November 13, 2023

Author of “Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #116

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Matt Abraham, author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter, How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot. Matt has decades of experience in the field of communication. He also wears many hats, adding on to his expertise, as he is a lecturer at Stanford University, podcast host, and coach.

In today’s podcast, Matt discusses the importance of communication and how to speak to others confidently and effectively. He talks about the anxiety that comes with public speaking and how formulating a structure before speaking can help us conquer this anxiety. He provides an analysis of the problems with communication today in the business world. Matt explains how we all just need a bit of practice to help us all be better communicators, and how this practice can better the future of work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Matt shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Through effective communication, collaboration, and respect, we will be able to maximize the potential of each individual.”
  • “Many of us focus so much on what we want to say rather than what the audience needs to hear.”
  • “You have to think about what’s important for your audience.”
  • “It’s not just what you want to say, it’s how do you tailor it in such a way that it’s maximally relevant and important to the people you’re talking to.”
  • “Going into it with a plan that helps you navigate in the moment.”

Sam Caucci: Well, I guess Matt did to get us jump started. Would you mind giving us a quick background on yourself and what brought you to write? We’re talking today about Think Faster, Talk Smarter, I guess, a little bit on yourself and what made you write the book? 

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, well, thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. I’m excited for our conversation. So I’m somebody who’s always been passionate about communication. I learned at a very young age that communication really is important. And I’ve had an opportunity through my career, both as somebody in high tech, I ran learning and development organizations for about 10 years and also in the academic world, that communication is critical. 

Yet, when we think about communication, we often focus on planned presenting, presentations, pitches, meetings that we organize. And yet, if you think about it, most of our communication is spontaneous. It happens in the moment. And I learned this very young in my life.

My last name is Abrahams, A B. I always went first in my classes. Teachers would put us alphabetically and whenever they had us do anything, I was always the person on the spot doing it in the moment. So I learned how important and critical it is to try to do that stuff well. And that’s what really motivated my exploration over the last several years into this notion of what I call spontaneous speaking.

Sam Caucci: I think that, Matt, one of the best parts of the book is–, I mean, there’s so many different angles that you approach exactly what you just said. You’re in a moment, maybe you have to perform and want to perform a certain way. And to your point, there’s so much focus on maybe over preparation but you know you come at it from so many different angles and your six steps model. 

Like of the six steps and for folks who haven’t read the book yet, I guess, can you speak to maybe which one you get the most positive feedback from or when you talk to folks that have read the book, people coming out and saying, wow, this one really stuck with me.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, you’re asking me to pick which of my kids I love more.

Sam Caucci: Yes. Yes. 

Matt Abrahams: So I’m going to cheat. I’m going to give you two and I’m sorry.

So the six steps divide really into two major categories, mindset and messaging. And so from a mindset perspective, the very first thing we have to work on is how to manage the anxiety that we often feel in the moment of spontaneous speaking. Imagine somebody asks you a question and you feel on the spot to answer, or you’re in a situation where somebody asks you for feedback and it’s a high stress situation and you have to respond right away.

So learning to manage anxiety is probably the biggest takeaway that people thank me for because they feel that intensely, but messaging is also important. One of the mistakes that many people make when they’re speaking on the spot is they just ramble on and on. They’re discovering their response as they’re responding.

And we’ve all been victimized by that. So providing a structure, a clear beginning, middle, and an end to what you’re saying can really help. So it’s really those two aspects of messaging and mindset that really make a difference for people. 

Sam Caucci: Given all the years you’ve had working and learning and development inside of organizations where, you know, your focus is how do you get people ready to work and put them in a position to be successful.

Where do you think the biggest challenges are today when it comes to, you know, preparing workers to effectively communicate, whether they’re in a customer service situation, a sales situation, or otherwise?

Matt Abrahams: So I think there are really two. One has to do with where we focus our communication. Many of us focus so much on what we want to say rather than what the audience needs to hear. So I don’t care if you’re a customer service rep, if you’re an HR professional, if you’re an executive, you have to think about what’s important for your audience. It’s not just what you want to say, it’s how do I tailor it in such a way that it’s maximally relevant and important to the people I’m talking to?

And that’s been a perennial problem. There’s nothing new about that. What is newer is technology in the impact technology is having on our communication technology allows us to do so many wonderful things, but it also serves as a barrier for engagement and connection. So we have to work extra hard.

And folks who are younger, who are more used to technology, technology natives, as they’ll call them, they’re really good at leveraging the benefits of the technology, but they’re not so great at the connecting piece. And those of us who are of my vintage, a bit older, emphasis on the bit part there. You know, connecting is something that we’re used to, that we expect and the technology is newer to us.

So it’s finding that balance between leveraging technology and also maintaining engagement and connection that’s hard. 

Sam Caucci: I love the section in the book where you talk about going big on small talk and, you know,it made me smile because there’s so many times in organizations that are trying to script a worker’s response.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Sam Caucci: It’s almost like we’re, you know, we talk about AI and robots coming. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe we’ve already been kind of training our workers to communicate in a manner that is already robotic, but it was really refreshing to hear that take on leaning into small talk while structured and having an, you know, doing it thoughtfully.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. So small talk gets a bad rap, right? And so, a lot of good things can happen. During small talk, you can build relationships. You can learn more about somebody. You can learn more about yourself in the midst of it. We often see it as a necessary evil as a way to start meetings or initiate conversation or just a plain pain because we have to do it at mixers and corporate events, but a lot can happen during that and because many people feel awkward in it, as you said, people try to script it.

