How to moderate good, productive discussions and navigate tricky conversations is top of mind — whether doing a panel, conducting a live event, presenting a talk (or even hosting a podcast), managing (or just participating in!) a meeting. Especially in a world where remote and virtual work is increasingly become the norm for many knowledge workers (given the pandemic and even beyond) — one in which we’re increasingly communicating through little “Hollywood Squares, Brady Bunch”-like boxes.

So how to translate physical and nonverbal presence in such virtual environments, or voice-only modes? How to manage unruly discussions? Do parasocial vs. social interactions change things? And beyond these broader contexts, how do the things inside us — whether agendas, tics, anxiety — manifest outwardly, and can we better control them?

In this episode of the a16z Podcast, Matt Abrahams — lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where he also has a podcast, “Think Fast Talk Smart”); principal and co-founder of Bold Echo (a company that helps people with presentation and communication skills); and author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out — shares frameworks and best practices, in conversation with Sonal Chokshi. The discussion offers many concrete tips for moderation and communication for anyone, across all kinds of mediums and modes.

image: Paul Hudson / Flickr

Show Notes

  • The importance of planning when moderating an event [1:45], and how to deal with unruly discussions [3:37]
  • Using paraphrasing to guide the conversation [5:21] and techniques for bridging and linking ideas [7:41]
  • Further discussion of preparation [12:50], setting event ground rules [20:07], and how to be the voice of the audience [26:40]
  • All about virtual communication [27:56] — visual issues [29:22], vocal issues [31:47], and reducing verbal tics [33:34]
  • Managing anxiety through breath control [39:20]
  • Discussion of new social audio platforms, such as Clubhouse [46:34]
  • How to structure a talk [49:12], and best practices for introductions and conclusions [52:02]
  • Concrete tips for reducing speaker anxiety [56:52]


Sonal: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the “a16z Podcast.” I’m Sonal — and I’m here today with an episode all about one thing (but also many things), which is, How. To. Moderate. And I don’t mean moderate in life, like “everything in moderation”; I mean it in the sense of moderating when you’re speaking — whether managing or participating in a meeting, presenting a talk, speaking on a panel or live discussion, even doing a podcast, and more.

We especially go deep on something that’s top of mind right now given the pandemic — which is that many knowledge workers, who have the privilege and ability to work from home — are now working and communicating entirely online and virtually, and many will probably continue to do so well beyond. So how does that change moderation? Where do the differences between in-person and remote — as well as the evolution of tech & tools — come in?

Our special guest for this episode is Matt Abrahams, who’s a lecturer on strategic communication and virtual communication at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where he also has a podcast called “Think Fast Talk Smart”; he’s the principal and co-founder of Bold Echo, a firm that help executives (and anyone, really) who wants to improve their communication, learn new skills, or just improve upon and sharpen their existing skills.

Our conversation offers frameworks — and lots of concrete tips — for moderation all kinds of modes and mediums, including covering how to manage unruly discussions, how to prep (and the tensions between being scripted vs not); how to manage tics; how to translate physical and nonverbal presence, even in virtual environments; differences between parasocial and social interactions, does that change things?; tips for managing speaker anxiety; and how to structure a panel, talk, or discussion from intro to conclusion. But we begin with the role of pre-work (and post-work) around all kinds of conversations.

The importance of planning

Matt: As somebody planning a communication interaction — be it online or in person — you need to think about the *things you do in advance of it happening, *what you do during, and *what you do after.

So in terms of what you do in advance: You’re figuring out who your audience is, what’s important to them? What themes do you want to get across as part of this communication? What’s your goal — and to me a goal is very specific, a goal is about *information, *emotion, and *action: *What do you want people to know; *how do you want them to feel; *what do you want them to do? Are there ground rules you want to establish?

In the midst of moderation, when it’s actually going on: Your biggest skill sets are: *your ability to listen, *your ability to paraphrase, and *link and bridge ideas. That’s what helps a smooth interaction take place.

At the back end, when it’s over: You know just because the interaction has ended (the meeting is over, the presentation is over, whatever) — you then have to think about how do I follow that up; and how do I make sure the information is acted upon; and set myself up, and the others, for success for the next interaction.

So it is a process that starts way before people ever enter into the call or the room, and it continues long after they’ve left.

Sonal: So, what’s the difference then between sort of planned meetings — like presentations and panels — versus spontaneous, more organic sessions.

Matt: The preparation piece I think is the same, but as it’s going on, if it is a free-flowing activity — maybe a brainstorming meeting, a feedback session — your job as a moderator is really to just guide and steer it in the direction that the participants are taking it.

In a more formal situation — like a panel, or a decision-making meeting — you have to be much more directive: You have to keep things on track; you have to be monitoring the agenda, and the time, and the different types of contribution.

Managing unruly discussions

There might be power dynamics at play: It may be the case that somebody is acting the way they’re acting, because they have additional information that they can’t share. It may be that the person had a bad interaction before they came into the situation. So it’s also very important to — while moderating, while facilitating — to take a step back and try to understand at a meta level, what’s going on in the interaction, and perhaps decide to act on it — give some direct feedback or guidance — or perhaps pull back, and do some of that either on the side… or later.

Sonal: It’s so fascinating, because there’s a psychological component here, which is, it’s the difference between whether you go into an interaction — any kind, whether one-on-one, a group, whatever — seeking to understand, or seeking to be understood. That’s where I see the fundamental dynamic of where many communications break down, is when both people have very different, conflicting agendas:

So, a good segue to one of the questions I wanted to ask you, which is: How do you manage… <sure> — and this to me is one of the most top of mind things in this environment today — online, virtual, in person — how do you manage tricky communications? Just at a very high level like, you know you’ve done sessions with me and some of the team on how to manage like at a live event — if you have someone on your panel who’s kind of going in a different tangent; or, you have a spontaneous questioner who comes up and kind of throws a different vibe into the dynamic. Let’s break all of that down, starting with having an unruly panel, if you’re running a discussion, live event, moderating a room… whatever.

Matt: Sure. So, in all those tricky situations, again, pre-work matters; anything you can do to set yourself up for success: Talking to people in advance, so you set their expectations; giving some ground rules for what you expect.

If it gets unruly, your biggest friend is paraphrasing.

The power of paraphrasing

I really think the ability to paraphrase is THE most essential tool a facilitator needs to have in his or her back pocket. Let me explain first what I mean by paraphrasing then give you some examples of how to use it:

So, when I’m speaking about paraphrasing, I’m talking about listening to hear what IS the bottom line — the critical gist of what somebody is saying. And this requires a very different type of listening; most of the time when we listen, we’re just listening to get a vague idea of what someone’s saying, and then we begin formulating our response or rehearsing it. But when you’re listening to paraphrase, you’re really trying to figure out, what’s the bottom line.

And here’s how paraphrasing can really help you: If somebody is going off on a tangent, or if somebody is just bloviating, or they’re trying to figure out what it is they want to contribute — extract something of value (to you or to the conversation that you’re trying to facilitate), highlight it, and then, link or bridge to a different topic.

So, imagine that you’re about to take us further on a tangent, I can simply say, “Hey, that point you just made about X, that’s really important. And in fact, it ties nicely to…” — and all of a sudden, I’ve taken control back, I’ve validated that you said something useful, and I’ve moved on.

