Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Think faster and talk smarter. Tips from Matt Abrahams that will make you a better writer and speaker

Episode Summary

947. Do you wish you could think on your feet faster? Well, Stanford business professor and communication expert Matt Abrahams has insights on having great off-the-cuff conversations that are also surprisingly helpful for writers. Matt shares the secrets of chunking when you're writing, tailoring your message for different audiences, and using structures to guide your thinking. Also, as a comfortable speaker but nervous writer, Matt shares his tips on how to get that difficult first draft down on the page. I found his new book, "Think Faster, Talk Smarter," to be incredibly helpful, so I knew I had to get him to share his expertise with you!

Episode Notes

947. Do you wish you could think on your feet faster? Well, Stanford business professor and communication expert Matt Abrahams has insights on having great off-the-cuff conversations that are also surprisingly helpful for writers. Matt shares the secrets of chunking when you're writing, tailoring your message for different audiences, and using structures to guide your thinking. Also, as a comfortable speaker but nervous writer, Matt shares his tips on how to get that difficult first draft down on the page. I found his new book, "Think Faster, Talk Smarter," to be incredibly helpful, so I knew I had to get him to share his expertise with you!

| Transcript:

Matt Abrahams is a leading expert in communication with decades of experience as an educator, author, podcast host, and coach. As a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting. He received Stanford GSB’s Alumni Teaching Award in recognition of his teaching students around the world. Outside of the classroom, Matt is a sought-after keynote speaker and communication consultant. He has helped countless presenters improve and hone their communication, including some who have delivered IPO road shows as well as Nobel Prize, TED, and World Economic Forum presentations. His online talks garner millions of views and he hosts the popular, award-winning podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart The Podcast. His new book Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You're Put on the Spot provides tangible, actionable skills to help even the most anxious of speakers succeed when speaking spontaneously, such as navigating Q&A sessions, shining in job interviews, providing effective feedback, making small talk, fixing faux pas, persuading others. His previous book Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting has helped thousands of people manage speaking anxiety and present more confidently and authentically.


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Episode Transcription


Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. And today, we have so much other cool stuff because I am here with Matt Abrahams, the author of the new book "Think Faster, Talk Smarter," based loosely on his podcast "Think Fast,Talk Smart." 

Matt is a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presentation.He's helped countless presenters improve and hone their communication, including some who have done IPO roadshows, TED Talks, given talks at the World Economic Forum and even Nobel Prize presentations. His online talks garner millions of views. And again, as I said, he hosts the popular award-winning podcast "Think Fast, Talk Smart." 

Matt, welcome. Thank you for being here today.


I am thrilled to be here with you, Mignon. I love what it is that you do. And I myself am a grammarian, too.


Oh, I love to hear that. Well, your book is well written. I mean, I enjoyed the content itself, but also the sentence structure was wonderful.


Oh, thank you. 


Well, you know, I thought it was really interesting because you told me that you are a nervous writer, and you're a great speaker. I am a nervous speaker and, you know, pretty comfortable writer. So it was so interesting that you're the opposite. Why don't you tell us about that?


Yeah, you know, I still am trying to figure it out. So I…for a lot of my life have been very comfortable — although I've worked hard at feeling confident — speaking. I think part of it has to do with my last name. My last name starts with an "Ab," so all through elementary school, high school, and even in college some, I was always first to go. I knew exactly where my seat would be, front row, center, and I would always be called on. So, I think I developed a level of confidence in speaking. 

But when it comes to writing and just knowing that it's part of my permanent record, if you will, I've been a nervous speaker. And I know that's unusual. A lot of people are much more nervous speaking than writing, but I'm the opposite. In fact, the very first book I wrote, "Speaking Up Without Freaking Out," I dictated the book. I spoke it, transcribed it, and then edited, which was much easier for me than actually writing the book in and of itself.


That's wild. I know some fiction writers who do that. They make an outline, and then they dictate their books, and they say it's actually much faster than typing. Do you find it to be faster too?


Well, it certainly feels better, so I think it feels faster. I've never really timed it, but I will sit and stress over having to generate words on a screen versus speaking.


Wow. So how much of a chunk can you do at once when you're dictating?


Well, that's a great question. I can do a lot at a time. I mean, some of my audio files are good 30, 45 minutes. It takes a long time for the transcribing tool to get it all done. But once I get going thinking and speaking, I can go on for a long time. Just ask my family. They'll tell you I talk way too much.


That's amazing. So do you think that because you are a lecturer that are you building off work that you've covered in your classes? Or is it just as easy for you when you're doing original content generation?


