Matt Abrahams, author and professor, on the ‘sport of communication’
Professor Matt Abrahams from Stanford GSB, California, has been with Stanford GSB for 12 years. He teaches a variety of programmes, with a core focus on communication skills and strategic communication. He’s the author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, a book designed to instill confidence in speakers.
Matt also hosts the acclaimed podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart, which has emerged as one of the best-rated career podcasts in India and other parts of the world. The podcast focuses on various aspects of communication, including cultural communication, strategic communication, and negotiation influence.
“It's been fun to get emails and LinkedIn messages from people all over the place. And I love the fact that people are taking benefit and finding value and applying what we're talking about in their careers,” Matt says.
Treat it like a sport
Business leaders and entrepreneurs don’t have an option but to build rock-solid communication skills.
Whether motivating your team or negotiating with an investor, it’s imperative to wear your communication skills on your sleeve. Everyone may not be inherently good at it, but it’s possible to develop and hone communications skills. Matt’s advice is to treat it like any other sport.
Like any sport, being a good communicator requires focus, resilience, and the willingness to push yourself forward.
“It is effortful; it's not something that just comes quickly. But there are a lot of resources available to you,” Matt says.
As with any sport, the best way to improve is to learn from your mistakes and those of others. One of the common mistakes people make is ignoring the listener’s needs. If you focus on what you want to say instead of what the other person wants to hear, it can be difficult to get your message across. Another common mistake involves listing data and information without any logical connection.
“We need to structure our material in a way that is compelling and engaging so that it's packaged well for people to process, for people to remember, and ultimately, for people to act upon,” Matt says.
3 pillars of audience engagement
Avoiding common communication mistakes isn’t enough to retain a listener’s attention. In today’s world of fleeting attention spans, you have to make a solid effort to engage your audience.
Simply put, we can break it down into three parts - physical engagement, mental engagement, and linguistic engagement.
Physical engagement is all about getting your audience physically involved by asking them to raise their hands, take a poll, or react with an emoticon (in the case of virtual meetings). On the other hand, mental engagement focuses on using questions and analogies. Linguistic engagement is all about how you carefully choose your words to hook your audience. Phrases like “picture this”, “imagine this”, and “think back to when” can help invoke interest.
Mastering these techniques isn’t enough. You must also tailor them, according to the environment and your audience’s preferences.
“So if I'm in front of a large audience doing a pitch or a presentation, I could take a poll, I could say how many of you and people raise their hand? If I'm in a one-to-one interaction with you, I'm not going to say raise your hand. Right? That'd be ridiculous.”
Giving constructive feedback
For business owners and leaders, communication isn’t just about making a point. You need to use your communication skills to give feedback to your team and help them grow. Instead of waiting for annual performance reviews, it’s wiser to share continuous feedback and set expectations early on.
But how do you instill feedback into the core of your company culture? A simple yet effective trick is to use Matt’s “what, so what, and now what” approach.
Start by explaining the event/action/problem related to which you’re giving feedback. Next, outline why the feedback is important and relevant at this point. Finally, elaborate on ways to act on the feedback and improve.
“To me, feedback is all about an invitation to problem solve. That's really what feedback is, you're inviting the other person to work with you to address an issue that everybody will benefit from if it's addressed,” Matt says.
You can listen to the full episode here
03:00 - Communication game: Reflect, practice, and iterate
13:00 - The art of engaging your audience
18:30 - Was it a great meeting?
21:30 - Matt’s “what, so what, now what” feedback technique
31:30 - Negotiation: Is it a battle or a game?
Edited by Teja Lele