Sonal: You’re in control.

Matt: Yeah, it gives you the opportunity to reassert your control in the politest way possible. Because the reality is this: If you’re charged with being the moderator/ the facilitator/ the leader of the interaction, and somebody goes on a tangent, or somebody gets aggressive, or starts really rambling, people are going to look to you to manage that situation. And every moment that you’re not managing it, your credibility is at risk. So you need to step in, but you need to do so politely. And I think paraphrasing — highlighting something somebody said, questioning it in a polite way, whatever that is — is your wedge to get YOU back in control, and then you move it to somewhere else.

That’s why paraphrasing is often partnered with bridging and linking to the next topic or theme.

Sonal: It reminds me so much of a podcast host — the #1 thing I think of is that they are a shepherd for the audience. <mhm!> And their job is to do precisely that, the bridging — the signposting is what I call it: what’s happening, stitching things together — and you have to do that a lot in real time.

So, now tell me more about the bridging and linking!

Bridging and linking

Matt: Yeah, so if you have solid themes that you are driving towards — and these are either ones you’ve created yourself or co-created with the other participants — those are the cornerstones or the anchors to which you bridge or link back to. So, if we’re really trying to drive a decision on a particular feature or product, as I am facilitating the interaction, as different points come up, I will always come back to that and say, “how is that”; or, or either ask how it is; or show, and demonstrate, how it is linked to the theme that we are striving towards.

So it means in advance, you have some guideposts of where you’re going — those are the themes that you’re driving towards — and then you bridge and link back to them. And you can bridge and link back through questioning, “How does that link to our goal”; you can do it directly by saying, “That links to our goal in these ways”; or you can ask somebody else, you could say “Okay Sonal, now how do you think that helps us achieve the goal that we’re striving for?”

All of those are techniques for bridging and linking back to the central ideas.

Sonal: You know it’s a lot like a host at a cocktail party, where people are kind of meeting each other for the first time, and you’re like “Oh, you know, Matt, you just mentioned this, well it turns out that so and so is also really into this, and you guys have that in common.” And while that’s more in the sense of get-to-know each other, <mhm> this is exactly the same thing but in the sense of get to know this idea and let me help you kind of connect all these dots.

Matt: Right and the key word you said there is “connect” — and that’s really what a good facilitator and moderator does; it’s all about connecting. And connecting is just another word for bridging and linking — that’s really the task.

And it’s a mindset — you have to go into the situation thinking that way — and that’s why I like your host analogy. You know for many of us when we host a party, we have to get into that role and say, I’m a host, it’s my job to make sure everybody’s talking and enjoying themselves and connecting.

Same too, with a moderator: Many of us go into our role as facilitator or moderator with that contributor’s mindset. And that’s very different than when you are actually in the role of moderating. So that linking/ bridging/ connecting matters, a lot.

Sonal: It’s so funny because in the early days of moderating on the podcast, I often struggled with, I shouldn’t speak up; I’m here to only set up my host. And then I had all these people (fans, others) messaging me like, speak up more, we wanna hear more from you… and I realized like, oh my god, the orientation point is the voice — they’re the GPS for the episode, the themes that cut across things — and the connecting is key, because in audio in particular, the intimacy you have is SO exquisite. And this is really relevant to communities: like, let’s say you have a club; or, a group of people in the workplace, a team, a department, a meeting, a project — that idea of connecting, I agree, is critical.

It’s about the thing that the listener wants, the audience wants, that’s top of mind, making it about what you said about why is this relevant to YOU? That is another great orienting technique. Because one of my biggest pet peeves when I go into a conversation, especially in podcasts (or a newsletter blurb, or any kind of editorial product) is not knowing why does anyone care? <Right> Like, that is the first thing that I want to know out the door. Period.

Matt: I love the analogy of GPS. And, I think that’s a great way to look at it, is: you have a destination; your job is to get there; there are multiple paths to get you there — as a moderator you have to decide, do we take the most direct route, are we going to take some more scenic routes to get there; but you’re really driving towards that goal.

And I have to say as a listener to your podcast, Sonal, I love when you contribute, and I think there is a role for the moderator and facilitator to share his or her points of view. But you do so in a very… thoughtful way, so it doesn’t just become about your point of view and your direction. And that’s a skill. It’s a skill to learn when and how much to contribute.

Sonal: It is not easy, and it’s something that I also constantly learn and evolve…

But just also — because all the listeners of the show know I can’t resist a damn good analogy! — if you take the human GPS analogy even further, and you’re saying you have to know are you taking the scenic route or this route? — in much the same way, when someone’s in the car seat with you giving you directions, you wanna kind of know the map and the terrain ahead of time. Like “by the way in three streets, we’re gonna turn right”. <right> Because you don’t want to suddenly turn right, right? <correct> And, similarly, you want to know if there’s like a lake that you don’t want to drive into by accident <Matt chuckles> like, hey we may want to avoid that traffic jam. So, as a moderator, you’re kind of rerouting around people are going too long on this thing; or, oh man that’s like a- I don’t want to jump into this lake, like, that’s going to tank this conversation. Let me redirect this. So I totally love that analogy, taking it even a step further.

Matt: Yes, it works really well. For sure.

Sonal: One of the tactics — you talked about always having the bottom line in mind, as a way to kind of help with the paraphrasing, the bridging, and the linking (it is both the way to summarize the paraphrase, as well as a way to then signal that you’re about to take a turn) — I have to give you credit, because I just realized (I don’t even know if I remember this, but I think) one of my signature lines on one of our other shows, 16 Minutes, which is our news analysis show, <mhm… yeah> I end every episode with “bottom-line it for me”. And I just remembered in this conversation, like oh my god, I think I got that from you, when you were helping me prep for a live panel years ago.

Matt: It’s definitely a mantra of mine. But you deploy it expertly, so I’m not going to take any credit.

Sonal: Well, you deserve the credit!

Preparation and ground rules

So on the note of prep, one of the only ways to do a lot of this stuff is to do it in real time, frankly. And if you’re live, like a live community room or a live town hall, or anything else. So… tell me a bit more about what goes into that prep, a little bit more concretely? Is it a script? Is it just knowing your guests really well? Is it a prep call? <Matt chuckles> Like, how do you kind of thread that needle?

Matt: So, to me, it starts first and foremost, by getting an understanding of what it is that I need to accomplish. Is it really about collaboration? Is it decision making? Is it just getting people to know each other? And from that, it’s really important to then think about the audience. And you have to do reconnaissance, reflection, and research. So it might be looking at people’s social media profiles and postings; it might be talking to people who have interacted with these folks. Or, just talk to the folks themselves — and get a sense of what’s important to them, what their attitudes are, etc. That’s part of the pre-work that you need to do just to understand who’s going to be in the space and part of the communication.

Next, you have to think about, again, the goal; what is it I’m trying to achieve? Now that I know the people, and where they’re coming from, and the purpose I have, I can then craft the goal: know/ feel/ do > information, emotion, and action. A lot of us are really good at focusing on the information: here’s what I want us to be talking about. And, we’re also pretty good at saying, okay we’re driving towards this kind of action.

