May 9, 2024

Think Fast, Talk Smart: CMO Edition

Every day, CMOs must navigate a whirlwind of high-stakes, spontaneous conversations, from pressurized boardroom challenges to delicate internal communications. Yet many have no formal training in this area or formulas for improvement. 

In this episode, Stanford professor and communication expert Matt Abrahams shares actionable, science-backed strategies from his latest book, “Think Faster, Talk Smarter.” Whether it’s acing unexpected questions in job interviews, managing crises, or giving feedback, discover the structures and exercises that will prepare you to handle every spontaneous scenario like a seasoned pro. 

This episode was originally recorded in front of a live audience, hosted by CMO Huddles, an exclusive community of B2B marketing leaders. If you’d like to join these conversations in the future, learn more at

What You’ll Learn 

  • How to master spontaneous conversations 
  • Structures to help you be clearer and more concise, plus exercises to practice  
  • How to deal with unexpected interview questions 

Renegade Marketers Unite, Episode 396 on YouTube 

Resources Mentioned 


  • [1:31] Matt Abrahams: Think Faster, Talk Smarter
  • [3:21] Onions & unexpected interview questions
  • [6:23] What, so what, now what?
  • [11:52] Improv exercise: The gift-giving game
  • [17:08] Q: How to adapt your tone?
  • [19:26] ADD in interviews: Answer, Detail, Describe
  • [24:57] Manage anxiety
  • [27:46] Listen better: Pace, space, grace
  • [29:56] Paraphrase, then answer
  • [32:57] Q: How to introduce yourself
  • [35:21] Maximizing mediocracy
  • [37:43] How to pivot when you’re rambling
  • [41:37] Dos and Don’ts for effective, spontaneous communication
  • [44:01] Homework: How can you be more clear & concise?
  • [44:55] Contact Matt

Highlighted Quotes 

“The What, So What, Now What structure is the Swiss Army knife of communication.” —Matt Abrahams, Author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter 

“Even if somebody is hostile to your point of view, at least they care about the same thing you do. You can start from that place.”  —Matt Abrahams, Author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter  

“The problem is that people will give great detail about the mistake they made, but they don’t spend time explaining how they fixed it and what they learned.” —Matt Abrahams, Author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter

“When you introduce yourself, what is one phrase or sentence you could use before you start saying who you are, what you do, etc.?” —Matt Abrahams, Author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter

“My mother has this saying I love. It’s tell the time, don’t build the clock. Many of us, especially in interviews, become clock builders when all people want to know is the time. Using a structure and having a goal is one of many ways to prioritize and focus.” —Matt Abrahams, Author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter 

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Matt Abrahams


Drew: Hey, it’s Drew. Welcome to another episode of Renegade Marketers Unite. This show is brought to you by CMO Huddles, the only marketing community dedicated to B2B greatness, and that donates 1% of revenue to the Global Penguin Society. Wait, what? Yeah, it’s kind of weird, isn’t it? But let me explain. It turns out that B2B CMOs and penguins have a lot in common. Both are highly curious and remarkable problem solvers. Both prevail in harsh environments by working together with peers, and both are remarkably mediagenic. And just as a group of penguins is called a Huddle, our community of over 400 B2B marketing leaders huddle together to gain confidence, colleagues, and coverage. If you’re a B2B CMO who can share, care, and dare with the best of them, do yourself a favor and dive into CMO Huddles. We even have a free starter program. Now let’s get to the episode.

Narrator: Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite, possibly the best weekly podcast for CMOs and everyone else looking for innovative ways to transform their brand, drive demand, and just plain cut through. Proving that B2B does not mean boring to business. Here’s your host and Chief Marketing Renegade, Drew Neisser.

Drew: Hello, Renegade Marketers! You’re about to listen to a Career Huddle, a specially curated session where Huddlers get exclusive access to the authors of some of the world’s best-selling business books. At this particular Huddle, we’re thrilled to welcome Stanford professor Matt Abrahams, an expert in spontaneous communication and the author of “Think Faster, Talk Smarter”. If you haven’t read it, definitely get it. I loved it. Matt joined us to explore an intriguing contradiction. How can we prepare to be spontaneous? Let’s get to it. 

Hello Huddlers, welcome to another CMO Huddles book club, where we introduce you to best-selling authors who can help propel your career to new heights. Most CMOs face numerous stressful, spontaneous conversations from interviewing to get the job to answering tough questions at board meetings, to having to tell a subordinate they need to find a new job. Yet many have no formal training in this area or formulas for improvement or even knew there were formulas for improvement, like me. Fortunately, today, our very special guest, Matt Abrahams, will help you develop strategies for all these spontaneous conversations and more. Matt is a leading expert in communication, a Stanford Business School lecturer on organizational behavior, and teaches very popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting. He’s authored several books, including his latest, “Think Faster, Talk Smarter,” which is at the top of my list of books I wish existed when I started my career. He also hosts a great podcast called “Think Fast, Talk Smart.” And with that, wait for it, let’s throw out a big CMO Huddles welcome. Hello, Matt Abrahams. Welcome.

