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3 Tips to Sound Smart When Someone Puts You on the Spot

Speaking intelligently when you have no time to prepare is a skill you can learn, insists this Stanford business prof.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 17 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Public speaking can be terrifying, but at least you tend to have time to prepare.

Speeches and presentations are scheduled well in advance so nervous speakers have plenty of opportunity to read up on public speaking tips, dig into the psychology of taming your nerves, or even go the Malcolm Gladwell route and just memorize the whole thing beginning to end.

But what about the type of speaking that's just as important for your success but far less predictable - the off the cuff pitch to a potential investor at an event, your boss buttonholing you and asking about your feelings on a key business issue, or even your scary professor calling on you cold in class? Is there anything you can do to improve at this sort of spontaneous speech?

Stanford Business School's Matt Abrahams insists there is. In a recent article for Insights by Stanford, Abrahams lays out the top lessons he teaches his students in his 'Essentials of Strategic Communication' class. Here are some of his most essential points, in brief:

1. Get over yourself.

One of the best ways to beat nerves is to stop thinking about your performance and start thinking about what other people need from you.

"Rather than striving for greatness, challenge yourself to just accomplish the task at hand -answer the question, provide the feedback, introduce your colleague. By reducing the pressure you put on yourself, you will increase the likelihood of doing well. Simply put: Setting greatness as your goal gets in the way of you ever getting there," suggests Abrahams.

2. Rethink the situation.

How we understand a stressful situation greatly impacts how it impacts us. You'll be better at off the cuff speaking if you don't view it as a high-stakes exam or scary cross examination.

"You need to see the spontaneous speaking situation as an opportunity, rather than a challenge or a threat," notes Abrahams. "For example, when I coach executives on Q&A after their presentations, they often see it as an adversarial experience - them versus the media, investors, whomever. I work with these senior leaders to change their perception. A Q&A session is actually an opportunity. It's an opportunity to clarify; it's an opportunity to understand; it's an opportunity for dialogue and engagement."

3. Always have structure

Just because a speech was totally unplanned doesn't mean it should be totally unstructured. Of course you won't have time to lay out a detailed sixteen-point roadmap for your thoughts, but in his article Abrahams suggests a few simple structures that can work when you're asked to share your thoughts on the fly.

  • Problem-Solution-Benefit. "You start by addressing what the issue is, or the problem. You then talk about a way of solving it, and finally, you speak to the benefits of following through on your plan. This structure is very persuasive and effective."

  • What? So what? Now what? "You start by talking about what 'it' is (e.g., your feedback or your answer), then you discuss why it is important to the recipient(s), and finally, you explain what the next steps are (i.e., how the recipient can apply the feedback or answer)."

"The reality is that when you are in a spontaneous speaking situation, you have to do two things simultaneously: You have to figure out what to say and how to say it. These structures help you present your message," he insists.

Check out the complete article for a lot more detailed tips, as well as a video of a long lecture by Abrahams for those interested in a really deep dive into his advice.

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