We don’t often think about the feeling, the tone — <yes!> what tone do I want the interaction to have? Maya Angelou is famous for saying I might not remember what you said, but I’ll remember the feeling. So, you need to think about that up front.

Sonal: I am so glad Matt, that you talked about not just the know but the feel. That to me is the thing that I care about the most as a moderator. And I don’t mean that in only a mushy-gushy way like “Oh I want people to feel good.” But I want people to come out of a conversation feeling smarter, and feeling empowered, or more knowledgeable, or that anything is possible, or that they can find a way that’s relevant to them. And also that I’m their advocate, because I genuinely believe I am.

I think for me — there’s no like systematic technique or at least one that I’m aware of — is trying to find kind of the person’s guiding light. <mhm> Like, what is the thing that drives them or makes them passionate about what they do? <yeah> And then how do you really draw that out? And we never talk about that actually, overtly.

Matt: Right. The way we have to actually do it often is much more subtle and nuanced.

If you feel that the thing that is most important is to convey those feelings, as part of the interactions you’re facilitating, then the question and challenge for you becomes, what do you do in preparation of the participants — during the interaction and even after — to really bring those emotions, those feelings to life? You know it’s so much easier to think about the knowing piece — Here are the bullet points I need to get across, <exactly> here are the questions I need to ask. But what is it that you can do to really call out or invoke those feelings that you want? And it could be simple things: Non-verbally acknowledging what somebody said; it could be thanking somebody and expressing gratitude.

You then need to stockpile questions. And these are questions that you can use to ask the participants, to get them communicating, to move it in the direction you want. These can be what I call “back-pocket” questions — emergency questions that YOU deploy, if silence comes in — you know, you can throw out a question that says “something I’ve been wondering about,” or “think about how this applies to” these situations. So, having questions you can ask others and having questions you can use to get the conversation moving: really important.

Sonal: You mentioned “stockpiling”, I want to probe on that one a little bit, because, frankly, I am actually not a big believer in… So okay, Margit calls bullshit on me on this, which I actually really love. But where I’m like, “I don’t believe in prep.” And she’s like, “What are you talking about? Your whole lifetime is prep. Like, you read all the time. You absorb things all the time. Blah, blah, blah.” <right> Which, okay, that’s fair.

By prepping, I mean like having a script in front of me <mhm> because I want things to be very organic and very free flowing: I’m going on the same journey as my listeners. However: I had one person a few years ago say, “Oh I love being a naive questioner.” And I’m like, Oh, no no no no; you’re not a naive questioner, because that is also bad; <right> like, don’t make that mistake.

On the flip side, other people go so far with the stockpiling, as you described, <yeah> that they go to the point where they almost lose their way if things don’t kind of stick perfectly, <mhm> and it feels very constrained and scripted. What would your advice be on how to thread that one?

Matt: So, you’re highlighting a really important point: You want to feel as if you have a direction, and tools to help you get to where you’re going; but you don’t want to have it SO scripted, and SO structured, that free-flowing, spontaneity is stripped from it.

So, everybody needs to find their level of comfort. People who might be newer to a topic, newer to a language: Doing a little extra prep and scripting could help them. For people who are more comfortable, more extroverted, it might be better to have less of those guidewires. But the point is, you would never go into a situation totally unprepared. You have ideas, themes; you have some boundaries.

I love this research (it came out of the U.K.), what they did is they took children and they brought them to an empty field and they said “go play.” And the children played. And the researchers evaluated how playful the play was, how creative the play was, how much time was spent playing versus planning. And then they brought a similar group of kids to a similar field, but the difference was, in the second field there was a play structure. And they said go play. And they rated the same things (amount of play, quality of play, creativity) — and it turned out, the play with the play structure was much more creative, much more engaging, more time spent playing. I like that as an analogy for planning interactions: Having some structure, some tools, some idea of content, direction, etc., can really, really help you focus on what you’re trying to do. If it’s TOO open, if it’s TOO spontaneous, you can get lost in that spontaneity.

So, finding the right balance is hard (each person is different), but using that as a guide — knowing you have to have some structure, some tools, some things in that stockpile — can really help.

Sonal: I found that research so fascinating, because I was in the world of early education and developmental psychology as you know back in the day <right> — and one of the one of the concepts (the phrase in the education world, this constructivism idea) — was “scaffolding” versus structure. And the idea is that it’s like the bones — it’s not like a full- built structure, but the scaffolding that sets something up, but it’s not fully filled in, and it’s also not like fully free-for-all — so, that’s an idea that applies there.

And then two, the other thing is the importance of ground rules. Because one of the things that you learn with early childhood education and any kind of play, is all the kids going into it know the ground rules: Like, you cannot hit, you cannot fight, you cannot pull so-and-so’s hair, or you know, wear sun block <chuckles>; whatever the rule is! <chuckles> <Matt: right> So, I’d love to hear you tell me more about how you think about the ground rules to make these goals, and intentions, and scaffolding more explicit — versus only in the moderator’s head — to the audience and the panels.

Matt: So first and foremost, there’re two different types of types of ground rules: There are behavioral ground rules, that’s what you do, how you act; and then there are content- specific ground rules, <mmm!> what’s acceptable to say and what’s not. Just creating those two categories can be helpful for people.

Now, to the question of how do you share them: So first and foremost, you can take time to collaborate together to create them. So you can start by saying, hey let’s figure out how we want to best interact. By virtue of co-creating them, that’s how you’re disseminating the information. If you want to do them in advance, come in with them… then, you can put them in the invite to the meeting, or in some communication that happens in advance, and then just remind people of them when you start.

What you want to avoid with any rules that you set up is getting bogged down in the rules. If you have ever watched young children (and I know you have experience with this), young children interacting, they spend a tremendous amount of time just dealing with the rules — so much so, that they don’t actually get to playing whatever it is they’re trying to play. And adults can do the same thing. <yeah> So, it’s make them explicit; maybe create them with others; and then just get moving on, from them.

Sonal: One other question about knowing the audience’s intent in a live event, where you may not have the ability to know — like, for example, parasocial versus social interactions, where you’re interacting with strangers, often, in a group of people — so how do you then think of aligning the goals and knowing your audience when you have groups of strangers interacting in the same room? This is the case that’s common when you go to a conference and there might be unknown people who can just come and join the Q&A section; you don’t have registration, it’s an open event or, it could be in online audio social places like Clubhouse… it plays out in many different ways.

Matt: Wouldn’t it be great just to be psychic and be able to know that stuff? That would be fantastic! So, I mean look for contextual clues: what’s the title of the event; what’s the motivation for people to be there — and that can often give you cues as to what’s important to people.

The other way is just to inquire, ask questions; observe what people seem to be saying and how they’re saying it — gives you insight into what’s important for them. But again, that means your approach is different than coming in as, I’m a contributor and I’m gonna share what I have <yes> on my mind. Versus, I need to understand what’s going on and taking that time just to reflect and look around and see what others are doing can be very helpful to figuring it out.

And then, being comfortable adjusting on the fly <yes!> — I can’t tell you the number of interactions I have gone into where I thought we were going one way with this group of people, and it turned out to be different. And you just have to be flexible and say okay, that’s what this is going to be about, or that’s how we’re going to make this conversation move forward. And, you know improvisation — the notion of “yes and” — take what you’ve got and move it forward, rather than coming in and say this is what “this conversation is going to be about”.