Matt: Hello! I am so happy to be with you Drew!

Drew: I got a lot out of your book, particularly methods for handling spontaneous conversations in high-stress situations. And we can’t cover the whole book. By the way, it’s a great listen, and it’s only six hours. So you can do it twice. Let’s start with how some people can respond to unexpected questions in an interview. And, you know, I love the onion story that you tell in your book. So feel free to share that or just jump right in.

Matt: Well, thank you. So if you think about it, most of our communication is spontaneous. It happens in the moment. You know, we fixate on those planned presentations, the pitches, we do the meetings with agendas. But the reality is, most of our communication is spontaneous. And we realize that, especially when we’re doing job interviews, and you’re alluding to an interview I had for a job I held many, many years ago, where I had made it to the final round. I’d made it through the gauntlet of everybody, and I was to sit down with the CEO. So I show up in the room, and he’s already there, which blew my mind because my experience up until then had been you always end up waiting for the senior leaders. And he was there with my resume in his hand, a smile on his face. I sit down, after pleasantries, his first question to me is, “If I were to peel back an onion, what would I find on your third layer?” In other words, he wanted me to reveal something about myself, and I have to tell you, I did not expect this question at all. And this is just one of many examples of where we are put on the spot, not expecting to have to respond, not sure of what to say, and we can become better at being prepared for the spontaneous moments. And I know that that sounds counterintuitive: how can you prepare to be spontaneous? But you can. And if you think about it, if you’ve ever played a sport or a musical instrument, you do a lot of drilling so that in the moment, if you’re a jazz player, you can be creative and improvise. If you’re an athlete, you can do what needs to happen on the field or court. So it’s possible to prepare when it comes to job interviews. As the interviewee, I think there are a few things we should do to prepare: one, make sure you thoroughly understand the company, the job, the role, but also think about what themes you might want to cover in the interview. So maybe you’re somebody who has deep technical knowledge, or somebody who’s had great success in ambiguous situations, whatever it is, think about those themes and think about examples, statistics, testimonials you could invoke in support of those themes. It’s like when you cook, this is all the pre-chopping and the pre-organization of buying the right ingredients. So when you’re in the moment, and you get asked the question, you simply have to assemble what it is you’ve thought about before. And to help you package everything up, you use a structure just like you use a recipe to cook. And the book really talks about a methodology for mindset and messaging, but also gives specific structures or recipes for those situations. So if you’re being interviewed, if you’re making small talk, if you’re giving feedback, there are specific recipes or structures that you can follow.

Drew: So the recipe, this was the part that, you know, I just, I always sort of, I’d hear a question, and it particularly in an interview, and I’d say, “Okay, I think I know a good answer based on sort of no formula or anything, but I’m just gonna jump right in. And I have a sense of confidence, and whatever I lack in an actual good answer, I’ll make up for in enthusiasm, maybe moving my hands a little bit.” But you talk about this “What, So What, Now What” formula, and you talk about this as the easiest, the most useful in all sorts of situations. Can you talk about that structure? By the way, I use that for the opening. 

Matt: I noticed.

Drew: And it was great, it was simple. It is a new mandate for our team as they’re writing little things. “What, So What, and Now What?” Talk a little bit about the formula and why it’s so helpful.

Matt: Absolutely, thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about my favorite of these structures. So to begin, structure is just a logical connection of ideas. We are not good as a species, as humans, at lists of information. Many of us, when we are in the moment, speaking spontaneously, we just itemize and list information. And that’s really hard for people to parse and remember. In fact, I’ll challenge you, Drew, to think about how many items do you need to buy at a grocery store before you actually have to write it down on a list? Chances are, it’s not many. For me, it’s anything over four, I can’t remember it. Yet, when we’re in the moment, we tend to just list, hoping that that list will stick. Rather, if we structured things in a nice, organized package for our audience, they’re going to be able to remember it better. Quite frankly, our brains are wired for this type of structure. So there are many structures that exist. The one everybody knows, if you’ve ever watched a television advertisement, is problem, solution, benefit. Every ad says there’s an issue, a challenge, a problem, here’s how we solve it with our product or service, and here’s the benefit to you of purchasing it. That’s a very specific need. The “What, So What, Now What” structure you’re referring to is a generic structure. It can be used for multiple situations. I call it the Swiss Army knife of communication. So let me break it down into three simple questions. “What, So What, Now What?” The “What” is your idea, product, your service, your update, your feedback? The “So what” is why is it important to the person you are speaking to? And then “Now what” is what comes next. Maybe it’s “Can I take your questions,” or “Let me show you a demo” or “Let’s set up another meeting.” So the structure has three parts. And if you follow those three parts, answering the three questions, you set yourself up for success. So let me give you a couple examples. Imagine you’re in an update meeting, all you have to do is give your update. That’s the “What” the “So What” is why the update is important in the now what is what we’ll be working on next. If you’re giving feedback, the what is your feedback, maybe Drew and I come out of a meeting and I ask for feedback and I say Drew it went great, except for when you were talking about the implementation plan. You talked quickly, and you didn’t give as much detail as elsewhere. That’s the “What.” When you speak quickly without giving detail. People think you’re nervous or unprepared. That’s the “So what” so Drew the next time you talk about the implementation plan include these two examples and slow down, that’s the “Now what?” So in the moment of having to speak spontaneously, just by answering those questions. I can give good detail and I encourage everyone to practice with this structure. Now I want to take a time out. When I teach my MBA students I do these meta moments, I just used “What, so what, now what?” To explain “What, so what, now what?” I told you what it was, why it’s important, and gave you ideas about how you can use it. So it’s a very useful structure in all communication.

