Listen to the podcast to learn about
03:00 - Communication Game: Reflect, Practice & 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?
Read the complete transcript below
Sanjay Swamy 00:55
Hi, everybody, this is Sanjay Swami here Welcome again to a new episode of the Prime Venture Partners podcast. I have a guest here today from California from Stanford GSB. Professor Matt Abrahams. Matt teaches a variety of programmes, but specifically around communication skills, and actually has a very successful podcast in this area as well, as well as author of books. Matt, welcome to the Prime show. And great to have you here.
Matt Abrahams 01:25
Excited to be with you. And thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Sanjay Swamy 01:30
Great. So maybe we can kick it off a little bit with a little bit about your background and about the amazing programme that you run at Stanford, some of the books you’ve written about, and of course, a little about the podcast.
Matt Abrahams 01:40
Well, thank you. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about all those things . I am very focused on communication and have been for a long time. After graduate school, I went to work in the corporate world I was an operator ran learning and development and saw just how critical effective communication skills can be to success within an organisation, be it a founder through somebody who who’s leading a large organisation, the ability to communicate clearly concisely in a way that’s compelling to others is, is essential. And so I was fortunate enough to come back to academia. I’ve been at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business for over 12 years, I teach a class on strategic communication. I’ve written a book called speaking up without freaking out designed to help people feel more comfortable and confident in their speaking.
And one of my true pleasures is to host the past Think fast talk smart for the Business School. And in that podcast, we focus exclusively on communication skills, in all different varieties. We just had an episode on strategic communication, we’ve had episodes on cultural communication, negotiation influence, and really, we’re just trying to help people better their ability and comfort when it comes to communication.
Sanjay Swamy 02:55
Wonderful, I think you’re being very modest when you say we host a podcast, it’s one of the most widely received podcasts. And a distributed podcast, I would love to, if you could share with our audience some of the latest statistics on the podcast.
Matt Abrahams 03:10
Oh, You’re making me blush. So we have been very fortunate, we’ve found quite an audience, internationally, as well as domestically here in the United States. In your area of the world, we are rated as the top careers podcast in India on Apple, we do very well on Spotify as well. And we are ranked very highly in the business category as well. So we thought we were creating a business podcast, we ended up actually creating a careers podcast for people who really are striving to improve their abilities at work. And that’s been great. And we’re doing very well in other areas of the world as well. So it’s been fun to get emails and LinkedIn messages from people all over the place. And it’s just really, I love the fact that people are taking benefit and finding value and applying what we’re talking about in their careers.
Sanjay Swamy 04:00
Wonderful. So just as background, Matt, our podcast, as you discussed earlier, is really targeting entrepreneurs and people in the startup ecosystem. And, you know, most entrepreneurs, you know, get a brain wave, you know, they keep trying to push it away, but it keeps gnawing back at them saying no, this is an opportunity and you’ve got to dig into it some more and make it happen and eventually they leave everything else. And this becomes their life’s mission.
And along the way, of course, they’re constantly having to make presentations, it’s just not something they might necessarily have bargained for, whether it is presenting to family to get them to quit their job, whether it is to investors to support them, co founders to join them, employees to join, retaining them and of course customers. And many might do this naturally and you know, they’re great at their presentations and communications but in general not everybody necessarily is taught this and that’s another question I want to come back to later. Why is this not taught in schools in a formal manner? How can this be something that people learn or some techniques and frameworks that, you know, that can be something very linear, not unnatural, you actually still can do a reasonably strong job of presentation and communication? What are some tips and tricks you would suggest?
Matt Abrahama 05:15
So I know this is going to surprise you. But I do think it’s something we can learn and work on. I’ve dedicated my life to helping people do that. And I’ve seen amazing transformations. So I do believe people can work on it. I asked people to think about if you’ve ever learned to play a musical instrument or play a sport, how did you do it? And how did you get better at it? Well, you took time to focus on it, you challenged yourself to work on it, and you did drills and got advice and guidance from others along the way. And the same is true with communication.