Well, certainly it's easier with content that I've crafted before and thought about before.

But still, when I was writing the new book, where a lot of the material was new to me, I would read, I would research, I would interview people.

And it's much easier for me to synthesize through talking than through writing.


That just blows my mind.

How much revision do you have to do after you get it down?


Oh, I do a lot of editing. Editing for me on the paper is not hard or on the screen. That's not hard for me. It's the original content creation that's hard in my writing. And so I found a way around it. The speaking helps, it gets the stuff out there.

And then editing for me is different.

I don't mind editing at all.

In fact, I kind of find editing fun.

To me, it's a puzzle.

And I like solving the puzzle of my own writing to make it clearer and more concise.


I agree. I prefer editing to writing too, actually. It's easier when you already have something on the page you can work with. And do you have any other hacks to help you with your writing? 

I'm sure there are some listeners who also are nervous writers and are looking for any tricks you might have to improve their process too?


So I have three things that I think help me. One I talk a lot about in the new book "Think Faster Talk Smarter," which is really "be in service of your audience." And so when I write, I write with my audience in mind. I think just I learned that as a teacher. I'm the son of a teacher. My mother was a teacher, and I just grew up with this notion that you're in service of others when you communicate often. And so that helps me to really think about what's the best way to say something.

I also find, and I have several writing friends, one in particular, his name is Seth, help me understand that you can write in different places, and when you write in different places, you feel different. So sometimes I'll write outside, sometimes I'll write in one room in my house versus another. So I change it up, and it just changes the feel for me.

And then the other thing I do that helps is I will force myself to stop writing after a few paragraphs and read out loud and edit right away. I find for me I'm in that zone thinking about that topic. So if I were to write multiple pages and then go back and edit, that's not as effective for me. I am more effective when I'm in the zone focused on that particular topic.

I obviously will go back later and clean things up, but those are the three things that I think help me the most and maybe help some of your listeners.


You know what, I love that because it's super interesting because it's different from the advice you often hear for fiction writing.

So for fiction writing, many experts will tell you never go back and edit, or you will spend your whole life editing and never finish. So they are like, write at the beginning, write to the end. If you don't know what happens, write, you know, "fight scene, will go here" and then keep going, you know?

But I love how — and no writing advice is universal, and you have found something that works for you.


And I write nonfiction. I mean, mine is to help people. It's very practical; it's tactical. So I certainly can understand if you're telling a narrative and you want to keep it going and get in that flow. 

For me, it's more like chunks of educational material, and I want to finish that thought, if you will, before moving on to the next lesson. My book isn't like a lesson, but it's a way of thinking about, hey, here's a concept. I finish that concept. I move on to the next concept. 

So I can certainly see the different type of writing and the different type of audience would affect the advice.


Yeah. Well, one thing about chunking, one thing I loved about your book that I thought — you're talking about speaking, but it's relevant to writing as well — is chunking your information because it was so fascinating that people remember things at the beginning of a talk more than anything else. So tell us a little bit more about how you use that knowledge.


Yeah. So on my podcast, "Think Fast, Talk Smart," I was interviewing Zak Tormala. He's a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. He studies persuasion and influence. 

And we were talking about how to make sure people remember what you say and therefore maybe act on it. And he reminded me of a very well-known principle in psychology. There's primacy and recency. We remember what we hear first and last the most.

And so research he's done and others have done shows that if you chunk things, so you break it into little pieces, it means you have more beginnings and endings, which means there are more opportunities for people to remember what you said first and last. And I thought that was wonderful, because when we speak, we can think about it in terms of chunks and units. And I think the same is true when you write.

And so it can help us, one, for ourselves to focus, because it's easier to focus on less than more. And two, it can really help your audience because you have opportunities to begin and end more frequently.

So I found that fascinating. And when I write now, I think about writing in chunks. And what's the start and what's the stop of each chunk.


Right, and the point where you end is just as important as the point where you start because you want to keep people interested in what comes next too.


That's exactly right. And which builds — I'm a huge fan of transitions. Transitions are important in writing, but in speaking, they are critical. I often use the analogy of being a tour guide. As a college student, I was a tour guide. I was desperate for money. It was the highest paying job.