Drew: Well, there’s a couple of things that came up. First, I want to go back to the fact that in terms of the number of things I can remember in my list, if you ask my wife, she would say one. So that’s an important thing. Secondly, I thought you were gonna say that the “So what?” was going to be every time you open your mouth. I don’t know why I thought of that. But then the third thing is the key to me—I think we all do the “What?” And the “So what?” I think we might forget the “Now what?” And that, you know, which is the thing that really brings it home because we can provide feedback and say, “Hey, you, that was a great meeting. Here’s some information that I noticed.” Stop, right? 

Matt: Right.

Drew: And the “Now what?” is something that I think is really good. There was one other thing that you mentioned, you slipped in there, and the book talks a lot about that, and we’re not going to cover it here. But you talked about how to deal with nervousness and one of the things was slowing down. And I love that. And I love that. I just want to—for the folks who if you haven’t read the book, and if you are nervous in a town hall or something, Matt’s book offers a lot of good suggestions, whether it’s cooling your head, or whether it’s slowing down, allowing pauses, getting rid of your non-words. Okay. Next, so a lot of the guidance in your book comes from the world of improv. I’ve fortunately in my life I did a semester in improv, and I love that. And I think that helped inform things. But it’s not only particularly fun if we could do an exercise and have some fun. So part of this is you get a lot of unsolicited or have to give unsolicited feedback. So let’s talk about the context for the gift-giving exercise, if you will, and then let’s we’re going to do this exercise with the folks here.

Matt: Awesome. I’d love to do that. This is one of my favorite improvisation games, I learned it from my colleague, Adam Tobin, who’s a master improviser, and a screenwriter who teaches that at Stanford. So I use this activity for a lot of reasons. But the primary reason is many of us when we are in spontaneous speaking situations, we feel that we have to be defensive that we have to protect ourselves, we feel challenged and threatened. And I use this activity to get people to reframe that moment, when you’re put on the spot as an opportunity where something really good or big can happen. So imagine the big boss or the Board of Directors asks you for your feedback or your input. In the moment you weren’t prepared for it, many of us would shrink back, we’d get really nervous, we perspire. And we can take a different approach to it. Part of the methodology I teach to my students and in the book, and anywhere I go, when I coach is that we have to change our mindset, as well as have tools like structure for actual messaging. So here’s how this game works. We each have the ability to give a gift and to get a gift and you get with a partner. And you give your partner a gift. It’s an imaginary gift, your partner receives the gift, upon getting it, they open up the gift, they look inside, and they thank you for the very first thing that pops into their head. It doesn’t even have to fit into the box. So somebody could say thank you for the jumbo jet, or thank you for the molecule of ice cream. It does not matter, whatever the first thing that comes to your mind. Now you as the gift giver who gave the gift to your partner, when you hear what you actually gave them, when they name it, you immediately share why you got it for them. So Drew, why don’t you and I play this game, so everybody can see how this works. So I’m going to give you a gift you’ll receive it, you’ll open it, say thank you for whatever you first see in the box, and I’ll explain why I gave it to you. You ready for your gift?

Drew: Yes.

Matt: Here we go. Here’s your gift.

Drew: Oh my gosh, you gave me a brand new car.

Matt: Absolutely! I know you’ve been exercising so much. And you’re really fit. And now you get to reap the rewards of that. And you can drive everywhere instead of hustling and walking as you have been.

Drew: Thank you. And just the fact that you could fit the whole car in the box was amazing. So thank you for that.

Matt: Absolutely! So you see in this game that there are two opportunities for spontaneity and it’s not about the best answer or the funniest answer. It’s just about responding. And in that moment, when I was waiting to hear what I gave Drew, I was anticipating, I was excited. I was looking forward to collaborating and finishing this game. Notice I didn’t say I didn’t get you a car. That’s ridiculous. A car wouldn’t fit in a box and you should be exercising anyway. No. Instead, I took what he said and ran with it. In improvisation, there are lots of rules that they follow, which is counterintuitive. We think improv is all made up but they actually follow a lot of rules. The most frequent and popular rule is “yes, and…” that’s what this game is. He takes the box and says, “Yes, I’m gonna find something in it.” And whatever he finds I say “yes, and…” that’s what I gave you. So I think, Drew, you want to orchestrate this among the people here? 

