Are you glossophobic?
That fancy word means fear of public speaking. It’s a common phobia that’s believed to affect three out of every four people. The symptoms range from slight nervousness to full-on panic.
In your professional environment you may have a range of technical skills and subject matter knowledge. But if you struggle with communication—even in situations less formal than a public speech—your value in the workplace is diminished.
Matt Abrahams can help. He teaches organizational behavior at Stanford University, with an emphasis on strategic communication. He’s also a communication consultant for Fortune 100 companies. His latest book is Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot. (His previous book was Speaking Up Without Freaking Out.)
Abrahams points out that spontaneous speaking is different from traditional “public” speaking.
“If you think about it, most of the communication we do in our lives is not planned as it is with a presentation, a pitch, a meeting with an agenda,” he says. “Much of our communication happens in the moment: answering questions, making small talk, fixing our mistakes, giving impromptu feedback, pitching an idea, etc. This type of spontaneous speaking requires us to be agile, present-oriented, and clear and concise in a way that planned and prepared communication does not.”
Many people struggle with spontaneous speaking because the demands are so intense and the pressures, we put on ourselves are so strong. We feel like we need to respond quickly and correctly. This is made worse by the fact that people are rarely taught or given feedback on how to do this well.
For people who have limited experience with spontaneous speaking, offers tips for taming the anxiety beast.
“Anxiety looms large in all speaking, planned or spontaneous,” he says. “When addressing communication anxiety, we have to focus both on symptoms and sources. Symptoms are the things that we physiologically and psychologically experience, such as rapid heart rate, shakiness, sweating, and blushing. Sources are the things that initiate and exacerbate anxiety, like worrying about not achieving our communication goals.”
Abrahams says people can implement specific techniques targeted at both symptoms and sources. “We can learn to manage our anxiety,” he says. “Note, I do not believe we ever can, nor would we want to, completely overcome our anxieties around speaking. Anxiety actually provides some benefits—it gives us energy, helps us focus, and tells us that what we’re doing is important.”
He encourages people he’s coaching to create “an anxiety management plan.” This is three to five techniques that people can use to help manage their specific symptoms and sources. “For example, someone might benefit from deep belly breaths that slows down the autonomic nervous system, reduces the heart rate and slows rapid breathing. They might also include a self-affirmation like ‘I have value to bring’ that serves to cancel out negative self-talk that many of us have. Finally, they can work to be present-oriented to cancel out fear of not achieving their future goals by listening to a song, doing something physical, or even saying a tongue twister.”
Abrahams says the six steps of the Think Faster, Talk Smarter method are divided into two categories: Mindset and Messaging.
Mindset involves the following four steps: (1) Managing speaking anxiety; (2) Reducing self-judgment; (3) Reframing spontaneous speaking as an opportunity, not a threat; and (4)Listening intently to what is said and how it is said.
The two messaging steps involve (1) Leveraging structure to package information appropriately and (2) Focusing communication to be concise and clear.
He urges people to “maximize mediocrity” when working on their speaking skills.
“This is based on the notion that many of us strive for perfection,” he says. “In our communication, we want to do it ‘right.’ But there is no ‘right’ way to communicate. There are only ‘better’ ways and ‘worse’ ways. When we are constantly judging and evaluating what we are saying in an effort to do it ‘right,’ we minimize the cognitive bandwidth that we have to do it well at all. Maximizing mediocrity refers to just getting the communicative task done: answer the question, give the feedback, respond to the small talk. If instead, we focus on doing the task at hand and turn the volume down on our judging and evaluating, we are able to harness our full cognitive capacity, thus allowing us to communicate much better. I tell my students: ‘Maximize mediocrity, so you can achieve greatness.’”
Abrahams says mindset is at the core of all effective communication. “Mindset is especially important in spontaneous speaking,” he say. At the highest level, we need to focus our mindset on seeing spontaneous speaking situations as opportunities rather than challenges. Many of us, when faced with in-the-moment-speaking, see it as a threat or a challenge. If we instead see these as opportunities to connect, expand what we’ve said, and learn from others, then we have a completely different experience—one that’s open and other focused. This approach allows us to be freer and more responsive in our dialogue.”
Have you noticed how engaging some people are because they use a narrative or a story as the structure for their spontaneous speaking? Abrahams says that’s a learned behavior that’s well worth adopting.
“Structure is key to packaging our messages so that our audience can understand them,” he says. “Our brains are not wired to listen to lists and rambling. Giving your communication structure or including a story is nothing more than a logical connection of ideas. It has a beginning, middle, and end.
He says a common structure that most people are familiar with is problem-solution-benefit. “Most pitches and television advertisements follow this structure,” he says. “A particular problem is identified, then a solution is offered to remedy the problem. The conclusion typically explains the benefits of adopting the solution. Not only does a structure like this make you clearer and more concise for your audience, it helps you as a communicator prioritize what you’re going to say. In essence, a structure is a recipe into which you put your thoughts and ideas to achieve greater clarity while communicating.”
Abrahams says his favorite structure is comprised of three simple questions: What? So What? Now What? “I love this structure because it’s adaptable, straightforward, and incredibly effective,” he says.
The beauty of this model lies in its simplicity:
- What? Describe/define the facts, situation, product, position, etc.
- So What? Discuss the implications or importance for the audience. In other words, why is this relevant to them?
- Now What? Outline the next steps or call-to-action such as taking questions, showing a demonstration, or setting up a next meeting.
Abrahams says this framework not only helps in organizing your thoughts but also serves as a guidepost for your audience, making the information easier to follow and act on.
Careful listening plays an important role in spontaneous speaking.
“At first, listening sounds as if it is not an essential step,” Abrahams says. “However, I would argue it is absolutely critical. We must pay close attention to what is needed in the moment. If I don’t listen deeply enough, I might not respond appropriately. For example, imagine we come out of a meeting together, and you turn to me and ask for feedback. Hearing your request for feedback, I immediately itemize all the things you did wrong and could have done better. But had I really paid attention, I would have noticed that you came out the back door, not the front door of the meeting room. You were looking down and away as you were talking to me. Your volume was low and your speaking was slow. Had I really listened, I would have learned that you did not want feedback. What you were really seeking was support. By itemizing everything you did wrong I only made you feel worse. Listening is a critical part of spontaneous speaking.”
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