And the biggest thing they drilled into our heads to be a good tour guide, and I think this correlates to being a good writer, a good speaker, a good communicator, is never lose your tour group. You're a bad tour guide if you get people lost. And the same is true as a writer, as a speaker, as a communicator. If you lose your audience, you've done no good there. And the place you lose people the most, spoken as a tour guide who occasionally would lose people, is when you move from one place to the next — so we've looked at one thing, we're gonna walk over there and look at something else — people wander off. And the same is true in your communication. If you don't bridge that gap and keep people together, they get lost, and that's those transitions. So when you focus on beginnings and endings, that's the opportunity to build that transition in between the chunks of your ideas.


And you're talking about losing people in different locations. Another thing I loved was talking about meeting people where they are, giving them the information in whatever way they want to get it. Talk about how you do that.


Well, the advice is to try to meet your audience where they are in terms of your material. But in order to do that, you have to do reconnaissance, reflection, and research on your audience to understand what they know, what they feel, what their attitudes are, where the resistance points might be. So we really have to think about our audience.

Now, it might be a little different if you're writing fiction, but when you're communicating, giving a presentation, when you're writing nonfiction or documents for people, if you don't know what they know, if you don't know what their areas of resistance are, you can actually turn them off to your material. We have all been in situations where people use language or acronyms or jargon that we don't understand.

And that does two things, either turns you off, like, I don't want to hear this because I don't understand it or it causes you to panic. It's like I'm missing really important information. So in order to be in service of your audience, to meet them where they're at, you must really spend time thinking about who they are, what their needs are, what their expectations are upfront.

And sometimes when we're speaking in the moment, which is really what my new book is all about, the spontaneous speaking, you have to make those assessments right away in that moment based on what you're seeing in the environment, based on the language people are using.

But if you spend time thinking about people, their expectations, their knowledge, it will help you focus and be in service of their needs.


Yeah. Can you give a couple of examples of how you might frame something differently with two different audiences that have sort of two different needs?


Sure. So, so, you know, I'm talking a lot about my new book, and I'm doing a fair amount of it with people who are non-academics. And so I talk about everyday life. Are you ever in a situation where you're answering questions in the moment or somebody asks you to give feedback after you leave a meeting or you make a mistake and you have to fix it. So I really fixate on relevance for people who are non-academics.

I also spend a fair amount of my time talking with fellow academics, teachers of communication, and in which case I'm taking the same ideas, but I'm talking about the research that's behind them. I'm talking about perspective, taking empathy in these terms that are more academically oriented that people have done research on. So I'm sharing essentially the same information, but I'm honing it and focusing it in a way that it will be more relevant and understandable to the people that I'm talking to.


I actually watched one of the videos you mentioned in your book yesterday. It was the TED Talk that's done on the fly when people haven't seen the slides.


Yes, Anthony, yes.


Anthony, it was so impressive. Is that something that you do with your students or anything like that?


That's sort of very advanced graduate level work in this impromptu, not in the moment speaking world. So just for your listeners, there is a game, if you will, that is played among improvisers and others, where they will take a random slide deck, a deck that they have never seen before.

Somebody creates it and then as the deck is being presented they're delivering a presentation, and it requires them to be very present-oriented, to really think in the moment and connect whatever's on the screen to their audience. It's very challenging so it's like black-belt level improvisation, but the very same principles that are going on there are the ones that I talk about in the book and that we can all use in different circumstances.

So rather than doing that in my classes that I teach at the business school at Stanford, I will have students, after I introduce a structure to them, and hopefully we'll talk a little bit about structures, I'll have them think of an object that they own, something that's important to them, and I'll say go ahead and try to sell this to a fellow student using one of the structures we've used.

So unlike something that's totally unknown, like I don't know what's coming on the next slide, it's an object that they have familiarity with. It's important to them.

So we take baby steps, but the same principles of think about your audience, leverage a structure, see this as an opportunity, all of that applies in what you saw in Anthony's video as well as what I do in my class.


Great, yeah, I'll put a link to that in the show notes too.


It's fun; he's so good.


It was impressive, yeah, and then you mentioned structure and you know you had a big section about structures that work well in the book, I loved it, so one of them was "What, so what, now what? And that was very powerful. Talk more about structures.


Yeah. So let me talk a little bit about structure, and then let me talk about that structure in particular, which is my favorite. We often think that spontaneous, impromptu speaking just flows and is just fluid. In fact, if you provide structure to it, a framework, a map, if you will, a logical connection among your ideas, it makes it easier for you to formulate your thoughts and it makes it easier for your audience to understand. So structure is very powerful.

We know from research that our brains are designed to intake information that is structured. Lists of information, bullet points, do not work well. It's very hard for us to remember that. But if you present something as a structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end, it can be very helpful.