And certainly there’re times that you have to drive the conversation to a particular point; but a lot of the time, we can just see what happens organically and move with it, within the structure and confines of what we’re talking about.

Sonal: This goes to me to how I think about prep docs, ‘cuz while I don’t stockpile questions in advance, I do have like a quick-list of topics that I want to make sure to hit. <sure> And it’s really helpful, because I know the three that I absolutely want to hit no matter what, but then I also have like a couple others that may come up, that I can go into and pull (or double-click on so to speak) — if it’s more interesting. And if it’s not so interesting, then you quickly can move into something else, because, you kind of want to always think about what’s maximally interesting to keep people engaged.

So, the way I structure my prep docs: I make ‘em modular chunks, so that I can go out of order very easily. And I know this is a piece of advice that you probably also have given. But for me, that’s like the #1 thing is, I have an arc in mind <mhm> but I keep it very modular chunks so that I can quickly rearrange it on the fly if necessary; I’m not wedded to that.

Secondly, like a quick topic, I might have like a one word or two words for like a probe <mhm> — like angle, or twist, or nuance — because that’s kind of the thing that makes it more differentiated from like the same way of having that conversation.

So, I have like a particular template that I’ve made up over years of doing a lot of these, that works very well for me in this vein.

Matt: I would love to see the template… I absolutely agree that “chunking” or being modular is really important. And, having just key topics that you want to address can work very well for many people.

The only thing I would add to that is try to have some prioritization among those, because if time gets crunched, or, if some topic heats up and takes you in a different direction — know the prioritization, so you can adjust. So on the fly, you’re not having to make those decisions, you’ve already thought about this is the most important, this is second and third most important.

Sonal: Oh you’re absolutely right. And sometimes I, in my template, conflate arc-order with priority. But in fact, sometimes the last thing is the most important thing to get across. And so having that prioritization is really critical.

I will also add that I don’t map it out like time-wise, but I put percentages next to each modular chunk in order to kind of figure out the weighting of it: So, I want 50% of the conversation to be about this; and then like 20%, like takeaways — that’s not quite the same as priority, but it does tell you how much you want to get across.

Matt: I am smiling as you are speaking. Not only do I like that idea, but I, like Margit, am gonna call bullshit that you don’t plan and prepare. <Sonal laughs out loud> I mean everything you have just described is planning and preparing to an extent that most people don’t — even if it doesn’t feel that way… so! <chuckles>

Sonal: Okay but to be very clear, I only do that for live events. I do NOT do that for podcasts; I’ll tell you what I do for podcasts: I quickly, at the very beginning, spend five minutes — and we have obviously the general theme because of the guests, and the lineup, and the angle — so what happens is, when I get people together, and it’s usually multiple people, we quickly talk about — and I say very clearly, I want topics, I don’t want you to tell me what you’re gonna say <mhm> —

And in fact, one of my fundamental rules of live events, is I do not believe in putting people in the same green room beforehand. Because speakers reference something — they always do this, like “oh yeah, we were talking about this in the green room” — and the audience is left feeling like they were cheated out of the idea. And so I don’t want any rehearsal. I actually cut people off when we do this, in the first five minutes, where I’m like “No no no no no — save that for the actual discussion. I don’t want you to tell me what you’re going to say. I just want the topics.” Because nothing ever sounds as good as the first time someone says it raw, and real-ly.

Matt: I agree. And as a facilitator and moderator, your job is to bring out that fresh conversation. And if people do talk about private, or previous conversations, you have to call it, and you have to bring it forward to make it relevant to everybody.

One of one of the best mindsets or frames that a moderator/facilitator can have is that YOU are the voice of the audience. <yes!> So if there’s something that is inside baseball, if there’s some insider information, you have to call it, you have to pull it out so others can participate.

And there are things you can do that are very simple linguistically: You can say, “as we’re curious”, or “as you know”, or “as many of us are interested” — using that inclusive language brings the audience IN. Not only does it help the audience feel like they’re part of that conversation, but it reminds the others — the panelists, the people that you’re helping facilitate — that there’s an audience they need to be talking to, it’s not just themselves.

Sonal: It’s not talking to each other — I love this. So this goes back to the host being a shepherd.

But actually, you talk about the linguistic aspects — this is one of my favorite technique that I’ve specifically learned from you (in some of the live event preparation) which is: How to change the exact same question, but in a way that it’s very much phrased as advocating on behalf of the audience. And you went so far as to even show me physical, nonverbal things that I can do to bring the audience along, where, I literally open up my hand like “listen, I think everyone in this room” — kind of hug the room in <right!> — “wants to know like, what do you mean by that”? <right> That was SO useful.

On virtual communication

Matt: Yeah, it’s not just verbal stuff that you can do using words — using inclusive language, using analogies that everybody relates to; ALL of that’s a way to do that verbally — but nonverbals matter a lot. Now the fact that we’re virtual, it’s harder.

The equivalent to what you mentioned — where you actually open up your body and angle it towards the audience, as you say “as many of us in this room are wondering,” before you turn to the person and ask the question <mhm> — the way we have to do that virtually is you have to look at the camera. And it’s SO tempting to look at notes or to look at the faces on the screen, but you need to look at the *camera* so that people feel like you’re connecting TO them, talking TO them, and including them. And that’s hard.

Sonal: I am so glad you brought up the online/ remote environment. Because a) I don’t think this is an important skill just for the duration of the pandemic — let’s face it, a lot of knowledge work in particular is gonna be remote-first — we’ve definitely shifted the baseline on this. But secondly, I don’t believe we’ve seen the first big wave of companies that are all built in an all remote-native way — culturally, interaction-wise, etc. — it’ll be really interesting to see a lot of the learnings that come out of that, because we are in an unprecedented age of online communication and collaboration.

So, can we really dig deep into both nonverbal and in-person, and then let’s go into nonverbal and the differences online. Like, how does one optimize techniques, like, I open up my arms in a room — but in Slack, nobody even sees my arms. How do you… think about all that.

Matt: So there are three major components to nonverbal presence: There is *the visual, *the vocal, and *the verbal. And these play out differently depending on the channel through which you’re communicating (in person, online, et cetera).

The importance of visuals

So visually is what people see of you; it’s how you hold your body. We have to make sure that we come across as confident and composed. So we want to be big (that is, not hunched or crouched); we want to be balanced (head straight, shoulders square); and we want to be still.

Now everybody has to find what’s comfortable to them; you know I always give the analogy, we could ask every one of your listeners to show how they swing a baseball bat, a tennis racket, a golf club — how they look for each person is going to be slightly different because of their build, their experience, their injuries. And that’s what we strive for in our nonverbal presence: You follow some foundational principles, and then you adapt them to who you are and your experience.

So, visual is what we see. And virtually or in person — big, balanced, and still is what it’s all about.

Sonal: How do you do big in virtual though?

