Effective presenting and communication in virtual environments with Matt Abrahams

Photo of Paul Sephton
March 22, 2021
Reading time
19 minutes

Presenting our work and ideas is challenging, but as Matt Abrahams knows, our ideas are only as good as our ability to express them. As we launch our new season of the Soundbar podcast, join me as we hear from leading experts on the topics that drive the world of hybrid work.

Matt Abrahams is a Stanford business school lecturer, fellow podcast host of the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Think Fast, Talk Smart, and author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. Matt is also the co-founder of Bold Echo, a consulting firm that helps people with their communication and presentations. Today, we’re talking about how to overcome speaking anxiety, the number one thing a speaker must do with their audience, and how to grab the most valuable commodity of the modern day, attention.

Paul Sephton: I’m keen to understand a little bit about your background, what the “aha” moment was for you in realizing this importance in communication, and how you now convey that to other people to get them to see the immense value in being able to communicate.

Matt Abrahams: My passion was kindled very early in my life. And this is a rather embarrassing story, but when I was a 14 year old boy as a freshman in high school on the very first day, my English teacher had each of us, as is customary here in the United States coming back from summer holiday, each of us had to stand up and share what we did over our summer. And with my last name being Abrahams, I obviously went first because we all sat in alphabetical order, a burden I’ve carried with me all my life. And at the end of the class Mr. Meredith, my English teacher, came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this speaking thing.” Those were his literal words. He said, “You need this weekend to go to the speech tournament that’s being held at this other high school.” And being a 14 year old being told by my teacher, I did exactly as I was told.

I prepared a presentation to deliver. It was a presentation on the martial arts, something that back then, and still today, I’m very passionate about. And I show up on this Saturday morning very early, walk into this immense room where my friends were sitting, the parents of my friends who were actually judging this competition were sitting, and the girl I liked was in the room. And Paul, I was so nervous. In fact, I was so nervous I forgot to put on my special karate pants because I was starting my speech with a karate kick. I was told, “Start in a way that gets everybody’s attention.” So I was going to do this big karate kick, let out this loud scream, get everybody’s attention. But because I was so nervous, I failed to put on my special karate pants that have extra room. And you can tell what happened. The first 10 seconds of my 10 minute presentation, I ripped my pants from belt loop to zipper.

And it was in that moment and from that moment on I learned the impact of anxiety on communication. And I became fascinated with it. When I went to school in college and then in graduate school, I studied communication. I have always focused on anxiety and confidence building and then expanded from there. And then when I worked in the corporate world for a decade, I saw how anxiety and the inability to communicate effectively could really hamper people’s careers and make work less effective. And so this passion kindled as a teenager has grown ever since. And I’m still today helping people try to be more confident, connected, and compelling in their communication.

Paul Sephton: It’s so uncommon for someone to be rid of any anxiety at the start. And so how do you start to help people working through their anxiety at whatever level it comes in at?

Matt Abrahams: To my mind, when looking at trying to manage anxiety, there are really two approaches you have to take. You have to manage both the symptoms, that’s what we experience mentally and physically, as well as the sources, and those are the things that exacerbate or make your anxiety worse. So it’s really about tackling both of those to learn how to manage your anxiety. And I use that word manage very carefully. I don’t think you can ever truly overcome anxiety around speaking. I think there will always be something that can make us nervous. But it’s learning to manage the anxiety so it doesn’t manage us.

Paul Sephton: And so let’s dive into the symptom side of it. How do we start to tackle that sense like a hot flush or a chill down our spine, or all of the symptoms we get as we’re about to jump into a presentation?

Matt Abrahams: The reality is this, whenever we are in a high stakes speaking situation, our body sees it as a threat. So there are several things we can do to manage some of those symptoms. First and foremost, deep belly breaths help a lot. It actually slows down your nervous response. So deep belly breaths, like if you do yoga or Tai Chi or Qi gong can really help. It also can reduce the fast talking. Nervous people speak quickly, and they do this for two reasons. One is this attitude, “The faster I speak, the sooner I’m done,” but second it has to do with the fact that we’re breathing fast and we’re breathing shallow. So deep breaths slow that down. Some people get very shaky when they get nervous. That’s the adrenaline coursing through your body. Doing something to release that adrenaline helps. So big, broad gestures can really help, it activates big muscle groups uses up or depletes the adrenaline, you’ll stop shaking as much.

