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All the Hacks

💬 Excel in Spontaneous Conversations

Published 4 months ago • 11 min read

Hi Reader,

Turns out the majority of our communication is spontaneous.

It is rarely planned except for our formal presentations, pitches, or meetings. In the spur-of-the-moment we often feel anxiety because the urgency, desire for precision, and need to adapt to the situation converge simultaneously.

Good news! Successful spontaneous speaking, whether it's answering questions, providing feedback, or engaging in small talk, is a skill everyone can refine.

I recently spoke with Stanford Professor Matt Abrahams (🎧 Ep. 139), who has dedicated his life to enhancing people’s communication skills. He's also the bestselling author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter and hosts the Think Fast, Talk Smart Podcast.

In our conversation, he shared with me his six steps that, when practiced over time, can elevate anyone's spontaneous communication:

  • Step 1: Address anxiety
  • Step 2: Prioritize connection over perfection
  • Step 3: View these moments as opportunities, not threats
  • Step 4: Listen for the bottom line of what the person is saying
  • Step 5: Establish a structure for effective speaking
  • Step 6: Apply the 'F-word' (focus)

Let's dive into each one.


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😰 Step 1: Address anxiety

To effectively address anxiety, a two-pronged approach is necessary to consider symptoms and sources.

Symptoms of anxiety manifest physically in your body (a direct response to the fight or flight reaction):

  • Sweating or blushing
  • Speaking too fast

Sources of anxiety are the instigators and intensifiers, primarily the internal dialogue that hijacks your cognitive focus:

  • Overthinking your words
  • Judging (yourself) while speaking

Personally, my anxiety is more source-related. During a recent presentation at NasSummit, despite my comfort with the microphone and audience, I couldn't help but fixate on the two slides I didn't know with 100% certainty. Over and over again. And just moments before going on stage, I remember thinking:

"Can I just feel good about the thing I feel worse about?"

I wish I had talked to Matt before the presentation.

It's crucial to recognize that everyone's anxiety is unique; what unsettles you may differ from mine. And while it’s probably obvious, there's no one-size-fits-all solution (except for some deep breathing).

Here are some practical techniques you can explore:

  • If you experience sweating or blushing, cool down your body by holding something cold
  • If you speak too quickly, take a deep belly breath before you begin
  • If you get caught up in your thoughts, focus on the value you bring to the audience, reminding yourself that you're the only one who knows what to say

Check out Speaking Up without Freaking Out, which shares 50 techniques for managing anxiety.

🌐 Step 2: Prioritize connection over perfection

Trying to be perfect messes with your cognitive bandwidth.

Instead of worrying about what you're trying to say, consider what's relevant and essential to the person you're speaking to.

Small talk is a perfect example of this. Often, we feel pressured to be super interesting and insightful when we should be focused on being interested. We might make it feel like a competition (trying to say just the right things) when we should be making it a collaboration (trying for the back and forth).

When you're curious and connect with others, it becomes easier, and you don't have to worry about being perfect. That said, small talk carries much nuance, so I asked Matt for some hacks.

Hacks for Kicking Off Small Talk

You want to avoid the usual suspects: "How are you?" or "What do you do?"

Instead, start by highlighting things in the environment and context around you. If you were at a speaking event, you could mention something that happened before the keynote. For example, if everyone at an event wore blue shirts, you could say,

"Did I miss the memo? Why is everyone in blue?"

Avoiding the typical doom loops (standard greetings and surface-level questions) can enable a better start.

Hacks for Exiting with Grace

Ending a conversation is as important as starting one.

Most of us default to biology, "I have to go to the bathroom, or I'm hungry, or I'm thirsty."

Two problems with these:

  • It's too transparent and obvious
  • Sometimes, the person has to/wants to do the same – and now you're walking and talking more.

Instead, try the "white flag" approach. In auto racing, the white flag signals to the drivers that this is the final lap.

“Hey, there are some people over there I want to speak with, but before I go, I'm really curious for you to tell me more about your last job because we started talking about it.”

They share more. At the end of that, wrap it up with:

“That's really fascinating. Thank you so much for the conversation. I'm going to head over there to introduce myself before it's too late.”

You can do the same in your conversations. You can signal about something they mentioned, talk more, politely say thank you, and go on your way.

It's an excellent, polite way to exit.

Hacks for Handling Chatty People

A conversation is the process of turn-taking. There are two types: support turns and shifting turns.