So if you want to get better at communication, there are several things to do first and foremost, you need to be open to it and be willing to put in the effort. It is effortful, it’s not something that just comes quickly. But there are a lot of resources available to you. We talked about the podcast I host, there are other online resources, books, classes, coaching, lots of ways to get better. But fundamentally, it really means you have to start by looking at what you do, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work for you, observing what others do and see what works and doesn’t work for them. So a lot of learning to communicate better is reflecting, being willing to practise and iterate and being open to feedback from other people.
Sanjay Swamy 06:30
So that’s great, I think, are there a couple of specific examples, you could drill down into Matt,
Matt Abrahams 06:40
Sure, perhaps the most vivid example of somebody or people who have seen big differences are people who start from a very scared place. Many people are very nervous speaking in front of others, we have research that suggests upwards of 75% of people feel very uncomfortable and nervous speaking in high stakes situations. So it is something that people can work on and feel more comfortable and confident they can learn to manage their anxiety. And I’ve worked with many, many people, hundreds of people, if not 1000s, who have started being very nervous and over time by working on it by creating what I call an anxiety management plan, have been able to not only feel more confident, but actually be excited about delivering communication.
So a number of people, sometimes very senior leaders, other times just line employees, founders as well, you know, you as you mentioned, people, people found companies, because they’re very passionate about the problem they’re solving or the technology or service they’re bringing to the market, they don’t found companies because they’re really excited to speak in front of others. So starting dealing with anxiety is critical. There are other people who are brilliant, really smart, but the ability to to make that information that they have in their heads, and in their experience accessible to others, is really hard. So I work carefully with others to help them translate, if you will, what they know and what’s important to them for other audiences.
So I’ve seen great success, typically very scientific and technical people have benefited from this accessibility training, how do they translate the information, and then there’s some people who just need help being more engaging, I think all of us when COVID hit and we all became virtual, we all needed to learn how to engage people differently. You know, when I’m remote from you, I can’t rely on some of the tricks I used to rely on. So I’ve also helped people become more engaging in a remote fashion. So lots of transformation. It does take time, it does take effort, but you can really see the difference for sure. I don’t name names, but I can certainly tell you there are people who’ve spoken at Davos, there are people who have received Nobel Prizes, there are people who have given TED talks all who have benefited from this kind of work for sure.
Sanjay Swamy 09:00
And what are some of the common mistakes that you know that are so obvious to you? Well, the first time you meet somebody, maybe you can point out some of mine as well. But in general, ‘Oh, yeah, I do that too’.
Matt Abrahams 09:15
Two things for sure. The two biggest mistakes I run into are one people start from the wrong place? People start from a place of here’s what I want to say to you. And that’s exactly the wrong place to start. All good communication needs to be audience centric focused on the audience. So it’s not about what you want to say, it’s about what your audience needs to hear, which means you have to take time to reflect on your audience and think about what are their interests? What is their knowledge level? What’s important for them? And how can I take my content and focus it on their needs, so that they want to pay attention? You know, as well as I know that in our society today, our attention is pulled in so many different directions. And in order to get people to focus on our message, we have to make it relevant and salient. And the only way to do that is to really understand their needs.
So the first mistake many people make, founders make all the time is to start by saying, Here’s what I want to share with you. Or here’s why my technology is great, rather than thinking about how does this help, or how does this influence the audience from their perspective. And then the second mistake is people just list information. It’s just list, list, slide, slide, slide bullet point, after bullet point, our brains are not wired to process information that way, our brains are wired for story for a logical connection of ideas. So 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. So the two biggest mistakes I see are people are self centric in their messaging, and they don’t have a structure. So when I work with people all the time we start there to help their content resonate more.
Sanjay Swamy 11:00
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s interesting. I tweet and blog every now and then and I write a lot about, you know, when you’re an entrepreneur and meeting us and you know, representing your business to us, please ask us, you know, as many questions as you can about us, right? And yet, every single time, and I also feel it probably relaxes the founders a little bit, because we will sort of get into the meeting, right? But invariably I ask them the question in an actual meeting and say, you know, what would you like to know about us? And they say we’ve read all your blogs and your tweets, we know everything about you. And I say, obviously, you didn’t read them? Because the most common thing I say is ask us questions. And the reason that’s important is, you know, we do a lot of B2B Investing, and I am also evaluating, you know, how is this founder going to be in the sales meeting, right? Are they going to go to the customer? And talk about the 17 features in their product? Or are they going to listen? And so these are the three things I need to highlight during this meeting.