Some people get dry mouth, or as you said, a tight throat. Before you speak, drinking some warm water, chewing some gum or sucking on a lozenge can reactivate the salivary glands and relax the throat. So that’s ways to get yourself being able to speak more fluently. And then you also mentioned, which is my biggest symptom of anxiety when I speak, flushing and perspiration. And this is because your core body temperature goes up when you get nervous. Your heart’s beating faster. Your blood vessels are constricting. You’re putting more blood through tighter tubes, which causes you to get hotter. Your blood pressure goes up. It’s like you’re exercising. So to cool yourself down, something very simple, just hold something cold in the palms of your hand. The palms of your hand, much like your forehead and the back of your neck act as thermo regulators for your body. So those are just some of the many techniques we can use to manage some of the symptoms we experience of our speaking anxiety.

Paul Sephton: Really interesting to be able to take these off as a toolkit. But I think one of the common mistakes people will make is that they try to memorize everything, and they might practice the night before, but they will try and remember everything they have to get across. So what are some other ways which we can potentially prepare or go into the presentation, think about how we’re delivering it, which will be more effective at allowing us the freedom to communicate on the spot, but go in with the right preparation and confidence?

Introducing the Hybrid Ways of Working 2022 Global Report

Matt Abrahams: Paul, I loved how you described the problem with memorizing. You’re hired. I need your help. Many people say, “Because I’m nervous, I just am going to memorize and that’s going to help me get my point across.” Well, the reality is this. As you said, memorizing actually works against you. It actually distracts you from communicating. So your question is a valid one. What do we do beyond memorizing our script? So I am not against writing out word for word what people need to say. This can be very important if you’re speaking in a language that’s not your native tongue, if you’ve got lots of technical information or detailed information; writing it out word for word is a good place to start, but that’s not where you end.

Next, create an outline. And I’m going to give you two choices or options for outlines. One can simply just be bullet points, key ideas or phrases or frames that you want to help yourself. Alternatively, rather than using a declarative outline, use one that is question-based, and this works really well for me. So if I were to write out my ideas, my points, I would then generate a list of questions that help me remember what are the points that I want to cover. So simply by answering the unasked questions, it cues me for what to say. And why I’m such a fan of this question-based approach is questions are conversational. If I imagine you asked me a question and then I then answer it, we are engaged in a conversation. And all the research suggests that conversational approaches to communication are better received and remembered, and you as the communicator tend to be more relaxed.

Paul Sephton: So you talk about flipping something from a performance into a conversation, and that starts with figuring out what your audience needs to hear or wants to hear. Can you talk a little bit about how I should flip that perspective from starting with what I want to say, and instead going to, what does my audience need to hear or want to hear from what I need to present or get across?

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. So I maintain that one of the most important, perhaps the absolutely most important thing a communicator needs to do is to remind themselves that you are in service of your audience. When you are communicating, it is critical that you understand what your audience needs from you. So to begin, you need to first reflect on your audience. You might have to do some social media stalking, check out people’s LinkedIn profiles or company websites and read their bios, or directly ask members of that audience in advance of preparing your content. These give you cues and clues as to what to say and how to say it. And in so doing, you will tailor content that is more relevant, which therefore will make it more engaging.

However, it is still not yet conversational. Just having an audience centric approach doesn’t mean that the communication in and of itself is conversational. In order to make the communication conversational, you must remember that you are not performing, as you mentioned. A performance has a right way to do it. If you’re an athlete, if you’re an actor, a musician, there’s a right way to do it. In communication, there is no right way. There are better ways and worse ways, but no one right way. So we have to change our approach to not just be audience centric, but to give ourselves permission to just communicate what we need to say rather than striving to say it the right way.

