you seeing it in your mind.

I also use analogies and questions to build in your curiosity, to connect to what you already know. So you start with your goal, you find a structure, you make sure it's relevant, and then you add these engagement techniques. That's how you tell a good, authentic, clear story.

And one thing I love about your book is the way that you apply this not just to professional settings, but at dinner parties and there's other opportunities where you're hanging out with people.

Absolutely. When I wrote this book, I had six specific speaking situations that many people struggle with. The one I did not expect to have the most interest was small talk. I thought everybody would be talking about feedback and questions. But you're right, chitchat is really difficult for people. And there are things you can do to make it easier.

You kick off the book by talking about anxiety. What is your research and experience led you to believe the solution for overcoming anxiety is?

Well, the first thing is I don't think you can ever truly overcome it.

It's all about managing it. It's not about overcoming it. And I don't even know that we would want to. Anxiety managed well can actually be good for you. It can help you focus, gives you energy, tells you what you're doing is important. So it's not about overcoming it, it's about managing it so it doesn't manage us.

Anxiety is ingrained, I believe, in being human. Most people, up to 85% of people report feeling nervous in high-stake situations. And I quite frankly think the other 15% are lying. 

So there are things we can do, and it's a two-pronged approach. You have to manage symptoms. That's what we physiologically and mentally experience. And then the sources, the things that initiate and exacerbate it. The first book I wrote was called Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, and it's 50 techniques based on academic research to manage anxiety. And I don't expect all 50 to work for people. I expect three to five to work for folks.

And I encourage everybody in my new book and my previous book to create what I call an anxiety management plan, which is a combination of the symptomatic strategies we can use as well as the things we can do to address the sources. Let me give you one example of both. 

Deep breathing is quite possibly the single best thing you can do to manage some of your symptoms. Deep belly breathing like if you've done yoga or tai chi. A lot of those in the military learn box breathing and other types of breathing. It slows down your autonomic nervous system. And the most important part is the exhale, not the inhale. You want your exhale to be twice as long as your inhale. And only a few times of doing that, that will help.

That's probably the most universal technique for managing anxiety. And let me share with you a source. Many of us are made nervous because we're worried that we will not achieve whatever our speaking goal is. So my students are worried they're not going to get a good grade. Entrepreneurs are worried they're not going to get support and funding. People listening in might be afraid that their project isn't supported.

Anxiety and nerves come from a potential negative future outcome. The way to short-circuit that is to become present-oriented. 

What's making us nervous is a potential negative future outcome. So the way to short circuit that is to become present-oriented. And you can become present-oriented doing lots of things. Before you and I started this formal conversation, we had an informal talk and that helped bring me to the present moment. It's hard to have a conversation with somebody and not be in the present moment. You can do some light exercise or walk around the building, get yourself in your body. That gets you present-oriented. Do like athletes do, listen to a song or a playlist to get yourself present-oriented.

What I do, every time before I speak, I speak out loud tongue twisters. You can't say a tongue twister right and not be in the present moment. And it also warms up our voice. I am amazed that people who are athletes and exercise musicians who play music, they warm up before they do those things. But when they speak, they don't warm up. We have this imagined idea that we can go from silence to brilliance without warming up.

So you can manage symptoms and sources. It takes some time. You create a plan that works for you. And that's how you begin to manage anxiety.


You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Matt Abrahams, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀


My anxiety management plan is three things, and I've honed this over many years and I encourage everybody to... Your anxiety management plan is a hypothesis, so you have to test it, and if it works, great. If it doesn't, you make adjustments. So I've already shared some of mine. I take a deep belly breath. That's what helps, gets me really focused in the present. I remind myself I'm in service of my audience. That helps. And I say a tongue twister. And just by doing those three things before I have a communication, it really helps.

Let me share one thing. If you're in that moment and you're feeling that panic, distract your audience. A great way to do it is just ask a question. Get them thinking. I sometimes get nervous or get worried, did I say this, what should I say next? And I'll just stop with my students and I'll just say, "I'd like to pause for a second. I'd like for you to think about what we've just covered and how you can apply it." My students don't think, "Oh, Matt's having a panic moment here." My students say, "How can I apply it?" 