Matt Abrahams 12:00
Absolutely. And I find that highly ironic that they say they know everything about you, except they clearly don’t, because if they did, they would be asking you questions. So anybody listening ask questions,
Sanjay Swamy 12:15
Thank you for the plug. But no, I think it’s also probably because I just like to talk about myself. No, just kidding. And of course, I think there are three different scenarios, right? One is where it’s a large audience, and it is meant to be a presentation with some q&a, perhaps at the end. The second is where it’s a face to face meeting, but perhaps with a slightly more intimate group. And the third is, in all these zoom calls that we are on. Where you hinted that you know, these are quite different. Well, one of the questions I always struggle with is, how does one know things are going well? Or not going well? Right? And can you course correct in the middle of the meeting? So would it be helpful maybe in these three scenarios, if you could break down some cues for the presenter to say, you know, to know that they’re doing well or not doing well?
Matt Abrahams 13:10
So let me answer this question a little differently, because I think it’s a very important question. And for many reasons, one, it recognises that communication is a transaction, it’s two way, right? It’s not just me broadcasting. So that’s really important. It also highlights the difference in the way in which we communicate in terms of the setting and the context, etc. But I want to take a step back and say what you’re really talking about is engagement. And to me engagement is how do you sustain the attention of your audience and make adjustments if you aren’t getting that connection and attention that you want? And that means that we have to actually purposely build into our communication, engagement techniques. We can’t just assume that if I say something, you’re immediately going to be engaged by it.
So there are really three fundamental ways to engage an audience: one is physical, do something physical to get them engaged. What do I mean by that? Well, take a poll, have them raise their hands or type something into the chat, have them watch a short video clip or look at a particular image, product, or project or product or video, have them interact with each other. These are all ways to get people physically involved when people are physically involved, their brains will follow.
Second, you can invoke mental engagement by asking questions. When I ask questions, you think of the answers, even if I don’t ask you to speak them. Another way for mental involvement is analogies, use comparisons. We learn a lot of information by comparing what we know, to what we don’t know. And then finally, there’s linguistic engagement using language. So for example, using people’s names or the word you if I say, you should really know this, or aren’t you curious about this, that pulls you in? Or you can use finally linguistically what I call time travelling language. So I can say picture this or imagine or what if you could all of those phrases put you into the future, and you see it, or I can put you in the past, I can say, think back to when I remember when that puts you into the past.
So if you use these engagement techniques, you are likely to get your audience engaged. And the answer to your question is how do you know if you’re engaged and people are connected? You watch after those techniques you use? Are people engaged? And if they’re not, then you have to course correct. So if I ask a question and nobody answers, that’s input and feedback for me that they might not understand what I’m saying, or they might not care. So I might then in that moment, need to adjust. But if I don’t put that engagement technique in, which serves as a test, to see if they’re actually paying attention and involved, then I don’t know. And certain techniques work better for certain contexts.
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 Sanjay. Right? That’d be ridiculous. But I could if I’m on Zoom, say go to the reactions button and give me a thumbs up? If, right, so each modality has different ways of getting that engagement, but across all of them, you need to use engagement techniques, and you need to be monitoring the response. I love the little applause that you put up there. Thank you. So a long winded answer to your question, but the question was quite profound, and quite, quite important. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on it.
Sanjay Swamy 16:45
That’s outstanding. I think those four or five techniques that you talked about, I think, people who internalise those and practise those regularly, and you can do it early, you can do it in the middle of the presentation, you can do it later. And also, I mean, all these techniques have have tremendous as you say, you know, and it actually I find it relaxes me a lot when I do it. And I know there are times when I have sort of memorised present presentations and have forgotten to do these things. And, I can come out of those. And I say, Well, that didn’t go as well as I thought it was going to though I seem more prepared than I was because I think a little bit of spontaneity and unplanned things, also sometimes can play a very positive role.