Paul Sephton: How do you usually advise leaders and businesses and your students in terms of creating a narrative? Is it a “what, where, when, how, who and why”? Is it starting with “why”? Or how do I pack my message and what I know people need to hear into the right structure so that they take away what I want them to take away?

Matt Abrahams: Well, you nailed it right on the head when you said structure. So a narrative is nothing more than a logical structure of information. And I am structure agnostic, but when it comes to designing messages, once you understand your audience and have thought through what you’re trying to accomplish; in other words, your goal; the next thing you need to think about is, how do I package this information that’s easier for my audience to digest and easier for me to remember? And structure is key. And there are lots of different structures.

One is the “problem, solution, benefits” structure. I start by talking about the problem or the opportunity, what are the solutions or ways of manifesting that opportunity, and then finally what are the benefits to accomplishing that? That’s a very nice logical structure. It allows me to tell that story well. Another way of structuring information is to use my favorite structure, which is the “what, so what, now what” structure. You define what it is you’re saying, why it’s important to the person that you’re speaking to, that’s the “so what”, and then the “now what” is the next step, what we do next.

So having a structure, whatever structure you choose, is critical to helping people understand. It drives concision and it facilitates remembering. But it’s not enough just to have a structure. You then have to support what’s in that structure in a meaningful way. You have to use relevant data. You have to tell stories. You have to use third party voices or testimonials. So it’s not enough just to have a structure. The information that goes into that structure, the support, the evidence you use, has to be diverse and directly related to the goal you’re trying to achieve.

Paul Sephton: And you talk about in some of the structures, particularly the starting and the ending. And I think it’s interesting because in written form, if I’m doing an essay, I’m told that the intro and the conclusion are what matter most. So I’m keen to understand what your advice would be for a strong starting and a strong ending.

Matt Abrahams: You’re absolutely right. What you said about writing is true of speaking. Psychology teaches us both primacy and recency effects, what we hear first and last are the things we tend to remember the most. And that doesn’t mean that the body of your content isn’t important, it absolutely is, but how you start matters. And to my mind, the most precious commodity that we have in the world today, it’s not money, it’s not Bitcoin, it’s not even toilet paper; it is attention. We must get people’s attention upfront. And that’s what you do when you have a successful start to a communication. Now, what you do depends on who you’re speaking to. So if I’m in front of a large audience, hundreds of people, I might start with a poll, get people actively doing something. If I’m speaking to an executive or to the C-suite, I might start by posing a challenge that we have. Perhaps I say, “Last week, we lost a $2 million deal because our product was deficient in this area.”

Workspace Wednesdays

Once you have their attention, you must immediately get to the relevance. We are very stingy with our attention. And if we don’t see value in paying attention, we will be distracted. And that is even more true in the virtual communication that we are doing more and more of today. And then what’s also critical in any good start is to foreshadow or preview where you’re going. So rather than starting your presentations with, “Hi, my name is, and today I’m going to tell you about…” Which is banal and boring, start with something that gets people engaged. Now in terms of ending, you must end quickly, concisely, and definitively. So I think a good conclusion signals that there’s closure and then it quickly summarizes the key points and expresses any actions that need to take place. So we need to be thinking about concisely ending.

Paul Sephton: How do you, especially this year, advise people on converting their communication style into something effective in a virtual environment?

Matt Abrahams: Wow, that is really challenging. A few thoughts I have. First and foremost, in any communication your presence and engagement are critical, but in virtual it is even more critical. So we must be thinking about our presence, that is how we show up and the energy we bring. And then we have to think about ways in which we can engage the audience. Research shows that about every eight to 10 minutes, people’s attention wanes significantly. So once I start talking, it starts to decline, and by the time I get to eight or 10 minutes, it’s really cratering and bottoming out. So in structuring your virtual content, presentations, meetings, whatever; think about it in eight to 10 minute chunks, what can I do as I’m coming up to that eight or 10 minute mark to reinvigorate the audience? And it doesn’t have to be much. It could be pausing to taking questions. It could be inviting somebody else to speak. Anything that just reinvigorates people. Our brains habituate very quickly. Anything that stays the same, we stop paying attention to it.