All of us can come up with a question that we can deploy in the moment that gets the audience to focus elsewhere, distract them from focusing on us just for a moment to help ourselves collect our thoughts. We often feel like once the train is moving, I can't get off of it. You can, just ask a question. It's seamless and it works really well.

Have you got a process before you go on stage for an important presentation outside of the things that we have spoken about?

So I certainly do my anxiety management plan. I try my best to connect with somebody in the audience if I can. I talk to them. It reminds me of why they're here and it helps me get very present-focused because I'm actually talking to them and understanding their needs.

The other thing I'll do is I'll really observe the space. I like to see the space before I communicate, even if it's from behind the curtain. I just like to see the room and get that experience so that when I get out there, it doesn't feel awkward or bad. It feels like a place of comfort. And interestingly, you can do that without actually physically being in the space. You can look at pictures and visualize it. There are even some VR tools, virtual reality tools that you can use to help you see the spaces you're speaking in.

So for me, it's really getting grounded in the space and connecting to the people. And I try to do that every time before I speak.

It makes it more authentic and present and special for your audience because if I see the speakers before me and I can connect something I said to the other people who went before, that's a special moment for the audience because they know that's not a canned speech he's giving. That's something that connects. And that I think can be really helpful and it helps the audience see and remember not just what you're saying but what other people have said. So anything you can do to package information up to help your audience is better for them.

You as a podcast host, and you do a really good job of this, and I try to do the same thing, part of our job is the people asking the questions is to help the audience understand. So that's where paraphrasing, connecting ideas, asking follow-up questions really helps. And that's what makes a difference between I think a good moderator, a good host, a good facilitator, and somebody who's just moving to the next question.

How can someone think optimistically about their future when they're still haunted by failures of their past?

We have to learn from our past. Rumination is really a handicap in these circumstances. There's an American basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K, he has this wonderful mantra that he would always tell his students, and in fact, it's become ubiquitous in sports: next play. If you're an athlete and you do something wrong, you can sit and ruminate and beat yourself up over it, or you can simply say next play. If you're a basketball player and you miss a shot and you take any time off, the other team's down the court and probably scoring. 

You have to be in that next play. Same thing is true if you have an amazing success. If you're sitting there gloating and feeling so good about yourself, next play.

I'm not saying we shouldn't reflect, reflection is critical to improvement, but ruminating gets in the way. So when you find yourself recounting all of those things beyond the point of reflection, just remind yourself next play, I've got it, I can do it next time. That next play mentality can really help take us out of that rumination.

Is there anything else you focus on to turn random encounters with people into increasing the probability that you're going to have a meaningful friendship with those people?

So on my podcast, I interviewed somebody named Rachel Greenwald. She's an amazing person. She's really fascinating. She's a professional matchmaker and an academic, really interesting combination. And she told me something that really helped me change the way I envision small talk and connection with people.

Rachel said, "The goal is to be interested, not interesting." And that to me really was a huge unlock, because I would go into these circumstances really focused on how other people perceive me. And it's not about that. It's about being curious, it's about being engaging, and that's what you need to do is really be there for the person.

The biggest mistake people make in communication bar none is they start from the wrong place. They start by saying, "Here's what I want to say." 

So I now go into these circumstances asking questions, highlighting things in the environment, trying to bring people together, and that's where the excitement and connection really happens. Many of us go into small talk and these interactions like a game of tennis. We want to spike the ball across the net and score. That's how we do it. We want to have that zinger or that really important comment. 

I actually think it's better to think of it as that game of hacky sack, that little beanbag ball, where the whole goal is just to keep it off the ground. And when I pass it to you, the best way to do that is to pass it in a way that you can then take it and get it back to me in an easy way. So when we see our interactions that way, it really helps us connect.

If you were sitting in the audience and there was an amazing speaker who just finished their presentation and you wanted to connect with this person, even though there's a lot of other people in the room, and I know there's always a bit of a rush for speakers once they come off stage, what would you be thinking about or what would you do to give yourself the best chance of establishing a real connection with that speaker when they came off stage?

