You’ve been there: describing your big idea or delivering a spontaneous toast and you can’t find the right words. The ones you do manage to access seem to tumble out too fast and all wrong. If you’ve spent years working in a lab or with a small cohort, stepping into an industry job that requires communicating with colleagues, supervisors and supervisees can present its own challenges. How do you command respect and get your point across while keeping your cool?
Matt Abrahams, ’91, knows firsthand that getting flustered only makes it worse. When Abrahams was a high school freshman, his English teacher suggested he participate in a speech and debate tournament. He prepared a talk about one of his hobbies, karate. “First thing, I decide to do a kick — ten seconds into a ten-minute speech, I rip my pants from zipper to belt buckle.” The next nine minutes and fifty seconds, he says, were a crash course in how anxiety affects communication.
Abrahams, a GSB lecturer and the author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, has dedicated his career to helping people overcome their anxiety and sharpen their communication skills. He shares some of his favorite strategies for speaking with confidence and calm, whether you’re giving a presentation at work, asking your boss for a raise or trying keeping your head in a thorny family discussion — no karate moves required.
1. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes
Abrahams concedes it’s not always possible to plan out what you’re going to say. But if you have time to prepare (or even just a few moments to collect your thoughts), use that time to think about what your audience expects, what they already know and what you’d like to add. “What a lot of people do is focus on what they want to say, not what the audience needs to hear.” This can lead to what Abrahams calls the “curse of knowledge,” where you fall into jargon-speak — and your audience falls asleep.
Instead, he says, think about who they are and what they need. Abrahams calls this “reconnaissance and reflection.” If you’re giving a public talk on green energy, for example, how many people in your audience know about the most recent decisions of the public utility commission? How many know what the public utility commission is? If you’re asking for a raise, is your boss aware of the extra hours you’ve been putting in? In any communication, you want to meet people where they are.
2. Know your goal
Depending on the context, your goal could be anything from soliciting feedback to persuading someone to your point of view to simply sharing information. Your communication will be more effective, Abrahams says, if you have some sense of what you want the result to be. “At the end, what do you want people to know? How do you want them to feel? What do you want them to do?”
3. Radiate calm
Ever suffer through a presentation by a speaker who’s clearly rattled? Notice how it makes you tense, too? “[That’s] called secondhand anxiety,” Abrahams says, “when a nervous speaker makes their audience nervous.”
So, if you feel your heart racing or hear yourself talking too fast, Abrahams says, address the symptoms. “Taking deep yoga-like breaths helps reduce many of the symptoms [of anxiety],” as does “holding something cold in the palm of your hand. It reduces your core body temperature, so you perspire less and blush less.” And the good news? People often conflate confidence with competence, so if you can fake the first, you can convince them you’ve got the second — no matter how you really feel.
4. Get your audience involved
For many people, especially those who are nervous about being in the spotlight, speaking up can make them feel like they’re being scrutinized. A great way to manage this anxiety, Abrahams says, is to get your audience to do something besides stare at you. That might be taking a poll, watching a video, or, in less formal situations, simply posing a thoughtful question and encouraging discussion. Not only does this turn attention away from you, but it can elevate you in your listeners’ eyes. “Then you’re a facilitator, not just a presenter,” Abrahams says. Added bonus: Being prepared with a distraction for your audience can ease the tension when your slide deck disappears.
5. Let your body do (some of) the talking
Body language matters, and it’s important to remember that when you’re speaking face-to-face, especially if you want to project an air of confidence and authority. Abrahams tells his students to focus on three things: being “big, balanced and still.”
The size of your physical presence makes you seem more present and engaged. That means if you’re in a stand-up meeting, keep your posture straight and tall, and if you’re at a table, adjust the height of your chair. Stillness creates the impression of self-control and confidence, so when you speak, try not to fidget. When you do move, make your movements purposeful. “You want your gestures to be broad,” Abrahams says, especially if you’re in front of a crowd. “You want them to go beyond your shoulders. Your palms tend to face out [that way], which makes you look more open.” As an added plus, he says, broader gestures engage larger muscle groups, which can reduce any shakes if you’re nervous.
6. Listen up
Communication is a two-way process. Once you know your goal (Charm a dining companion? Inspire colleagues to tackle a new project that will mean extra work for everyone? Get your sister-in-law to reschedule the family BBQ?), your audience’s responses are clues about how effectively you’re communicating. So don’t just talk — listen. “And if you’re really trying to inspire people,” Abrahams says, a surefire way to show you’re listening is to paraphrase back what they’ve said, in a way that shows you heard and understood. Then, he says, you can incorporate their point of view into your own goals to show that your listeners’ contributions matter.
7. Practice makes . . . better
Contrary to popular belief, confident speakers are made, not born. Anyone can become a better speaker. “A lot of people feel that they’re an introvert, or they had a bad experience once and now they’re doomed,” Abrahams says. “But communication skills are like any other skills — you can get better at them. Like any skill you build, it’s about repetition, reflection and feedback.” Take every opportunity to practice, then think about how it went. What seemed to work? What definitely didn’t? Finally, as painful as it may be, solicit honest feedback about how you performed, or what your listener took away from your communication. “Sometimes it’s three steps forward, one step back — but you get better. I see it all the time.”
Mike Vangel is a writer in Minneapolis and a former assistant editor of STANFORD.