Drew: We do. Should I give you a gift first? 

Matt: I’m happy to receive a gift.

Drew: All right, so here you are.

Matt: Drew, thank you so much. Oh, my goodness. Thank you for the Mercedes-Benz pennant.

Drew: Wow. You know, I knew you needed one, because you’ve been driving a BMW and other a lot of people in your neighborhood that are fans of, of Mercedes. So I thought that you should sort of wave that flag.

Matt: Absolutely! That was excellent. I don’t know why I said Mercedes-Benz pendant. That was the first thing that came to my mind. If when you were waiting, and anticipating the gift that you gave, learning what you gave, if you felt a level of excitement, if you were eager to see what was there, that moment of excitement. That’s what it can be like, on spontaneous speaking situations, many of us feel like challenges and threats. But in that moment of anticipation, that’s where magic happens. That’s where you can connect with the person, even if you’re in a Q&A situation, where the questions are harsh and challenging, you can see that as an opportunity to learn more about your audience to understand what some of the alternative viewpoints are. And let’s face it, even if somebody is really hostile to your point of view, at least they care about the same thing you care about. So you can start from that place. So this activity is not just about “Yes, and…” it’s about rewiring our mindset for these spontaneous speaking situations.

Drew: Yeah, and there’s so many parts of that and nuances that again, having read the book, or listen to the book, that you fill in, in terms of it, but it’s part of this is by empowering yourself to say, “and whatever it is,” you’re just giving yourself a position to kind of strengthen acceptance, right, you’re not in fight or flight, you’re not in a defensive mode. So I just think that’s so important. We do have a question from one of the CMOs in the audience, and they ask “What are the best practices for managing our tone, particularly over the phone to ensure that the interviewer has confidence in us?”

Matt: So tone is really important. And tone is part of a larger concept of nonverbal presence, what we do with our body and our voice. So first, you have to think about what is my goal in this circumstance? Goal has three parts, information, emotion, and action. So what do I want to get across, that’s the information. How do I want the other person or people to feel, excited, concerned, motivated, validated, confident? And then what do I want them to do and in the moment or if it’s a planned presentation, you think to yourself, “What do I want the audience to know and feel and do?” With that information you then can think to yourself, what’s the appropriate tone, to achieve that goal? And for many of us just thinking, “Oh, I want to be excited,” that leads us into that tone. But for others, it can be harder to come up with the tone we want in terms of how to actually manifest that tone. So a few things you can think about, the words you use help. If I want to come off as somebody who’s got a lot of energy, and I’m really focused and jazzed about what we’re talking about, I might insert the word excited, because when I say excited, I tend to say it in an excited way. Similarly, if my tone is one, thoughtfulness, and slowing down, I might insert the word concern, because we tend to say the word concern, as if we’re concerned. And then finally, if you really struggle with what’s called emotional congruence, that is your tone is congruent with the emotion you’re trying to get across, then you can actually do an acting technique. And actors, what they will do when they want to convey a specific tone, they’ll think about a very specific time in their lives, when they conveyed that tone. And they’ll remind themselves of that to get into that moment. So several things you can do, first and foremost, have a goal, “Know, feel, do” then map your tone to that emotion. You can use language to get you into it, use words that invoke that. So I’m excited, I’m concerned. And then if that doesn’t work, and you still need some help remind yourself of an instance or time where you had that tone, and try to bring that forward. 

Drew: So building off of this interview sort of notion. We have a lot of folks joining us today who are between opportunities, and it’s a particularly competitive market. And the questions are getting more and more difficult. I’m wondering if in your experience when helping folks prepare for interviews, is there a question and response scenario that you see interviewees get wrong a lot?

Matt: Well, I am happy to share a few questions I think people struggle with, but the biggest thing is, again, people just list information. So when somebody says “Tell me about your experience,” people just itemize their LinkedIn profile or resume. And that’s a problem. Because again, people, when you interview, you are equipping your interviewer to represent you to others. That’s really what you’re doing. Very rarely does the person you sit across from say, “Yes, you’re hired” and you’re hired in that moment, no, they have to go back and speak to a team and represent you. And if you just list information, you’re not helping yourself. So that’s where having a clear structure helps. And in the book, I talk about a structure for answering questions. I use an acronym A.D.D.: Adding value, Answer the question, give a Detailed example, Describe the relevance of the answer. So, Drew, let’s do this, we’ll do this in real-time. Imagine you are interviewing me to be a professor of strategic communication in a business school. So the role I hold at Stanford, but let’s imagine you’re interviewing me, what is a reasonable question you would ask? Not a question that has just a yes, no, or numeric answer, but you’re trying to find if I would be a good fit for your business school. Give me a question.

Drew: Why the heck should Fuqua, that’s the Duke business school, even think about hiring a Stanford dude?