Matt Abrahams 17:30
Absolutely. And in fact, if you think about it, most of our communication is spontaneous. And I personally am not a big supporter of memorising, because memorising makes it actually harder for you to deliver. Because you’re constantly comparing what you’re saying to what you wanted to say, which means you can’t focus on the moment so I would much rather people practise and be prepared without being scripted and memorised.
Sanjay Swamy 17:55
These are outstanding points, and I am tempted to sign up. One of the things I struggle with is, you know, we obviously back some very young companies and very young founders, but at least as entrepreneurs or sometimes even in age, many times actually these days.
And one of the things I always say they say, Well, we went and met this other investor and we had a great meeting. Right? And then nothing happens. And I’m always asking them well, how do you know it was a great meeting? Right? Of course, there are some obvious things where the follow up was immediate from the other side and things like that. But, I think some of the things you mentioned here also can apply in many of those situations where you know that the meeting is going on. There is a connection as you say, right? between the people and things like that.
So one of the things I’ve also wondered is, you know, founders are always in difficult situations, right? And, and we’re seeing a lot more of that right now in the market, especially when it’s, you know, with layoffs with firing, having sort of these crucial conversations with colleagues who are not performing up to snuff.
Because I always tell people look, if you’re being laid off, it should never be a surprise to you, right? Things have not been going well over a period of time. But many people are gonna find it difficult to have the tough conversations early, and all of a sudden, you know, it’s like falling off a cliff. So now, you know, we need to terminate you. And the other person is kind of surprised, right? So how do you suggest people communicate with their colleagues in a direct and honest manner? Along the way, right, rather than putting the evil day off, right, any any thoughts around that?
Matt Abrahams 19:50
You’re asking about feedback and I think feedback is critical in communication, feedback is something that takes courage both to receive and to give. Many of us avoid giving feedback, especially critical, constructive feedback, because it’s uncomfortable, we don’t know how to do it. But part of it is you want to build a culture within an organisation, and especially the small companies that you fund initially, is a great time to put in and help instil those values in that culture to build feedback as part of the process. We all have to essentially trust that others will help us be better.
And know that when somebody gives us feedback, it comes from a place of trying to help rather than to critique. And if we have that instilled in our culture, then it becomes easier to start to give feedback to people and set expectations for people so that they aren’t surprised if something bad happens, or something good happens.
So you know, the annual performance review, I think, is a is a really risky endeavour, because you should be giving feedback all along the way, you know, so people aren’t surprised at the end of the year, that what I didn’t get a good rating, or Oh, I’m getting a great rating. And that’s surprising to me. So taking the time to check in, taking the time to highlight both successes and areas of improvement are really, really important. Let me introduce I talked about the value of structure, let me introduce a structure that I really like for feedback and give an example of how you can use it to solve the problem that you’re addressing.
There are three simple questions that I really rely on for using structure to help and they are what, so what and now what, what is the idea, that belief, you know, the product, the service, in this case, the feedback that you’re giving? So what is, why is it important and relevant? And then finally, the now what is, what would you like to do next? Or how could the person improve?
So imagine that I have a colleague whose work product is not up to the standard that I believe it should be, or others believe it should be. I can give feedback in this structure by saying something like the recent report that you turned in, had some errors or had some missing data in it. That’s the What the So what, when I get reports that aren’t complete or aren’t accurate, it puts us in an awkward position because we’re making decisions based on that data. That’s the so what. The now what is next time before you submit the report, I’d like you to verify some of the data with this colleague of yours. And then together, let’s go ahead and review it before you submit it. That’s the now what. So what this structure does what? So what? now what? Is it helps you package it, part of the reason people don’t give feedback is they don’t know how to say it, right?
So if you have a way to say it, that can give you the courage to help. And if you frame it in what So what now what it can come across as supportive, collaborative, and with a common purpose in mind, rather than you messed up and you didn’t do that, that’s very accusatory, puts the person on the defensive. So I think setting up a culture and then having a structure and knowing that we’re trying to help each other is the way to do it.