They try to make it very formal, which strips it of the value that it has. The spontaneity of small talk is part of the power of it. So as you rightly mentioned, there are things we can do to approach it, in a structured way without it being scripted. You know, I like to use the analogy of sports. If you’ve ever played a sport before, you know you practice and you train.

So if you’re a soccer player or a basketball player, you’ll dribble around cones a lot. Not because they’re cones in the game. I mean, the cones get replaced by people and people don’t stand still like cones do, but the virtue of practicing the cones, going into it with a plan that helps you navigate in the moment.

And that’s what having a structure and at least some ideas that you might want to talk about in a small talk situation can help. So, I agree that scripting is a bad idea and there are things we can do to set ourselves up better for success in those moments. 

Sam Caucci: I’m going to try to frame this question. I think you’ll know where I’m going with it. Have you heard of ChatGPT? 

Matt Abrahams: What are you talking about? Let me type it into this generative AI tool I have to give me an understanding of what that is. I am from my podcast. Yeah, on my podcast Sam I interviewed ChatGPT.  We were trying to think about the impact that generative AI was going to have on communication.

And we kept brainstorming and I finally said, let’s just interview it and see. So we typed in questions and then we did a text to voice simulator and it spoke answers out and then we edited it together. So yes, I’m familiar with ChatGPT. I’ve actually talked to it. 

Sam Caucci: And, you know, I guess one of the things I wonder, and this kind of combines the statement you made a few minutes ago around sport and repetition, you know, I’ve always considered the fact that, you know, maybe some younger workers today entering the workforce have just not maybe had as many reps as prior generations have had, you know.

Just, maybe not as in, again, being a sports coach, maybe just haven’t had as many opportunities to practice. If you were a talent leader today, I’m kind of sending you back into the past year, I guess. 

Matt Abrahams: Well, I think as a teacher, I feel like I’m a talent development specialist too. 

Sam Caucci: True. No, absolutely.

But let’s say you’re in an organization who’s trying to prepare folks for work. What would you be thinking about at this moment, given the fact that maybe certain job functions and certain tasks are being outsourced or off boarded onto other automation or technology or software? What are the most important things to be coaching our people on today when it comes to communication?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, and that’s a great question. And I’m not sure I have the answer. I have some thoughts on potential answers. So, you are right, that younger folks today haven’t had the same reps a lot of us have had. And because those of us who are older are still in the workforce, we’ve got, what four generations potentially in a workforce.

Those that are older who had those reps and who have the expectations of what communication looks like in a professional setting. Those who are younger might be at a disadvantage. That said, I think in 10, 15 years, we’re going to see a very different way of which people communicate at work and the younger folks will be right in that sweet spot.

What I think are really important concepts for us to be thinking about is we look at our younger workers or any workers really in the age of AI. Communication is all about connection and it’s all about empathy and generative AI, while they can present you with relevant information, there’s something more to connection than just being relevant, and we can work on that.

So we can teach people to paraphrase, to listen, to connect ideas that might not have a direct logical connection. To read the emotion of somebody as they’re saying it, you know, somebody can say, I’d love feedback, but what they really mean is I want support because I feel like that meeting didn’t go so well.

So those are the skills that we need to be working on with people. The most popular class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is a class called “Touchy Feely”, that’s not its formal name, it’s called Interpersonal Dynamics. And it is those skills that our future leaders really need. And it is those skills that AI cannot replace.

And so I would lean heavily into that, as a way of helping people approach what is coming in terms of workforce.

Sam Caucci: I love it. I mean, I think this stuff is so important today.  Not just the realities of what has happened with workers, given maybe some of the assumptions and systems in place, but also given the new wave of workers coming in who are going to take over leadership roles and are moving into management roles and are very well intended. But maybe you’re just thirsty for systems at a time when, you know, so many organizations just maybe don’t invest as much as they would like to into the people development function.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, you know, when I was running learning and development, the argument I used to always make to get resources and, and it takes time to develop these skills. And what you’re preparing for is not the world of today, but the world of tomorrow. And we need to invest upfront to help make sure that we’re ready as it goes.

And to some success, I had some success doing that. I didn’t have as much success as I wanted to. 

Sam Caucci: Totally. Yeah, it feels like that’s, you know, that’s a challenge that, you know, has not changed much, you know, talking to HR leaders and people in roles and training and development that it’s a constant battle to make sure that you get this, the resources and the dollars and the investment from leadership in order to do the things that, you know, you want to do to prepare you to prepare your workforce.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely.

Sam Caucci: Well, Matt, final question for you, and everybody, you know, really excited for the release of Think Faster, Talk Smarter. You know, we’re talking about these obviously critical skills that are important for the future of work. Matt, what’s your hope for the future of work? 

Matt Abrahams: I love that question.

I would love for us all in our work to be able to really maximize our potential as individuals and as organizations. I am often brought in to triage issues that have arisen around communication and dysfunction and conflict, and I see such potential in so many of these organizations. So my wish for the future of work is that through effective communication, through collaboration, through respect, we will actually be able to maximize the potential of each individual and the good that the organizations they’re part of can contribute to the world.

I know that sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I have seen that when you go in and do the hard work that I’m often brought in to help companies with, goodness can come as a result. So, while Pollyanna-ish, it’s based on some real world experience I’ve had.

Sam Caucci: Matt, thanks for taking time. 

Matt Abrahams: Thank you. Thanks for the conversation, Sam.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Workforce, Learning

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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