Matt: Ahh, great question. So when you’re in that little box — whatever the tool is you’re using, we’re all in our little Hollywood Squares, Brady-Bunch boxes — you want to pull your scapula, your shoulder blades down, away from your neck. And in so doing, it broadens out your shoulders. So you look bigger, and you sit straighter. It also will tense the muscles in your neck so your head doesn’t tilt; head tilting in a virtual environment might compromise your credibility and confidence (or at least appearance of that).

So, when you’re in the box: Pull those shoulder blades down, broaden the shoulders, hold your head straight; really important.

The other thing that’s important is gesturing: When I’m up in front of people, I want my gestures to be broad; I want them to go beyond my shoulders. Now when I’m virtual in the box, if I were to do that, you’d never see my hands.

Sonal: It looks weird too, when people even wave goodbye.

Matt: Yeah, no it is weird! But gesturing is important. Gesturing helps your audience, it also helps you.

So bringing your hands up higher, putting them about your shoulder level — so if I were to see you in person doing this, you would look like a caricature, a puppet — but online, in a virtual meeting, it actually looks okay to have your hands up. And then again, broader than your shoulder — we want to avoid any gestures that are in front of our chest for too long, because it makes you look tight and nervous. <right!>

On vocals

So that’s the visual part. The vocal part is varying your voice. You know this so well; I mean, with podcasting as a medium — if. I. talked. like. this. for even. just a few seconds, folks are gonna tune out. <Yeah, Ferris Bueller effect! chuckles> Exactly! Our brains are wired to look for and seek out novelty and change, anything that stays the same, we habituate to very quickly. So you need to make sure that your voice has variation in it. <yes> And a great way to bring that variation is to use emotive words, adjectives and adverbs. So I would never say “I’m really excited to be here Sonal.” I would say, “I’m really excited to be here!” <Sonal laughs> So really in the “excited”, invoke that emotion.

So you want to have variation. And really, what it comes down to in person or virtually, you have to work on your breath; your voice is a wind instrument. And if you don’t have vocal stamina, you’re gonna be in trouble: Your voice is gonna trail off, you’re gonna start speaking fast. So I encourage everybody, before you have a big event — I don’t care if it’s a presentation, meeting contribution — you should be building vocal stamina. And the best way I know to do that is reading out loud.

So if I know next week I’m doing a 30-minute whatever, I’m reading out loud the week before 5-10 minutes each day to build stamina. I equate it to, if you want to run a run a marathon, you don’t start at that distance; you start by doing gradually more and more mileage. The same thing has to be true with your voice. That way you can support your voice — and therefore your ideas — as you speak.

So, breath control is critical.

Sonal: I’m definitely gonna come back to that one, because I have a lot of thoughts on that one!

So: so far, we covered the visual and the vocal. So let’s do the third one.

Verbal patterns

Matt: So let me talk about the verbal. So clearly, the words you say are important. What I really like to highlight are the words that get in the way, what I call the “verbal graffiti” — so it’s the ums, the uhs, the likes, I means — my favorite, “honestly”, that one bothers me so much, because it implies everything else you said prior was dishonest — we use those fillers. And, it is really hard to get rid of them. The best thing you can do is just try to build your own awareness. And based on that, then, eventually over time, they will decrease.

The other part of verbal that I want to add is hedging language; this stuff, it is rampant: kind of, sort of, I think — that language undercuts your credibility. If I were to say, “Sonal, I kind of think we should do this” versus “we should do this”, it just sounds very different. Now there are times, if I’m leading a meeting, and I’m the head honcho and I want to avoid people just doing what I say because I’m the big boss, then I might say “I kind of think we should do this” — because that invites them to share their opinion. But when you are running a panel, when you’re giving a presentation, and you say “kind of” and “sort of” and “I think” all over the place, you are reducing your credibility.

Sonal: Oh my. So first of all, I love the framework, super helpful; because you’re actually reminding anyone, in any speaking engagement — you are visual, vocal, and verbal — it feels like it’s obvious, but it’s really not; because when you go into any session, it’s so important to tease them apart, so you keep all three in balance.

So let’s start with the first one, which is visual. One question I wanted to just check in with you about is, when it comes to Zoom meetings is like visual fatigue — <mhm> no one looks at each other in a meeting where you’re literally looking eye to eye the entire hour — and so there’s a visual exhaustion that happens. And then secondly, it’s very hard to tell where to look. So can you give me a few more specifics about where the eyes should go and land? Because one of the techniques that you’ve taught me in live events is to land your eyes. <mhm> But, how do you even do that when you don’t know; it’s like a black hole!

Matt: Eye contact virtually is really challenging. It’s challenging because, where the camera is and where you want to look are two different places: So we want to look at people’s images, if people are showing their video; and that’s usually below the camera. And what it looks like to the audience, if you’re actually looking at the pictures, is that you’re talking to their feet. And we know that that’s rude in person, and part of us says, hey look at me. And we attribute a whole bunch of negative thoughts to people who don’t look us in the eye: They’re nervous, they’re not prepared, <totally> they’re lying. So you really do need to train yourself to look at the camera.

So, a couple things you can do to help: One, some of the virtual tools allow you to physically move people’s images; so you can actually move the images under or closer to where the camera is. Other times (what I recommend people do) is take a picture of people you know, or maybe even a pet you own, and put it right behind the camera — we as humans are wired to look at living things, so put a picture right behind it — and that will help you remember to look and connect to it.

The other thing that’s really tricky here Sonal is, we are not used to seeing ourselves when we speak. There’s research that shows it activates areas of our brain regarding self-awareness, that we typically don’t have active when we’re communicating <right!> — and it drains cognitive resources. So, some of these tools actually allow you to mute your own image; I know somebody who takes a post-it, sticks it right over her image.

But just know that seeing yourself speak is hard.

Sonal: You’re absolutely right. I use it unfortunately, as a mirror, <mhm> <Sonal chuckles> where I’m constantly checking myself, like wait my hair’s out of place — and the other thing is when you go to a live event, you know they have confidence monitors; and in this case, it’s like the opposite of a confidence monitor: it’s like an un-confidence monitor because it’s really distracting.

So, I love that tip of putting a post-it. And I also forgot that some tools allow you to turn that view off — but it IS incredibly different — because when you’re on stage, you’re not that close up. It’s a new level of intimacy and I actually think we’re going to see some new behaviors come out of it, and maybe with new technologies, even better <mhm> — but it is not easy, for sure.

Matt: Yeah, no, it’s not easy. And I think as we do more and more of this, we will get more used to it.

Sonal: Yeah, I agree. Okay, so then that’s for the visual. So now on vocal — the second part of the framework <mhm> — we talked about varying cadence. And god, as an podcast editor, what’s really fascinating to me is how most of the time, people are off in their cadence, like it’s misaligned. So for instance, the moment they should be slowing down, they’re speeding up; and the moment they should be speeding up, they’re taking too long to get it out. And I do this too, for the record. But I noticed when I interviewed Guy Raz — who’s obviously a very seasoned radio <mhm> and voice personality — the edit was kind of easier than other edits, because every sentence he gave was so clean. <mhm!>

And I was like oh my god, this is a technique of a really trained voice personality, essentially — and that’s a new type that’s emerging in this modern era of audio: “voice personas” — where, the better you are at varying your cadence — Like he would do things, like he’d slow down… when… it’s about to get really intimate… and… special. <yeah…> And that immediately, instantly makes you viscerally respond — both as the guest and the audience — so it’s really fascinating how that plays a role.