Matt: Well, so first, you come from an amazing business school. When it comes to strategic communication, all students, regardless of school, need to be prepared to articulate appropriately their points of view. In my classes, we spend a lot of time helping students first define what their messages are, and then deliver them in an appropriate manner through an appropriate channel. If you were to hire me, I would bring the expertise that I’ve developed at Stanford Business School to your business school so I can tailor to the needs of your students. [Answer] Concrete example: [Explain or connect the relevance] By following that roadmap, Drew, now has the ability to go back to whoever his hiring committee is, I hope, and share not only does this guy have some experience, he’s going to be able to tailor the material, and he does so in his classes by doing this and this, so he has information now that he can use. So having a structure: Add, Answer, Detailed Example, Describe the Relevance can really help. Now there are certain questions that people get hung up on, “Share with me a time where things didn’t go the way you wanted or you made a mistake or an error.” The problem is when people answer those questions, they give great detail about the mistake they made, but they don’t spend time explaining how they fixed it and what they learned. So if you were to use A.D.D. for a question like that, and you say, “What’s a time where you made a mistake, and things didn’t go the way you wanted?” I would give an example, I would say, “There was a time in a meeting where I didn’t deliver what I needed to because there was confusion.” And then I would give an example of what I have done subsequent to that, to make sure that that never happens again. And then the relevance piece, I would come back and say, “And now every time I have a deliverable, I make sure to do X, Y, and Z.” So it’s critical when challenged for something that you failed at or didn’t do well at, that you give an example, but you immediately share what you did to fix it, and how that’s going to make you a better employee.

Drew: I love that structure. It was one of my favorites, of course, A.D.D. appeals to me on all sorts of levels. As you were talking, I was also thinking that “What, So What, and Now What” would work in the same scenario.

Matt: Absolutely. So my whole goal is to equip people with multiple structures, multiple tools. And in the moment, you can decide what works best. So if you can become fluent, if you will, in a few different structures, you then have some choices that you can make in the moment that are best suited for what it is you’re doing.

Drew: Yeah and I think a lot of folks, and I want to go back to—that people fall into traps, they say, “So tell me about yourself.” And then they sort of launch on “Well, I was born in, you know, Kansas” and then go on. And meanwhile, what is that person trying to do? And what I like, again, whether it’s the “What, So What, or Now What” is, “Here’s what I’m about. Here’s what matters. And this is why” you know, “what it’s going to mean for you.” It forces you to be pithy. And I think that’s so important and one of the things I want to talk to folks that are in transition, often they have long answers to what happened at their last place. You don’t need a long answer. You need a quick one so you can move on to the positive. What I like about the structure is it forces you to move on.

Matt: Concision is critical. Many of us in spontaneous speaking situations take our audiences on a journey of discovery of what it is we’re trying to say as we say it, and we say way more than we need to. My mother has the saying that I love: “Tell the time, don’t build the clock.” And many of us, especially in interviews, become clock builders, and all people want to know is the time. So using a structure is one of many ways, so is having a goal. What they all do is they help you prioritize and focus.

Drew: I want to get to board meetings because I know this is another high-stress situation and I know a lot of first-time CMOs sweat over this, you know, when the tough questions start flying. And also, we’re dealing with most board members have never spent any time in marketing so there’s sort of their magical thinking a marketer can come in and make something happen in the first week. So let’s talk about, I guess, nerve management in that situation because these people are the they are the court, if you will, and they could say “Off with your head” at any moment.

Matt: So anxiety looms large in all communication, especially spontaneous communication. And we need to realize that most people feel nervous in high-stakes communication. There’s research that suggests upwards of 85% of people feel nervous in spontaneous speaking situations and planned speaking situations. And quite frankly, I think the other 15% are lying. There are things we can do to manage our anxiety. Notice, I don’t say overcome, I don’t think it’s possible, nor do I think we would want to overcome all of our anxiety, anxiety actually helps us focus, it gives us energy, tells us what we’re doing is important, but we want to manage it, so it doesn’t manage us. The very first book I wrote was called “Speaking Up Without Freaking Out.” It’s a book that lists 50, academically-vetted techniques for managing anxiety in communication. They boil down to two categories: symptoms and sources. So when it comes to managing anxiety, you have to first manage the symptoms, what happens to you physiologically, as well as some of the sources that initiate and exacerbate that anxiety. And if you wish, I’m happy to go into some examples of each of those.

Drew: Let’s just do a couple because I have so many other questions that I want to get to that I think will be helpful, I think, for a lot of the folks in the audience have their own strategy for but let’s go with one.

Matt: Sure, absolutely. The single best thing you can do to manage symptoms is deep belly breathing. If you’ve ever done yoga or tai chi, it’s where you fill your lower abdomen. And the key is to have your exhalation be twice as long as your inhale. If your exhale is twice as long as your inhale, you’ll actually begin that relaxation response right away. For goals, goals are for symptoms, that’s breathing for sources—Goal-based anxiety is a big source, that is, what’s making me nervous as I’m afraid of not achieving the goal that I had. And the single best way to counteract that future anxiety, “I’m worried about a future negative state,” is to become present-oriented. And you can do that in many ways. Do something physical, take a walk around the building, listen to a song or a playlist, start at 100, and count backwards by some challenging number like seventeen. In doing all of that, you will help yourself to get more present-oriented.