Sanjay Swamy 23:15
Yeah, I think that’s outstanding. I’m going to start using it today itself in some of my meetings, the what so what and now what. I think, just for me to internalise also because you know, obviously as investors we are constantly dealing with entrepreneurs, and in a sense that we are in a, as a seed investor, I jokingly tell founders, it’s easier to get out of a marriage than a relationship with your seed investor, because we are here for the rest of your journey. And we have to just make it work. And there will be different things that work with different sets of founders, and part of our role is to adapt. But I think this framework of what so what are now what I think can be something that will be effective even for us. I think of focusing on the issue, not on the individual.
Matt Abrahams 24:10
Very much so. Yes, that’s right, focus on the problem, not the person, put emotion aside and try to really come out with specific guidance. 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. But again, you have to start early and feel safe and comfortable giving that feedback and receiving it
Sanjay Swamy 24:40
And receiving it actually, that’s the most important thing as well. Right. And I think what I find very effective is, is the meetings outside of the board meetings, for example, with founders where the actual work gets done. And you know, the board meetings, hopefully, are mostly a formality. If things are going… again, if there are these in between meetings, right, then there are no surprises. And I think that’s the same philosophy we like, like. So, I have a slightly philosophical question, right. I mean, this is probably the most important aspect of life that I feel is never taught formally in schools.
I mean, you’re teaching it even now at the grad school level. Right. But now, we’ve actually seen this as a commercial opportunity and a backed company called Planetsparks that does this for young children. And we’re seeing some success with adults as well. But why isn’t this taught so far in formally in school? I mean, we have debating contests, and it’s always the same three kids, you know, every year keep winning the debate year after year after year. Why does the system and you know, the US probably is the most advanced here, you know, not recognise that this is a formal thing that has to be taught in a structured manner at a very young age.
Matt Abrahams 25:55
Yeah, it is a significant problem globally, it’s not just in the United States, it’s not just where you are. The focus on communication skills are often focused on the writing, not the speaking, part, reading, writing, rather than the speaking. And I think we could trace this back to monastic times, you know, hundreds of years ago, where it was all about reading sacred texts, writing sacred texts, it wasn’t about speaking, necessarily.
Speaking is also more nerve wracking, it invites a lot of anxiety. And I think a lot of teachers and people in power are afraid when they speak in front of others. So it’s hard to think about or talk about. And I think the third area that leads to this is, we’ve all been speaking since we are roughly around one across cultures, most people start using language around one year of age. So we feel like we know how to do it, or we should know how to do it, because we’ve been doing it for so long. And so thinking of it is just something we do. And very early on in our lives, we get the sense of I’m okay with this, or I’m not so good at it. And then we just see ourselves that way.
And once we’re in that box ourselves, our mindset as such, it’s really hard to change it. So when you have an environment that doesn’t encourage or support it or teach it, and you yourself, think you should be good at it and either decide you are or you’re aren’t, then you end up in this circumstance where we’re not seeking it out, and nobody’s providing it. So how do we get it? As we mature, as we get older, we then come to see the value of communication. And that’s why the company you invest in is so important because they target children.
The work I did when I was a high school teacher here in the United States. The work I do today with the with some of the nonprofits, I’m a part of, really strive to bridge this gap and really help but we, you know, there’s a whole bunch of research coming out of the United States that when you teach kids how to communicate well and critically think they do better in life shocked surprise, right? So we need to build the programmes to actually support it. So I think there’s a long history. I think there’s some psychology that comes into it, and we need to change it. You know, the whole reason I do the podcast I do and the career I’ve chosen is to really try to change this so that we can hear from everybody, and we can learn from everybody. That’s how organisations thrive is when you have smart people sharing ideas, it doesn’t mean you have to agree. But at least you have the ideas out there. So I’m working on it, maybe I’ll put a company together and come to you for some funding on it.