I also love that you talked about using an adjective, like something that makes it emotive. Because you’re right, you can’t say the word excited, like “I am so excited” you know <laughs>.

Matt: You have to work at it.

Sonal: Right, you have to work harder to NOT do that. I will also say though that this goes back to your earlier point about the feeling, and the tone of the room, and setting up that how you want people to feel — because the better you are a master of that, then the better you can actually control that. <Matt: Absolutely>

Breath control and anxiety

And then the final thing is on the breath now. And we’ll come back to this on the anxiety part but it is very tied, as you know Matt, to anxiety. And it’s really hard when you get anxious about public speaking to manage your breath. I often feel, when I go on stage (for live events, this is, because that’s what I’ve worked with you on) where, I feel like I can’t get my breath. Like, I’m going to have a panic attack or something.

So, can you say more about the breath? I mean, you gave some for proactive planning, but can you give us some in-situ, like reactive things to do to control your breath?

Matt: Certainly. And you are not alone. Being nervous and having it affect your breath happens a lot.

So one of the cool things about being virtual, is you can mute yourself. Taking deep breaths to help calm yourself down has been known for millennia. And, I can just mute myself, take a deep breath; nobody’s the wiser. Much harder to do in person — so there are some advantages that the virtual world brings us.

If you find that in the midst of communicating, your breath is getting away from you — because you’re nervous, or because you’re getting excited — we human beings sync up three things: the rate with which our eyes move, the rate with which we speak, and, how quickly we gesture. It is very hard to change your eye movements; it’s reasonably hard to change your breathing; it is pretty easy to change how fast you gesture. So, if you find yourself breathing quickly and out of breath, slow down your gestures, make them a little broader — it will slow down your breathing. And that’s something everybody can do, in the moment, that can help a lot.

So taking a deep breath before; working on your vocal stamina (way in advance of ever doing a communication event); and monitoring and managing your gesture rate can all help you breathe more evenly and less rapidly.

Sonal: I have one more from you, and one of mine.

One from you is — and this goes back to your earlier point of having an emergency question — which is how to have that in your back pocket, so that if I do find myself– not only is it useful if you kind of lose your train of thought (which does happen a lot in real time), but, it’s really great when you’re feeling like that anxiety coming on. Because you can get that question out, and then it lets you catch your breath while people answer.

And the other one that I — this is going to sound so funny — but it’s just taking a sip of water. It’s huge; because it’s another way that you can kind of slow down and catch your breath. I always tell audio platforms that one of my favorite features that I want everyone to build is a “drink water” button, and everyone kind of chuckles but I’m like no I’m serious, <Matt chuckles> this is what I really think is important.

Matt: Absolutely. Taking a breath, actually physically just moving — you don’t have to speak as you move, and you can take a breath as you step — it’s a great way, especially if it’s a transition point.

Sonal: So we covered the nuances that you outlined in the framework of visual, vocal… now let’s go into verbal. One thing I wanted to talk about here, with what you brought up, is, the verbal tics: So first of all, I agree with you; they are very weakening words. But: I do not believe in eliminating every single tic — I actually think that’s very bad practice, because we’re wired to hear people sound real and raw. And as you know, everyone has them. <right> My rule of thumb that I tell the audio editors is, try to remove as many tics as possible that are disruptive to the listener’s experience <mhm> — so if it’s like a “That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.” — it’s almost like annoying to get the point across, then cut those. But otherwise, keep ‘em, so it’s not like robotic either, you know.

However… of course, I have a lot of vanity tics. And so I tried to get rid of them. Early days of podcasting, I was always behind the scenes; so I hated hearing my own voice, all of that. I always noticed only the tics — I like, I like, I like. Got it, got it, got it. Right, right, right — I have a million, and they’re so freaking annoying <mhm>. So I’d like systematically try to work on not saying them. And as you note, one of the ways to do that is to record yourself and hear yourself.

Guess what happened?

Matt: What?

Sonal: Another one popped in its place! <Sonal chuckles> <Matt: uh-oh!> So I got rid of “I like” and the next one was, “got it”. I got rid of that one, and then “right” came up, and then something else came up, like, “uh-huh, uh-huh”. And I think they serve some neurological purpose — I don’t know if you have a thought on this, but I think it’s impossible to get rid of tics.

Matt: Well I know it’s not impossible, because I’ve done it and I have helped other people do it — <Aww, dammit!> <Sonal laughs> but you’re right, they don’t ever go away completely. They don’t go away completely, but you can reduce their frequency.

I believe that they are remnants of our thinking, and in-the-moment feeling like we need to be saying something because we are in front of people; <Yes> we’re filling the space. And that’s why they’re called filler — <filler words>

So, there is a trick, there is a trick — it is hard — but there is a trick where it is a breathing issue. So, speaking is an exit-only event: You can only speak when you’re pushing air out, not when you’re taking air in. So if you happen to know that you say “got it” or “right” at the end of all your sentences or phrases, if you can train yourself to be completely out of breath when you are done speaking that phrase, you must inhale before you can say your next phrase. <ahh!> Which precludes you from saying anything such as right, um, got it.

Now that’s hard… <mhm> But as you were referring to earlier with Guy Raz, you can train yourself to really end and finish your sentences. <mhm!> And then you start another one. And by training yourself to land a phrase — to finish a phrase completely out of breath (now I’m not saying get <quiet at the end>, I’m just saying finish a phrase) — you then have to inhale, builds a pause (pauses are good), and doesn’t allow you to fill it with anything.

Sonal: I am going to try that.

People complain all the time about how we are all very fast talkers. <yes> And it is true, I talk the way I think, and maybe I could slow down on that. <chuckles>

Matt: Well, it’s interesting — ‘cause I don’t find you a fast talker — but what I find is sometimes <mhm> you won’t pause as long as you could. I speak very quickly too, but if I pause… people can catch up. The problem is, the listeners get fatigued <yes> because there’s no rest.

Sonal: I find that too; I also notice that and it drives me a little nuts that I do that, some of my speakers do that.

You know what is funny? — people don’t know this — a lot of people think we cut all the breaths out of our podcasts; it’s actually the opposite.

Matt: Oh really?

Sonal: Many times in an edit, we are often going in and adding breaths, because, I needed to slow it down to give the listener a split second to take it in. Exactly to your point. And I don’t do it myself.

The other thing is just I want to make a note, with the filler words: Sometimes I think it has to do with representation, sometimes I think it has to do with just societally; in fact, one of the edits I make often, for a lot of my expert guests, is NOT having them say an acknowledging statement at the beginning, “Well, you know, Tom, I agree with you, Jim. But here’s what I think.” And I just go right to the “I think”, which is such an important thing.

Matt: I agree with everything that you’ve said. And it’s — the kind ofs, sort ofs, I thinks creeps into everybody’s language — I hear it more and more across <yeah> everybody I work with.

Sonal: Yep. I hear this across very established, privileged, powerful people <yes> — all the time, everybody has them; so it’s not at all disproportionate in that sense. (I do think it’s dangerous when we judge the speech of people, like no vocal fry, or women shouldn’t do this, or uptalk and whatnot — which you’re not doing at all; it’s really about how to make the authority come across.)