Drew: Amazing! I did the deep breathing while we’re doing it. I’m already calmer in the center. Now we’ve spent I’m looking at 32 minutes so far talking about what you say. And one of my favorite chapters in your book is called Listen, don’t just do something stand there. Can you talk about the power of listening better, the pay space grace, you know, I love that. Kind of talk about that, and why that’s such a direct path and so important to better answers. 

Matt: So we all need to listen better. We listen just enough to get the gist of what somebody is saying. So if you’re in a job interview, you need to be listening with detail to understand why the person might be asking that question. So when somebody says, “Tell me a challenging situation you’ve had at work before?” One, they’re looking to determine what you define as challenging. But if you listen really carefully to that question, what they’re really asking, I think, is, “Is this somebody who can course correct? Is this somebody who can adjust and adapt to challenging situations?” And you need to be present enough to understand that there’s a question behind that question. So listening is critical. So how do we get better at it? One, we listen for the bottom line, not the top line. Many of us just listen for what it’s about. And then we start judging, evaluating, preparing, rather, listen for the bottom line, what’s really being asked for in this moment. And a great way to do that is to invoke three steps: pace, space, and grace. We have to slow ourselves down. Life comes at us fast and furious. It is hard to listen if we’re moving fast, answering emails, checking texts. Slow down. Second, we have to give ourselves space, not just physical space so I can hear, but the mental space. I have to prioritize this interaction and what’s happening this moment. And then finally, we need to make sure we give ourselves grace, permission to listen intently, not just to what’s said but how it’s said, where it’s at. And we have to give ourselves grace to listen to the intuition that comes up as we’re listening to somebody. So listen for the bottom line, pace, space, grace. It helps you hear the question behind the question and the intent that might not be spoken but nuanced can be revealed.

Drew: What you’re describing is extremely difficult. And it takes a lot of practice because, as you talk about in the book, and I’m thinking about it at the same time, a lot of us spend the time while they’re answering the question thinking of our answer. 

Matt: Yes, absolutely. 

Drew: And so we’re not really hearing them. And so I guess the question is, it is chewing gum and walking at the same time. You have to listen. And you really have to make sure that you understand what the essence of the question is, then you have to get to this spontaneous answer, right? And I think that a lot of us are pretty good at just coming up with that quick answer and not necessarily listening for the nuance. And I guess, how do you practice that? Are there any tips on that?

Matt: So I would suggest a couple of things. First, I would suggest that when you listen, you challenge yourself to paraphrase the question before you answer it. When we get a question and we listen to paraphrase, it slows us down. It makes us think, and it demonstrates the paraphrase demonstrates, “I heard you, and I want to make sure that I answer the question well.” Now let me be clear, a paraphrase isn’t always “So what I heard you asking is…” and you itemize step by step what you heard. Rather, you can just extract some key ideas. But a great way to practice listening well and buying yourself time to formulate your thoughts is to paraphrase, far better than saying, “Good question,” or just jumping in and answering the question. So paraphrasing is a wonderful tool to do that. And then you can drill this skill as well. When you listen to your podcast or when somebody listens to your podcast, at the end of it, they should pause and they should say, “What was that about?” Right? So you practice listening deeply and deeply determining what you’ve just listened to. And in doing that, that helps you be better when you’re in an interview, when you’re asked for feedback, so you can respond better. So just like an athlete does a lot of drills, you can drill this listening intently so that you can respond more quickly.

Drew: Yes, so we’re not going to use the common response, “Good question.” I’m going to paraphrase somewhat to buy our time and two get confirmation that you actually understood the question. By the way, as a podcast host, one of the things that I try to do is recognize that folks are probably working out while they’re doing it. So me paraphrasing the answer or restating the answer is actually helpful to the listener. I don’t know if it’s helpful in the, I guess, in the same way, in an interview process, that person sort of feels like, “Oh, they at least can listen.”

Matt: Oh, absolutely. And what you’re demonstrating, I think, is that you care – that you care enough that you want to make sure you’re answering the right question. So I absolutely think paraphrasing, maybe not to every question, is a great skill to develop. 

Drew: Okay, so we do have another question from the audience. And I guess I get to put you on the spot with this one, but you are the master of it. So. “provide an introduction about yourself and share what aspects have piqued your interest in applying for the job of CMO of IBM.”

