How many of us fear public speaking more than death: four out of five, nine out of ten, 99 out of 100? We’ve all heard a variety of statistics, all of them suggesting the formidability — perceived or real — of the task of getting up and talking in front of other people. But perhaps you’ll get an even clearer sense of that from the number 15,021,560: the total view count, as of this writing, racked up by “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” an hour-long talk on public speaking techniques by communication coach and Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Matt Abrahams.
The pedants among us, myself included, will have already taken note of that linguistic infelicity in the very title of the talk, but Abrahams himself wastes little time pointing it out himself. He also points out its value: you’ve got to catch the attention of your audience, and a deliberately made mistake (or even a non-deliberately made one) catches it as well as anything.
He goes on to elaborate on various other techniques we can use not just to get other people listening well, but to get ourselves talking well, the first priority being to get ourselves to stop tripping over our innate desire to talk perfectly.
Abrahams leads his audience through several short “games,” instructing them to do things like explaining their weekends to one another by spelling out loud and selling one another Slinkys, with the underlying goal of breaking the habits that have so often impeded our ability to simply get up and speak. He also provides physical techniques, like doing push-ups or taking a walk around the block before giving a talk in order to get your mind more “present,” and intellectual ones, like always adhering to a structure, no matter how simple and no matter how ordinary the situation. (“I practice these structures on my kids,” he notes.)
Taking the wider view, we shouldn’t look at speaking as a challenge, according to Abrahams, but as a chance to explain and influence. “A Q&A session is an opportunity for you,” he says, and practicing what he preaches, he opens one up at the end of the talk, underscoring that we can improve our public speaking skills by doing as he says, but even more so by doing as he does. Some of those more than eleven million views surely come from people who have watched more than once, studying Abrahams’ own use of language, both verbal and body. He also demonstrates a good deal of humor, though brevity, as Shakespeare wrote, being the soul of wit, you might consider chasing his talk with the four-minute Big Think video on the same subject just above.
Abrahams regularly teaches courses on Public Speaking at Stanford Continuing Studies. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, give his classes a look. Also see his books, Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.