New audio platforms

So one last thing on the visual, vocal, and verbal — there’s been an emergence of social audio and new forms of audio-interaction platforms, like Clubhouse, and you know there’s a whole wave of other types of tools for different interactions; gaming contexts, others. And I, I have to tell you, it’s completely changed how I think about communication — that framework you outlined, if you’re in a voice-only medium, you almost have to caricature-like, exaggerate some of the things that we’re talking about to make up for the lack of visual.

Matt: It’s really interesting you bring that up; that is going on concurrently with people wearing masks, where we also have to exaggerate nonverbal behavior <oh yeah… totally!> to communicate information. So, we are in a position now where nonverbal presence — both in vocalics, what you do with your voice and what you do with your face, etc., — are really being highlighted.

And for most of our lives, we really haven’t thought about that. For some people, this is exciting and liberating; for other people, it’s really, really challenging. But, you’re right, <yeah> we are having to focus on… emphasizing things very consciously… to get our points across because something in our situation is different: We’re covered up, we don’t have the visual cues.

Sonal: The other thing that’s happening in a lot of these new interaction paradigms is, it’s often more social-first, by default, than content-first, necessarily — even though it is about content and interaction. And so one of the things that I’m kind of learning is, how to navigate that. And so the question I have for you along these lines, is — we’ve talked already about how to deal with like navigating tricky panelists, navigating tricky audience members — what have if actually want to proactively, offensively engage a tricky conversation, socially, oftentimes with strangers. I’d love to know if you have any thoughts on that, and which best practices may or may not apply.

Matt: So I find that very intriguing, to actually be an instigator of some tension and conflict. That’s very provocative.

You know, I am a big fan of using questions to invite engagement, participation, and in this case, perhaps challenges. People can come in with declarative statements that can be seen as, as offensive and really make people defensive. But if you’re really inviting, I think questions are the best way to invite. So for example: When I give people advice on giving feedback, a component of feedback is an invitation to collaborate to fix the problem. And that invitation is best delivered as a question, I believe.

And for what you’re talking about, using *questions* is a great way to do that rather than come in with some exclamation or declaration.

Structuring a talk

Sonal: Great. So the other key thing that I’ve noticed in these kinds of dynamics when you have parasocial and social mixed — you know strangers and familiars — is intent matters. And to me, one of the greatest sources of conflict is when you have two competing intents: One being, I just want empathy; and the other being, I don’t want an echo chamber, I want to hear other competing viewpoints. And so to that point — now I want to ask you about how that plays into concretely, how do you then design the beginning, middle, and end of a session; whether it’s a live event, a room, a panel, a meeting. How do you think about structure in that?

Matt: So structure is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. And, I think about it from an overarching event structure — so the meeting itself, the panel, the presentation — but also the specific content that gets discussed in that: be it a contribution you’re making, a presentation you’re delivering, or in an interaction you’re facilitating.

So, at the macro level, it’s all about the arc — this is where we can look to artists, look at playwrights, look at movies — look at how do people weave… that? What do I want the beginning to feel like? What information do I want at the beginning? Where do I want to land this? And then there’s the actual content that gets spoken in the actual interaction. And for that, I can give very concrete examples. <please, yeah>

So I am a huge fan — a huge fan — of structure. And the structure that I like the most for information is what I call *the what, *so what, *now what structure.

And, let me explain how it works: It starts by defining what it is you’re talking about — could be your idea, your product, your process. You then talk about why it’s important, that’s the “so what”. And you get to pick the level of relevance here — it could be to the individual you’re talking to, could be a group, could be a company, it could be society in general. <Yes!> And then “the now what” is the next step, what comes next? Maybe it’s signing up for a particular offering; maybe it’s calendaring another meeting; perhaps it’s looking at a demo, or having somebody else come onto the stage.

But if you can package your information in a way that is clear and concise and connected, then it’s going to be more valuable. And this structure really helps do that. And you can move things around. So if I’m talking to a hesitant or resistant audience, I might move the “so what” first. Start by saying, imagine what it would be like if we could save money, or time, or lives? <Yes!> And people are like yes, I like that. Then you say well, here’s what we need to do: Here’s the what, and here’s the now what that comes after it.

And it applies not just to information you’re disseminating, it could be feedback you’re giving, it could be emails you’re writing — a structure like what/ so what/ now what can help. So when you put the micro-level structure — the what, so what, now what, into the macro-level structure — where you’re worrying about the flow and the arc, that’s where you get rich, engaging, memorable communication happening.

Introductions and conclusions

Sonal: That’s fantastic, Matt. And I love what you said about that you could reorder it based on resistance, because, <yeah> that is exactly how I think about every podcast episode or event is — it is not just about the topic, it’s actually about broadening the potential audience for the topic. And so you can actually bring more people in if you orient things in a broader way — like, hey this conversation seems like it’s about DevOps <right> but it’s really about innovation and all of you care about this, actually. And “the now what”, I think of as how do you know bridge theory to practice, or, make something more concrete — like, you were talking about abstract software system — what do people DO with this information? <right> Or what do people act on? And I think that’s a very, very useful, framework.

And in fact, it frees you up! Because one of the techniques that very good playwrights (to use your example), use is the technique of “in medias res”, like starting something in the middle of the action <mhm> — you know like the way Star Wars began; <yeah!> it doesn’t begin with like, episode one, it begins with episode four — and in that way, we can actually start the conversation by picking the right place: And the way we orient it, is the what/ so what/ now what!

Matt: Yeah, and I’ll just make one other comment — I totally agree with the notion of starting with action, starting in the middle — there are a few things I get up on a soapbox for, and I really really want to see changed in people’s communication — I would love for presentations, meetings, and panels to avoid starting with “Hi, my name is; today I’m going to talk about”. The analogy that I use is every action movie starts with Action. And then they put up the Title. And then they put up the Credits. <Exactly!> And I would much prefer that you start with something provocative, intriguing, interesting — and then say who you are and what you’re going to cover. And it gets right to that point you talked about: start in the middle.

So, not only do you have to think about how you structure the event, and how you structure your content, but think about how you structure the START.

Sonal: My biggest pet peeve is when people have the guests introduce themselves <mhm>, because a moderator is literally conceding control of how to begin the conversation in the most boring way possible. Even if you tell them, do it in 30 seconds or less, it does not set the tone that you want — in fact, I very strongly believe a moderator needs to do the intro for their guests — you can get that bullet point across in like two words <yeah> instead of wasting like three minutes on it. It’s the worst use of time, to begin any conversation.

Matt: I absolutely agree.

Sonal: So on the intros, you said it’s really important to understand your audience — and one of the techniques is to understand their context or cues — what do you make up the technique of polls… especially in a parasocial community where you don’t really know everybody and you want to sort of understand. How does that fit in or not fit in? What do you think about polls and polling your audience?

Matt: So I think anything that gets your audience interacting is a good thing — rhetorical questions, questions the way they answer — polls are very useful. But polls work in a limited way; you can’t keep polling your audience.