A supporting turn is when you get someone to tell you more about what they're saying. A shifting turn when you move the topic to something you're interested in.

Imagine someone saying, "I just went to Hawaii." A supporting turn would ask, "Which island did you go to?" A shifting turn would be saying, "Oh, I just went to Costa Rica."

  • Supporting responses get people to keep talking
  • Shifting responses stop people from talking

You want to do more supporting turns (about three-quarters) and fewer shifting turns (about one-quarter) to keep the conversation going smoothly.

When faced with chatty people, first make sure you’re not accidentally encouraging it (sometimes the person talks a lot because you're encouraging it without realizing it). If that's not the case, the single best thing to use is to paraphrase to redirect the dialogue.

Highlight something of value the person has said. Name it. And then move on to something else.

Back to the Hawaii example -- If the person is going on and on, you can paraphrase,

"Yeah, it sounds like you were able to relax a lot. In fact, I love relaxing by reading a book. I'm curious: what other things do you do to relax?"

This method is particularly effective for moderators or facilitators in work settings seeking to maintain a productive conversation flow.

Three Important Words

"Tell me more."

When used sincerely, this phrase communicates genuine interest and invites the other person to share further. The simplicity of "tell me more" disarms any sense of threat, fostering a space for open and authentic dialogue.

🔭 Step 3: View these moments as opportunities, not threats

If somebody asks a question or any situation where you're caught off guard, you inherently feel threatened.

When this happens, it is crucial to give yourself time to turn it into an opportunity. Here are three practical ways to give yourself time:

  • Pause: Feeling pressured to respond instantly is common, but taking a beat is okay. A short pause allows you to gather your thoughts before responding. Time is on your side; don't rush.
  • Ask a clarifying question: Buying yourself time and ensuring a thoughtful response is possible by asking a clarifying question. It provides a momentary buffer and helps you understand the situation better, leading to a more relevant reply.
  • Reply with a paraphrase: Paraphrasing is a valuable tool (not to be confused with repeating verbatim like a five-year-old). Instead, it involves highlighting critical aspects of the question or request. This technique buys you time and allows for multitasking since paraphrasing requires lower-order cognitive skills.

Buying time through these methods enables you to gather your thoughts and respond more effectively, turning unexpected moments into opportunities for thoughtful interaction.

The power of "I don't know."

Admitting uncertainty is a powerful move.

If you don't know the answer, be honest about it. Saying, "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you," even boosts credibility more than providing a correct answer.

One, you're being honest. Two, you're demonstrating tenacity and going to find the answer. And three, you're showing you can think beyond what you know by saying my hunch or inkling is.

👂 Step 4: Listen for the bottom line of what the person is saying

Most of us could be better listeners.

We grasp the basics of what someone is saying and then dive into judgment, evaluation, rehearsal, or planning. To truly connect, we must enhance our listening skills, a journey we can all embark on.

When listening, focus on uncovering the bottom line, the core of what someone is expressing. Remember the trio: Pace, Space, and Grace.

  • Pace: Listening requires slowing down. Rushing around impedes effective listening, so take a moment to ease the pace. Deliberate, unhurried listening allows for a deeper understanding.
  • Space: Create both physical and mental space for effective listening. Find a quiet spot where you can genuinely hear the person. Clearing mental clutter is crucial—shed judgments, evaluations, and thoughts about what comes next. Be present and mentally attentive.
  • Grace: Grant yourself permission not only to absorb the words but also to discern the context and observe how the person interacts. Listening involves not just what is said but also tuning into your intuition.

We can avoid misinterpreting nuances and missing the mark with attentive listening. It's a skill worth honing for more meaningful connections and accurate comprehension.

🪜 Step 5: Establish a structure for effective speaking

Our brains crave structure—a well-defined beginning, middle, and end with a logical flow of ideas.

Without structure, communication can feel chaotic and stress-inducing, leaving listeners bewildered. The benefit of structure is freedom.

Consider the analogy of budgeting. While some view budgets as restrictive, I see them as tools that make life more freeing. A budget allows for planned spending and the freedom to spend with pre-determined permission.

Creating a structure gives your audience freedom from confusion to ensure your ideas are conveyed smoothly, enhancing understanding and engagement.

Matt shared three structures to use:

Problem-Solution-Benefit (for pitches and problem-solving)

Think about every pitch you've encountered — it was likely initiated by identifying an issue, proposing a solution or improvement, and concluding with the benefits of embracing the proposed changes.