Matt: Ah, excellent. So I’m going to break this into two parts. So the first part is, I have a very strong preference for how we introduce ourselves. Most people, when we introduce ourselves, we start by saying our name, “Hi, I’m Matt Abrahams, blah, blah.” I would rather you start with a provocative or declarative sentence. So when I introduce myself, I say, “I am somebody who is passionate about communication. My name is Matt. I teach at Stanford Business School.” And the reason I like starting with a provocative sentence is I can actually demonstrate my passion, my concern, my interest. It’s really hard to do that by stating your name. So I challenge everybody listening, when you introduce yourself, what is one phrase or sentence you could use before you start saying who you are, what you do, etc. Now, if I were being interviewed for the CEO of IBM, or some company, I would say something like, “I’m Matt Abrahams. I am absolutely passionate about helping people be more effective and efficient in their work. As the CEO of IBM, I would have the opportunity not just to help our employees be more effective, efficient, all of our customers across all of our programs and offerings to improve the quality of their life. I’ve done this in my previous roles. This is something that motivates me.” So simply by stating the provocative statement, and then essentially doing “What, So what, Now what?” I’m able to give a quick introduction of myself, and hopefully convey that I’m somebody who’s really, really interested in qualified for the job.

Drew: We are dealing with a master here, folks, because you’re hired by the way. Well, you know, their earnings report wasn’t so good last time. I think it’s time for a change. But obviously, practice helps a lot, and having this framework. And I think for the folks who have been listening so far, who are really thinking about their interviewing skills, this is one of the reasons why we in our transition team, we encourage you to get buddies and practice. And now you have a framework, whether it’s “ADD” or “What, So what, Now what?” and so forth, you have frameworks to practice with. So okay. One of the things you talk about in the book, and it’s funny, so the definition of a writer is someone who thinks of a perfect answer, you know, an hour later, right? In your book you talk about it’s not about a perfect answer. It’s about maximizing mediocrity, talk about that kind of concept a little bit.

Matt: Sure thing. So we put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves in our communication. We want to do it right, we want to give the right answer, the best feedback, we want to be the most interesting in small talk, that’s a tremendous amount of pressure that we put on ourselves. In so doing, we actually reduce the opportunity to actually communicate and connect well. In many ways, your brain is like a CPU in a computer. It’s not a perfect analogy, but you only have so much bandwidth. And you all know that when you have multiple windows open, tabs open or apps open on your phone, your system performs a little less well, because each of those is taking a lot of resources. So if I am constantly judging and evaluating what I am saying, as I am saying it, I have less bandwidth to focus on the actual goal of communication, which is connection. So I recommend people dial down the volume of their judging. I’m not saying don’t judge when you communicate, you have to, you need to think a little bit. But we do too much of this. So put your emphasis on the connection, the being meaningful for your audience, rather than the internal focus. And in so doing, you actually free up resources to do well. I have the audacity in front of my Stanford MBA students, some of the best and brightest business minds. And I start my class by saying today we’re going to work on in the whole class, we’re going to work on maximizing mediocrity, and you would see their jaws drop. They’re like, “What do you mean?” but after we talk about it, they realize that it actually frees them up to be so much better. So the goal is not perfection, its connection, allow yourself permission just to do what needs to be done. And by doing that, you free up resources to do it really well.

Drew: It’s not perfection, it’s connection. That’s very profound and really important. Because what are we doing in an interview? What are we doing in a sales process? We’re really, it is about the connections that we can make. Now, there’s a question from the audience where they’re not landing it. They’re rambling, and they know they’ve rambled. How do you course correct, because it happens to all of us, we go down a rabbit hole, and we got to come back out of it. How do you segue and get yourself back to a specific answer or just get out of it completely?

Matt: So there are times where we get ourselves into this conversational loop where we find ourselves meandering in our conversation. And that can be very challenging. If you have a goal that you are using to guide what you’re saying, or at least intended to use to guide what you’re saying, come back to whatever part of that goal you can. So maybe I’ll connect to the emotion, maybe I’ll connect to the information. But bringing yourself back, and one way I do it, I lecture, I teach. That’s what I do. And sometimes I’ll get on tangents. And what I’ll do is I’ll simply pause and ask a question to recenter and reset. So I might be talking about something then I’ll pause, I’ll say, “Let’s think for a moment. How does this apply to our life?” Or if you’re in a job interview, and you find yourself on a tangent, you can just say, “So I’m curious what parts of what I’ve said could actually help in the role that you have?” Or I might say, “So I find myself asking, is this skill of X going to be beneficial? And I think it will.” So you give yourself a little bit of space to correct yourself. And you can do it by asking a question. You can do it by repeating what you just said, but reframing it slightly differently. So if I’m going down a path of a project I worked on, and I realize I’m talking way too much about that project, I might just say, “In that project, really at the bottom line, it was all about the ability to bring disparate people together to focus and execute appropriately.” So I do my own internal summary of what I said, and that summary reframes what I was saying to bring me back on track. So there are tools you can use if you meander, now you will meander less if you have a goal and use a structure, that’s for sure.

Drew: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and asking a question feels very refreshing in an interview, but a summary does too. The thing that you didn’t say was, “Hey, I’m rambling. I’m sorry. I got to fix that. Sometimes I go off track.” This is like a piano player missing a note, you just keep going, right?