I would share how something they said connected to me and the value I saw in it. As a speaker yourself, me as a speaker, it is so glorious to see how your points land and to see how people are taking what you say and they're in it. 

For me as a speaker is where I get to learn. So I am always drawn to people who help me see what we've talked about and how they further it. So that's what I would do when I would approach somebody. I would really share the impact it had on me and my thoughts on it.

There's something that we've spoken a little bit about today in terms of serving other people, but something that's been probably the most essential thing for my career is this idea of becoming as valuable as I can be so I have more value to offer other people. What is the role of thinking about solutions that you can provide for people or ways that you can enhance someone's life or improve their life in all of the work that you do?

I think it's critical. We always have to be thinking about the value that we bring, and that means that we have to be empathetic. We have to put ourselves in the other person's perspective. The biggest mistake people make in communication bar none is they start from the wrong place. They start by saying, "Here's what I want to say." 

Rather, you have to be in service of your audience: what do they need to hear? So you really have to focus on the needs of the audience, and that's what can make a really big difference in the communication that you have.

You mentioned your kids earlier. How do you adjust your communication style to liaise with some kids who can obviously have some challenging moments depending on ages?

Well, I wish I knew the answer to that!

Don't we all!

So I have two teenage kids and it's really challenging. My wife is much better at this than I am. And she has a mantra and I talk about it in the book. It's minimal words, minimal words. The women in my life are always telling me to speak less, I think!

My mom, "Tell the time, don't build the clock." My wife is minimal words. Because in that, you get your point across and then silence. Minimal words and then follow it with silence, you can then actually get some information.

I interviewed somebody who wrote a book about interrogation, the communication of interrogation, and I asked this very question. I said, "I have two teenagers. They're both preparing to be CIA operatives, I'm sure, because they do not talk. What do I do?" And he said, "Simple questions followed by silence." And so that's what I try to do with my kids and I see some success with it.

Yeah, I think that's interesting. We have two young kids, and you can think of yourself as a skilled communicator or negotiator, but then when you get what's coming back on the other end, it's like, wow, I feel like I'm a complete entry-level person all over again! That takes you right back to the fundamentals of communication and connecting. 

When you actually show with your body language that you're really present, how different that is versus the way that we go through most of our day when we're so busy making food and cleaning up and doing all these other things with the chaos of the regular day.

Absolutely. I love that you're actually thinking about how what's happening with your interaction with your kids is actually translating to how you could be a better communicator.

A lot of us view communication success as having got through it. So I've been successful because I got through it instead of what did I learn? What was transacted here? What was the communication that really happened? 

So I like that you're looking at that. We can learn a lot from our interactions with our family and our friends, and we can solicit feedback from them and really see what works.

I heard so many people talk about the ways that you need to raise your kids, and to me it's the complete opposite. I want the kids to teach me about the world.

Oh, absolutely.

So it's a bit like that thing of talking about being of service and just listening and asking the right questions. I think that's very interesting.

I love that. I have learned so much from my kids about myself, about life, about the world, but you have to put yourself in a position to do that, to learn. 

Many of us feel like, especially in situations where we don't feel we have a lot of control, we want to assert our point of view, and this is much more passive and receptive and it's a great way to learn.

A question I'm asking more and more guests on this show because I think it's an important one to remember in this crazy, conflicting world that we're in today, what do you love most about yourself?

I love my curiosity. I am a hugely curious person. That's why I love the podcast I do. That's why I love the research I did for the book. That's why I love teaching. So I really love that curiosity. It's what motivates me. I think if I ever felt satiated with my curiosity, I wouldn't know what to do with myself.

Such a great quality.

On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard that you could show yourself on your worst day?

I think I've already shared it. Be in service of others, what value do I bring. That really, really helps me focus and reminds me what I'm doing is important.

Final question – what's one thing you do to Win the Day?

I get up every morning and before I leave, I do some Tai Chi practice. It grounds me, it helps me focus, focuses myself on my breath, and I think it gives me more energy.

Matt, what a pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

James, thank you. It was a great conversation.


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Resources / links mentioned:

📚 ‘Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You're Put on the Spot’ by Matt Abrahams

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