PSB establishes a logical flow of ideas, ensuring a seamless connection between points. Whether addressing a problem or seizing an opportunity, this structure is not just a formula; it's a tool that enhances clarity and impact in your communication.

What-So-What-Now What (for everything)

This is the Swiss army knife of structures:

  • 'What' is the foundation. It represents your idea, product, service, or any offering you're presenting. It's the core content, the substance that you want to convey to your audience.
  • 'So What' involves explaining why your idea is relevant or essential to your audience. Here, you're answering the question, "Why should they care?" This step elevates your message from mere information to meaningful significance.
  • Now What is the process of guiding your audience on the next steps. Whether you're seeking feedback, suggesting actions, or outlining plans, 'Now What' propels the conversation forward.

Imagine a scenario where someone asks you for feedback – Praising someone's performance in a meeting ('What'), explaining that clarity is crucial for effective communication ('So What'), and suggesting they slow down for better articulation in the future ('Now What').

I might say, "You did a great job, except when you talked about the implementation plan. You babbled, and you didn't go into as much depth as you did the other parts. People think you're not as prepared when you speak quickly without giving depth. Next time, I'd like you to slow down and include these two specific examples.”

This structure extends beyond verbal communication. Apply it to email correspondence—use the subject line for the 'Now What,' making your intention clear, while the body of the email houses the 'What' and 'So What.'

This versatile framework ensures your messages are heard, understood, and acted upon.

W.H.A.T. (for toasts or tributes)

Toasts (and tributes), while common, can sometimes become cringe-worthy experiences. Try this

  • Why are we all here: When initiating a toast, clarify the purpose. In some settings, it's obvious (like a wedding), but where it is a bit fuzzier, specify why this particular tribute is significant. For example, acknowledging a team's recent product release as a noteworthy achievement.
  • How are you connected: Establishing your connection to the event is crucial. Whether it's 20 years of friendship or a professional collaboration, providing context ensures your audience understands your perspective.
  • Anecdote (or two): Ensure they are clear, concise, and relevant to everyone present. Avoid lengthy or overly personal stories, keeping them appropriate for the occasion. These anecdotes help create a connection and make your tribute memorable.
  • Thank you (or toast): Conclude your speech with gratitude or an actual toast. It might be a cheerful "Cheers!" at a wedding accompanied by a clink of glasses. In a work setting, express gratitude to the team and anticipate future successes. This final step wraps up your tribute neatly.

🤬 Step 6: Apply the 'F-word' (focus)

Matt's mother had this saying, "Tell me the time, don't build me the clock."

The problem is that most of us are clock builders – we say more than we need to. Either because we want to rationalize and demonstrate the thought process we went through or just show off how smart we are.

The thing is, people just want to know the time.

Even in spontaneous situations, consider your goal to address what you want people to know, how you want them to feel, and what you want them to do. Without it, you're more likely to ramble. Focus on the audience's needs and establish a clear goal to streamline your message.

  • Prioritize your words; opt for simplicity over complexity
  • Avoid unnecessary repetition and choose efficient language
  • Paraphrase to help you articulate your thoughts

It takes practice

The unconventional insight is that you have to practice and prepare to be spontaneous.

Initially, this notion might sound peculiar. However, consider other aspects of life; in sports, players engage in drills and practice to enhance flexibility and agility during the actual game.

Similarly, in communication, practicing specific techniques and preparing for various scenarios can significantly improve your spontaneity. This awareness liberates you from constraints, allowing you to easily navigate interactions. As you become attuned to these practices, you'll observe patterns, discover what works best for you, and ultimately enhance your spontaneous communication skills.


💭 Parting Thoughts

As someone who reads many transcripts of my own words, I always think about filler words. And I’ve learned how great AI is at creating awareness and improving the habit.

Check out Like So on your phone. It activates your phone's microphone, allowing you to identify specific words you want to minimize. It provides a gentle vibration, ping, or beep each time you use those words, making you conscious of them.

Some browser plugins designed for virtual platforms (e.g., Zoom) solely record your voice, excluding others. Check out Poised, which highlights instances when you use filler words, helping you identify and analyze patterns.

Thanks to Matt for sharing insights to help us all become better communicators, definitely check out his podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart to go deeper.

Your input matters! Please share any tips or hacks for spontaneous conversations. Feel free to reply to this email or send your thoughts to ​email@allthehacks.com​.​

All the Hacks

by Chris Hutchins

Learn all the hacks to upgrade and optimize your life, money and travel – all while spending less and saving more.

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