Second, use the tools that the virtual environment provides, their polling features, whiteboarding features, other collaborative features; use those to get the audience involved. If we are physically doing something, we are paying attention. If we are just passively listening, it is much easier to get distracted. So those would be the initial thoughts I have on how to make your virtual presenting more engaging and more relevant. And by the way, doing all of those things gives you insight into what your audience is learning and feeling about the content that you’re sharing. And that is that missed feedback that you were talking about that we don’t have as much when we are virtual.

Paul Sephton: What is some of the advice that you’ve given to try and guide managers and leaders through how they communicate generally with their teams, with their coworkers, during this time in an effective way that elevates our virtual communication and doesn’t leave us feeling like we’re in a bit of a cultural desert, where we’re borrowing social capital from the days of being in the office?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. And I see this a lot in some of the clients that we coach, where they’re onboarding people who’ve never been part of the culture of the company before, so they don’t have that bank account on which to draw. I recommend really reflecting on the different types of communication you have. So there’s the communication that is directive, that is working towards a specific goal. There are communications as a leader, as an employee, that are socio-emotional in nature, where you are simply just trying to foster relationships, build trust. Think about these as discrete and different and ways in which to then make how you deliver that communication appropriate.

So here’s an example. If I am sharing out a quarterly report, I might bring multiple people together on a virtual call and relay that information. Yet, if I’m trying to onboard a new employee or check in to make sure somebody’s doing well, or if I’ve noticed somebody’s work has not been the same quality as it was before, that’s more socio-emotional in nature, and I need to think about it differently. Perhaps a phone call is far better than doing another Zoom meeting or another Teams meeting. So explore different modalities of communication.

There’s some really interesting research that I’ve learned of on the podcast I host with a Stanford professor who shared that if you can try to make 30% of your meetings phone-based, and if during those phone calls you can actually get outside and walk, and maybe the person you’re talking to is also doing the same thing, it will change the tone, the tenor, and bring better connection. So for those socio-emotional goals when I’m just trying to check in with somebody or give them some support, maybe I say, “Hey, let’s not do this as a virtual meeting, let’s go out and do a phone call and you walk while I walk.” You can really feel the difference. So the bottom line is, not all communication is the same. And you have to try to match the method of the communication with the goal of the communication.

Paul Sephton: Do you think there’s some etiquette we should all be knowing, either in terms of how we’re speaking to audiences or colleagues and then inviting their feedback, or how if I want to speak up, I can do so in a way which interjects in a good and constructive way during a virtual meeting?

Matt Abrahams: So it’s a huge point. People are opting out either because they’re overwhelmed, or they have distraction going in their home environment, or it could be introversion and shyness. So a two-pronged approach to this. First, as a leader, as the person running the meeting or the leader in the organization, I need to put on my facilitator’s hat. And there’s a difference between being a presenter and a facilitator. And to my mind, facilitation is far more difficult and nuanced. As a facilitator, your job is to bring forward all the voices that want to participate. And that means you have to be on the lookout for talk time, is somebody talking more than somebody else?

Are there some cues and clues that are signaling that somebody wants to speak, but they’re not? Maybe they’re leaning forward, maybe they’re making more eye contact. So you need to really try to draw those people out. You can invite people to chat with you privately. Many of these virtual tools have private chats. So you can say, “If there’s something you want to share, or you feel like you haven’t had the opportunity to share, send me a private message and I’ll be monitoring that to reach out to you.” That’s what you do from the facilitator’s perspective, be on the lookout for those who aren’t speaking, find avenues to get them involved.

Meet-Up Mondays

For those who are more hesitant or quiet, you don’t always have to put on a show in the meeting and be contributing as everybody else is. There are other things you can do. For example, as I said, privately chat people. Maybe meet with the leader of the meeting in advance or afterwards. That leader could then bring your voice in without you having to say it. So there are things that we can do on both sides of that equation to help invite people. But by far the most important is just recognize that not everybody has the same comfort level or opportunity to speak up, and we all have to invite others to that conversation.

Paul Sephton: What do you think, when it comes to teaching communications at this point, are some of the most important skills you could wish recent graduates to have and carry into the business world that would really set them up with a headstart in this new normal way of working?