Sanjay Swamy 28:40
Sure, it’ll be a privilege. I’ll come back to another point, one of the other important aspects is negotiating skills, right, which is kind of related a lot to communication. And this is a little bit of poker, there’s a little bit of pushing the boundaries on, you know, grey areas, perhaps, but not lying outright, I think that that’s definitely a boundary, right?
And I feel many people struggle, right when they’re negotiating valuation with the next round investor, when you’ve got term sheets, or you’re posturing that you have multiple term sheets, and you’re trying to push somebody over the line and say, hey, you know, you got to get this done? What are some techniques that you think, you know, and the same thing happens in sales as well, right? You’re negotiating, you’re trying to find the optimal price when you’re negotiating with the customer. And the customer is also trying to say, How low can I push him before he’s gonna walk away from the deal? And some thoughts around how people can do this in an ethical yet graceful manner and get the best outcome? For everyone, right? I think these are all long term relationships and the at the end of the day,
Matt Abrahams 29:50
Absolutely. And I am not an expert in negotiation. I am fortunate to work with some who are and I’ve interviewed a few on the podcast I do. So I will echo what I learned from them. And some of it is just fundamental communication skills. One, you really have to think about what’s important to the person you’re negotiating with, what are their key values? And what are the priorities to those, right, we don’t bring to our negotiating, where every point is equally important. So we need to think through what’s most important to the person or people I’m negotiating with.
And similarly, we need to do the same with ourselves and figure out what’s the most important part because the things that are really important to us, we might want to hold close, or we might want to not be as flexible with but the things that are less important to us, or where we can do some of the negotiation. So many people treat all elements of a negotiation as equally important, when in fact they’re not. And so to better understand our own position, and the position of others is helpful. What’s important in most communication is the ability to listen and understand where’s the person coming from? What’s their concern?
So a lot of people who negotiate think negotiating just means putting your position out there, that’s an important part. But listening to the other person is important as well. And really reflecting on where your boundaries are, what Where are my boundaries, in terms of ethics, in terms of where I walk away, and you have to be willing to walk away, if you’re not willing to walk away, then you’re not really negotiating, right? You’re bargaining and bargaining and negotiation, while related are not the same thing. So it’s important to really come from that perspective. And then being willing to step away either completely or temporarily, let things calm down and reflect is really, really important. What we know is striving for a win win where everybody can feel like they win is really important.
So it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about striving to find a win win. Actually the episode of my podcast that happens to be airing right now I interview, an international expert who teaches at Stanford, her name is Michele Gelfand. And she shared with me when we talked about negotiation, something I had not thought about. But she said, we also have to negotiate the metaphors we use for negotiation. So if we see negotiation as a battle, or if I see it as battle, I’m going to approach my negotiation with you very differently than if I see my negotiation with you as playing a game.
And so how we see, negotiation is something that we also have to negotiate. So if you come in saying, I’m going to do battle where I need to destroy you, versus I come in saying, Hey, we’re playing a game here where we can have some fun or have some positive outcome, we’re going to be if we’re not aligned on that, it’s gonna turn into a difficult situation. So I found that fascinating to think about negotiating, not the item but negotiating, how we negotiate is interesting. So I love doing my podcast because I learned so much
Sanjay Swamy 32:55
I think you’ve already shared some amazing insights, as well for our listeners, and I’ve learned a lot already. So Matt, I really appreciate the time. It’s been wonderful. I think we could go on and on. There’s just so much in this area and yet, so little material and all of us have to do it.. I think that’s the key here. And I’m sure our listeners will resonate with several of the insights that you shared. I’m sure you’re probably gonna get a few requests. So is there a way for them to contact you, let me know, I’ll put it in the podcast notes.
Matt Abrahams 33:35
So two of the easiest ways to reach me on LinkedIn, you can find me on LinkedIn, I do a lot of work there. And I curate a website called Nofreakingspeaking.com. And there’s a contact link there. So happy to chat further. And thank you so much for having me on. And thank you for putting a priority on communication. A lot of people don’t think about it and yet as you shared, it’s critical.
Sanjay Swamy 34:00
Wonderful. Thanks, Matt. Great having you on the show.
Matt Abrahams 34:02
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