Why Are Speakers 19% Less Confident in Impromptu Settings?
One of the advantages of QC’s global communication database is that it allows us to look for aggregate trends in communication styles. For example, we use our proprietary language analytics platform to measure close to 1,000 earnings calls every quarter. And every quarter, we see a similar pattern:
Speakers are consistently more confident during prepared remarks than Q&A.
In fact, when we looked at the 4,000+ earnings calls we’ve already measured in 2016, we found the prepared remarks have been, on average, 19 percent more confident than the Q&As.
This discrepancy isn’t limited to financial communication — our coaches frequently find that executive clients who excel in rehearsed situations struggle with confidence in unscripted settings like interviews and feedback sessions. It’s a trend we see over and over again in our work:
It’s much harder for speakers to demonstrate confidence in spontaneous communication settings than in prepared addresses.
We wondered why, so we asked expert Matt Abrahams — one of our collaborators at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of Speaking up without Freaking Out.
Matt has plenty of insights as to why spontaneous speaking is such a difficult skill to develop, and we’re honored to share his perspective on the unique challenges of impromptu speaking and building confidence in communicating in off-the-cuff situations:
3 Reasons Speakers are Less Confident in Impromptu Settings
The vast majority of leadership communication is spontaneous. I’m referring to those in-the-moment responses that are supposed to add value, provide direction, and give insight. Think of being called on to introduce someone to others, or having your boss ask you for feedback during a meeting, or handling questions from the media at the end of your presentation. These situations occur all time, yet many people flail — and potentially fail — in these spontaneous speaking situations when the stakes are high and the time to prepare is low.
Why is this? Why are leaders less confident and competent when confronted with a litany of spontaneous speaking situations? Based on my experience, I have identified three major challenges that confront leaders in impromptu speaking situations:
1. Our Nerves Get the Better of Us
One of the many benefits of preparing presentations is that we can manage the anxiety we feel about speaking. Most people experience anxiety when communicating in front of others, but proper preparation and practice allow you to become less nervous and more comfortable. Spontaneous engagements do not afford speakers this time and opportunity to manage anxiety. I routinely see corporate and governmental leaders confidently deliver their prepared remarks only to wilt under the weight of their anxiety in post-presentation interactions with their audiences.
2. We’re in Our Own Way
The next thing that gets in our way when speaking off the cuff is ourselves. Our desire to do well, to give the right answer, to offer meaningful and memorable feedback, actually works against us. Before we speak, we judge what we intend to say and weigh it against our internal criteria: What I plan to say isn’t insightful/helpful/worthy/relevant, etc. This pre-speaking evaluation distracts us from the actual goal, which is simply to answer a question or introduce a colleague, and prevents us from clearly and concisely communicating our points.
3. We See the Interaction as an Obstacle or Challenge to Overcome
Often in the midst of spontaneous speaking situations, we see the required/desired communication as an obstacle to overcome or a threat to handle, rather than an opportunity to clarify a message and further engage with the audience. For example, executives often view the Q&A sessions that follow their presentations as adversarial experiences — them versus the media, investors, whomever. The experience becomes more about surviving and defending than explaining and extending. This confrontational view can be very stressful and restricts the mental dexterity that aids fluent, impromptu speaking.
So How Can We Speak More Confidently?
The reality is that spontaneous speaking requires us to think on our feet, quickly identifying both what you’re going to say and the best way to deliver the information. Fortunately, once we understand why impromptu speaking presents such a challenge, we can use several cognitive reframing techniques to comfortably and adeptly respond to these situations.
Cognitive reframing is a method of changing the way in which we habitually evaluate and respond to situations. By changing the way we think about something — essentially reprogramming our brains to view challenging circumstances in a different way — we can shift our instinctual reactions and responses.
Three specific cognitive reframing techniques can help executives address the challenges identified earlier and become more confident off-the-cuff speakers.
1. Reframe the event as a conversation, rather than a performance.
The idea of a “performance” comes with a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver an Oscar-winning response. Instead, by thinking of our communication as a conversation, we can reduce stress and become more engaged. Because there’s no one “right way” to have a conversation, this lens helps speakers focus on the audience and their needs, thus reducing their own self-focused anxiety.
2. Instead of trying to wow the crowd, aim to accomplish only the task at hand.
When we try to impress the boss or win over the audience, we end up stressed and distracted from the primary goal. Instead, I encourage speakers to focus only on what’s been asked of them: answer the question, provide feedback, or introduce a colleague. By zeroing in on the actual goal, we can reduce the pressure we put on ourselves and increase our chances of doing well.
3. View the audience as a friend, not a foe.
An out-of-the-blue request to speak is much friendlier when we frame it as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle to overcome. This isn’t a test, but a chance to engage the audience, to answer questions, and to open up a conversation. And the audience isn’t our enemy — if they didn’t want to hear what we had to say, they wouldn’t have asked.
Quantified Communications found that speakers are less confident in impromptu situations — 19 percent less — but you don’t have to be. Time and time again, research has shown that effective communication skills are critical to success and satisfaction in our personal and professional lives. And since the vast majority of communication situations have some spontaneous elements to them, it is imperative that we become more confident, compelling and connected in these impromptu communication situations.
It takes time and effort but, once you’ve mastered these techniques, you’ll be just as eloquent and engaging off-the-cuff as you are when you’ve spent weeks preparing.