Matt Abrahams: It starts with what we’ve talked about prior, which is really helping my students to understand that it’s not about you, it’s about them. It’s about the audience. So we really have to be audience focused. Then it’s about figuring out the tools, the levers that you have to utilize to get your message across. And sometimes it’s not communicating. Sometimes it’s simply listening that’s most important. So it’s really developing a sense and a sensitivity to the audience. It’s about figuring out how to give them the information that they need in the modality that they need it, be it through structure, be it through engagement.

And then it’s the ability to actually interact with and facilitate that interaction. So that’s taking challenging questions, that’s responding to objections. All of those are the essential skills that we really try to work on with our students, and help them understand that nowadays your communication is not just what happens when you’re in a meeting or in person. Your communication is the totality of you in the virtual world. So who you are on social media, who you are when you’re in a meeting, who you are in your writing; all of that represents you, which in turn represents the organizations that you’re going to go in and lead. So helping people take a wider view of their communication than just what I’m saying in the moment is critical.

Paul Sephton: Do you think that there’s a good way to ultimately balance what we bring emotionally to a communication table, and how much we sometimes have to take a step back in a business environment and just park our emotions and keep a cool head, and other times we win hearts and we win minds by sharing emotion and bringing people in on our emotional journey?

Matt Abrahams: So I think it starts with really reflecting on and understanding your own values and what’s important to you and what’s important to your organization and the values your organization has. And from that base, you then have to decide what are the most effective ways to communicate the information that I have. In the work I do, both in the consulting and the writing and the podcasts, all the stuff I do, it boils down to this. I’m all about turning habits into choices. And many of us communicate out of habit. We just do what we do because that’s what we’ve always done, and for many of us we’ve been successful so we just keep doing it.

But it’s all about building different tools. So I need to have a lot of different communication resources to help myself. So it might be I have some stories I can tell that will really drive emotion and really help me connect. It might be that I have a stockpile of data and statistics that I can lever in a certain situation. So you start by understanding your values, the values of the organization, the values of the people you’re communicating to. And then you look at your toolkit and you say, “What are the right tools for me to use in this particular situation?” And in order to have those different tools, you have to practice, you have to challenge yourself, you have to give yourself permission to explore, to get you out of that habitual communication mode.

Paul Sephton: And I think, Matt, just one for closing, because I know that we’re close on our time; but how can I in the longterm create the time or the habits which improve my communications, such that it’s second nature and not something which I’m having to invest in with an extra or added effort every single time I’m doing it?

Matt Abrahams: So two things that I think of in response to that; first and foremost, as with anything, any skill that you develop, be it a sport or playing music or whatever, it takes time upfront to get good at it. And you need to dedicate that time. So the more you do some of the things you and I have discussed; think about your audience, structure material; it will become easier and quicker. Second, you’ve got to get some reflection of what worked and what didn’t. Many of us just simply do the same thing over and over again expecting different results, which happens to be the definition or at least one definition of insanity. So let’s not be insane. Let’s take time to reflect what worked, what didn’t, let’s make changes. And then finally seek out others, seek out communication coaches, seek out teaching and training, seek out friends who you trust, get feedback to learn how to do it better.

All of these things will make you more efficient in your communication as well as more effective. So that’s going to help you save time. The other thing is to really think about the fact that the time I spend up front actually helps me save time on the backend. People who just throw together slides and give a presentation often find that they’re spending a lot of time on the backend cleaning up the misunderstandings or the lack of fidelity in their work that could have been saved by simply spending a few extra minutes upfront. So give yourself the time upfront. I’m a big fan of having organizations put communication first. Encourage people to spend time supporting each other, giving themselves time to build out the communication to be effective. That will ultimately pay dividends in the short term and in the longterm.

Paul Sephton: We’re out of time for today, and I’m so grateful to Matt for joining me to learn techniques like “what, so what, and now what”, as well as new tools for thinking about the audience and speaker relationship. If you liked the episode, please don’t forget to subscribe to keep in the know on our next podcast. Until then, cheers for now.

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