Two rules for using polls: You have to tell people how to respond. And second, you have to comment on whatever response you get. If you just throw out a question, and people don’t know am I thinking the answer, am I raising my hand, if it’s virtual do I push on a button? — so you have to tell them how to do it; and then comment: Say, oh, that’s what I thought most of you have; or oh, I’m surprised only half of you have. That recognizes the contribution and makes people more likely to feel that it was useful and they’ll do it again.

Sonal: Great. And then, conclusions! This is one of the techniques I learned from you because I used to be very front-loaded, like only focus on, when live events, on the intro and the middle. And I’d kind of be sloppy at the end like — okay, we’re done — <laughs> I mean, I wasn’t quite that sloppy, but, you know <laughs>

Matt: Most people think, you know, if I can get the beginning down, then it’ll all follow. But the reality is it doesn’t. Most meetings and presentations end very poorly. In fact, people will just say “Uhh, I guess we’re out of time,” <yeah…> and then they’re done. That’s it.

Sonal: …Very abrupt and useless. How do you recommend people conclude?

Matt: Very concisely. I like endings that express gratitude, and then, have a quick wrap up. Quite frankly, if you define a goal up front, then the way you end is simply by stating your goal: “Thank you for your time today. I hope you’re leaving knowing this, feeling this, and likely to do this.” And then you’re done.

You know as a teacher, I see this all the time. When I signal to my students that we are done or coming close to wrapping up, they are packed up and halfway out the door before I’m done. So that’s why I like ending in a concise and clear way, and being very thoughtful about it in advance about how you want to end.

Sonal: And I would add one thing, that I’ve learned from editing written text. I don’t like it when conclusions introduce new information. <oh yeah> It’s almost like giving people a teaser that you don’t get to pull that thread. <yeah> It’s okay to allude to something coming, to say we’re going to cover this next time or, <right> stay tuned for the next event on so-and-so date; that’s fine, but I can’t stand it when people bring up a new point in the conclusion.

Matt: Totally agree. It’s all about concision in the end.

Managing speaker anxiety

Sonal: Last question. We’ve threaded through this a little bit throughout the conversation, which is how do people manage anxiety — and that’s of course a psychological question — what would your best tips and advice be (kind of universalities for) how to manage anxiety in both public speaking, written communication, etc.?

Matt: So I could spend a lot of time talking about this point. I spend a lot of my life helping people become more comfortable and confident speaking; I’ve written a book Speaking Up without Freaking Out on the topic — and it’s something that I think is so critical, because I know we miss valuable input, voices, and ideas because people are just too afraid to share them.

When it comes to managing anxiety, at the highest level it’s about doing two things: managing symptoms, and managing sources. Symptoms are the things that your body experiences: <mhm> Your hands get shaky? Does your mouth get dry? Do you get sweaty in your brow? And then it’s sources, things that actually exacerbate the anxiety; it’s: Am I worried about trying to get it right? Am I concerned that I might not achieve my goal? Is it that I’m feeling soo intensely evaluated? Those are sources.

And, with both symptoms and sources, there are things that you can do, that over time, will help you feel more comfortable and confident. It takes work; it’s not a light switch — it’s not like boom, all of a sudden, you’re not nervous. But gradually, you will feel better.

Sonal: So give us — and I agree it’s a whole longer conversation — but give us a few tips for both symptoms and sources. Some concrete things that people can just do out the door, right away.

Matt: Sure. So we’ve already talked about deep breathing. Deep breathing will slow down the fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system response that happens.

People who get shaky — that’s the adrenaline coursing through their bodies — doing big broad gestures when you begin a presentation invokes muscles, big muscles that then dissipate some of that adrenaline.

If you get sweaty, that’s because your core body temperature is going up — it’s as if you’re exercising — the same thing’s going on: your heart’s beating faster, you’re tighter, your blood vessels are more constricted, your blood pressure goes up, your temperature goes up: You can cool yourself down, simply by holding something cold in the palm of your hand; your hands are <ooh!> thermal regulators for your body, just like uh your forehead and the back of your neck are.

Sonal: Water bottle saves the day again. Water to the rescue.

Matt: It does! So those are symptomatic relief. In terms of sources, so, many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do it right. I’ve been doing this kind of work for three decades now, and I’m here to tell you, there is no right way to communicate. There are better and worse ways; if you can remove the pressure to do it right, you actually free up cognitive resources to do it better.

So rather than seeing your communication as a performance where perfection is the goal, see it as a conversation where understanding and collaboration are the goal. And that takes a lot of pressure off of you.

Now it’s very easy for me to say that, and it’s harder to do; but with work and practice, you can do that.

Sonal: I have to tell you, one of the things that you’ve helped me with, as an anxiety- management technique, for big events and prep — one of the techniques you gave me is like having three keywords <mhm> as a way to kind of orient my identity before I go on stage. <right> And it is amazing how that helps me. And it’s funny, because my three words are: “energy, light, and shepherd”. <great!> And the reason is, because I’m a shepherd for the audience; energy, which goes to the point about feeling; and light, because I want people to feel enlightened — which I know sounds really mushy-gushy but, those are literally the three words that really ground that I’m collaborating with the audience: It’s not this oppositional, adversarial, dynamic.

Matt: I think those are really empowering.

Many of us are worried about a potential negative future outcome. The entrepreneurs that come to your firm are afraid they’re not going to get funding. My students are afraid that they’re not going to get a good grade. The people we coach to be better speakers are afraid they’re not going to get support for their ideas.

That fear is a future fear. And because of that it makes it worse. So if you can short-circuit that, become present-oriented, focus on the moment, you by definition won’t be as nervous. So how do you do that? Well: Do something physical before you communicate, take a walk around the block. <Yes> You can listen to a song or a playlist; you see athletes do this all the time. The one I always joke about, but works really well: Start at 100 and count backwards by some difficult number. Try right now, start at 100 and count backwards by 17s… the only way you can do that is by getting really present oriented.

Sonal: My therapist has given me a technique where, what’s the worst thing that could happen? <yeah> And we actually make it very concrete, it’s like oh, the worst thing that’s gonna happen is I run out of breath. <yes> And I’m not stopping breathing (which is what it feels like when you’re having a panic attack), and also, people are actually more friendly <right> then I think. And so all of that is extremely helpful.

And knowing, it’s not weakness — but the better you know yourself, the better you can then plan and even reroute around or address it head on. I think a lot of times what happens is people deny it, they act like it’s something they have to run away from — because when you feel anxious, you just want to run away from the feeling, you don’t want it. But it’s far worse to be surprised by it on stage <that’s right> than to lean into the fact that you’re going to have it, so prepare for it.

Matt: That’s exactly right. What I want people to take away is that — with practice, with commitment; giving yourself permission to take risks to try some of these things out — you can actually learn to be more comfortable and confident in high-stakes communication situations.

Sonal: Matt, thank you for your time today. <chuckles> I hope this leaves everyone feeling empowered to be a moderator in whatever form. And, those that are more interested should go check out boldecho.com, your book, your podcast. And, I hope this is a helpful resource. Thank you for joining the “a16z Podcast.”

Matt: Awesome.


Sonal: Matt, there was so much insight per minute packed into what you just said…

Matt: <chuckles> Well thank you… 

image description Looking for more episodes?
Find them wherever you listen to podcasts.