Matt: Absolutely. When you draw attention to it, you make it worse, you know? In television and movies, they there’s that fourth wall that you don’t want to break, where all of a sudden you’re talking to the camera. You don’t want to do that and break out of the character. And this is why I recommend nervous speakers never say, “I’m so nervous.” Many nervous speakers will start by saying, “Oh, I’m so nervous.” And they think what that’s doing is buying them empathy, but all it’s doing is causing the audience to really focus on everything they do that confirms that they’re nervous. So calling it out, unless it is offensive, if what you do is offensive, you slight somebody, you do something that really gets somebody’s hackles up, then in the moment, you do need to apologize and you need to pull out of that stream of what’s going on. But otherwise, most people don’t recognize it. And most of us have flubs and mess-ups as we go. It’s normal and natural. In fact, in the book, I talk about mistakes as being “miss-takes,” if you know anything about film and television production, they often will record a scene multiple times, take one, take two, no one scene is wrong. They’re just looking for different ways of doing it. So if you make a mistake, just say to yourself, “Take two.” And let’s keep going rather than make a big deal out of it.

Drew: Yeah, it’s so funny. It’s like, don’t say, “I’m nervous.” Those are obvious things and you also mentioned apologies, and we’re not going to cover it now because we’re running out of time. And I apologize for that. But we’ll make amends because all of you can actually get the book or listen to it and find that or I’ll save it, we’ll include it in the recap about this episode. You offer a really good way of apologizing and so I just want to put that in there. Now, we’re running out of time. And so I do want to ask you to summarize this conversation with two dos and one don’t when it comes to more effective spontaneous communications, particularly for B2B CMOs.

Matt: So two dos and one not to do. 

Drew: Yes!

Matt: Excellent. So it is absolutely critical in all communication to be audience-focused, to really think about your audience and their needs. The biggest mistake people make in their communication is they focus on what they want to say, rather than what the audience needs to hear. So I encourage everybody, regardless of your job, is to really remind yourself, “What is important for the audience? And how do I take my material to be relevant and specific to that audience?” I also encourage, as a big “to do,” is that you listen first, start from a position of listening. When we get nervous, when we get excited, we start by talking. The most effective way to communicate is to listen first, to be curious, to ask questions. And by the way, the second bit of advice feeds the first bit of advice, you learn more about how to tailor your messages and communication by listening first. So those are two things to do, be audience-centric, make sure you listen. And then the one thing I would suggest people avoid is to avoid the jargon, the acronyms, the insider baseball knowledge, and language that people use. We all suffer from the curse of knowledge and the curse of passion. And the way it manifests itself is in the language and lexicon that we use. A colleague of mine, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao, they just wrote a new book, and they talk about “jargon monoxide,” it sucks the air out of the room. Avoid jargon in your communication. So those are the things that I would suggest to really help anybody, but especially your audience, to be more effective in their communication.

Drew: So we’re going to be more relevant by really getting to know our audience, kind of rule number one for all communicators and marketers. Number two, we’re going to listen to help us be more relevant, but also to frame our answers better. And then three, we’re going to avoid, we are going to avoid jargon. Okay. Now it’s time for the Deborah Shiffrin killer question. Is there anything important I neglected to ask?

Matt: I love this question. You’re referring to a colleague and friend of mine, Deborah Shiffrin. She is a former NPR reporter. She also lectures at Stanford Business School, and I did an interview with her on my podcast, “Think Fast Talk Smart,” where we talked about how to ask better questions. The one thing I think we could have talked about more is how to be more concise and precise in your communication. And that’s something that’s really important for all of us. And I’m going to give everybody homework because that’s what I do for a day job. I want all of you to go look at your texts for the last day. And I want you to see how could you have been more concise in those texts? If you think about it, texting is spontaneous speaking. We don’t often spend a lot of time thinking, we just boom, boom, boom, respond. What are things you could have done to make it more concise? And this drilling, this prioritization of what you want to say can really help.

Drew: Perfect! Matt Abrahams, are you available for coaching and consulting, and if so, how can people find you?

Matt: Absolutely. So Drew, thank you. This has been a true pleasure. I love the energy that you bring. Yes, I am available for keynotes, coaching, consulting, workshops. This is my passion, to help people feel better and more comfortable, confident communicating. The single best way to get in touch with me is I’m a huge user of LinkedIn. I’d love to link in with your listeners. Thank you for the opportunity.

Drew: Thank you, Matt. And then thank you, listeners. If you’re a B2B CMO, and you want to hear more conversations like this one, find out if you qualify to join our community of sharing, caring, and daring CMOs at

Show Credits
Renegade Marketers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Hey, that’s me. This show is produced by Melissa Caffrey, Laura Parkyn, and Ishar Cuevas. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and the intro VoiceOver is Linda Cornelius. To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, and learn more about CMO Huddles or my CMO coaching service, please visit I’m your host Drew Neisser. Until next time, keep those renegade marketing caps on and strong!