So a structure helps you package information for your audience and it actually helps you prioritize your thoughts. So there are many structures out there. One example is problem, solution, benefit. Most pitches, most advertising are in that format. Sometimes when we make arguments or we have to defend a point of view, we'll use comparison, contrast, conclusion. My favorite is the one you mentioned, what, so what, and now what. Three questions. The what is your idea, your product, your service, your offering. The so what is why is it important to the audience that you're speaking to and then the now what is how you can use these and these structures can help you in your writing and you're speaking and you're in your texting so it's really powerful.

So you might … your listeners might be wondering "So how do I use a structure?" Well, you do what I just did. I just explained, I just answered your question using "what, so what, now what." I told you what a structure was, I told you why it's important and how it can help, and I gave you examples of them. So all I'm doing is answering those questions. So it's something you have to practice. It's like learning a new sport or learning a musical instrument. You have to drill and practice, but eventually it makes life so easy. So as soon as you asked me that question, I knew how I was gonna answer it. I was gonna say, "What, so what, now what?" I just had to think of the answers. So my life got much easier because the structure helped.


Nice. Let's do another Let's do your podcast, like what, so what, now what?


Okay, so the podcast I host for Stanford's Business School is called "Think Fast, Talk Smart." It is all about helping people hone and develop stronger communication skills, written or spoken. Communication skills are critical in your personal and professional life. Research suggests the ability to communicate well is among the top two skills and attributes employers look for, and in our personal lives, relationships are more fulfilling, They're more engaging, and they last longer when you have good communication skills. So it is important that all of us develop our communication skills to improve our work and our personal lives.

And that's what our podcast does.

So I encourage everybody to take a listen.


I love it. So what. Now that I was paying attention and understanding that there's a structure, I could identify the "what," "so what," "now what."


That's a wonderful tool that I think will be useful to a lot of people.


Well, your audience, all of them who are writers, if they could pitch their writing ideas, say what's the idea, why is it important, and what do you hope to do next, all of a sudden you have a pitch.


So another thing, getting close to wrapping up, but the thing that made me laugh the most in your book was the section, you give very good advice about how to reduce anxiety in public speaking. We haven't really gotten, we won't get to that much in the podcast, but the whole first part of the book is about that, and as a nervous speaker, I found it very encouraging and helpful. 

But I burst out laughing when you talked about asking your students to be dull.


Dare to be dull, yes.


Yes, tell more about that exercise.


Yes, so one of the things that makes us most nervous is we want to do our communication right. 

Whatever that right is, we want to do it right. I am here to tell you, I'm here to tell all your listeners, somebody who's been doing this for a long, long time, there is no one right way to communicate. There are better ways and worse ways, but there's no one right way. Yet we put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves.

And a maxim from improvisation, improvisation is a wonderful tool for learning how to feel more comfortable in the moment, is dare to be dull. In other words, don't strive for greatness, just strive to get it done. And here's why there's a neuroscience backing to this advice. When I am trying to do it right, that means I am judging and evaluating everything I'm saying very extensively, which means I'm using cognitive resources, which are limited.

So instead of fully focused on what I'm saying and communicating, part of me is judging and evaluating while I'm speaking. So I'm not maximizing my ability to communicate clearly. So if I dare to be dull, if I just answer the question or just give the feedback, rather than trying to really make it the best, I actually free up resources to do it really well. So I have the audacity in front of my Stanford MBA students, some of the brightest young business minds in the world, I say, "Strive for mediocrity." And their jaws drop. “What do you mean? Nobody's ever told me that.”

That's why I think you found that so funny is Stanford students have never been told to be mediocre. And then I say the second part of that is so you can achieve greatness because if you actually just focus on what you're doing, not judging and evaluating it so much, you can actually do it very, very well because you're fully focused. You're using full cognitive resources. So dare to be dull, strive for mediocrity. In so doing, you free up resources to do it really well. And by the way, you'll be less nervous and anxious.


Absolutely brilliant. Thank you.

The book is "Think Faster, Talk Smarter," and I loved it. It was a wonderful book.

People should get your book. Also, check out your podcast, very similar name, "Think Fast, Talk Smart," which makes sense. They go together.


They do. Matt, thank you so much for being here with me. Where else would you like people to find you?


Thank you so much, Mignon, for having me on. Thank you for sharing your passion for communication. A couple places to find me: is a great place to go. All my stuff is there. I'm a huge user of LinkedIn. Anybody on LinkedIn can find me. And please take a moment to listen to "Think Fast, Talk Smart," where you can hear me interview great guests talking about communication.