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Matt Abrahams’ surname, beginning with AB, meant that invariably he was the first one called upon in school to spontaneously answer a question. He got better at it over time and is now a communications coach, but he stresses in a world of heavily scripted TED Talks, we expect too much from our own spontaneous endeavours. When called upon by the boss to give your thoughts on a proposal – a far more common occurrence in our lives than making formal presentations – embrace imperfection.

“By training ourselves to quiet down our critical evaluation, we can lower our stress levels and better accomplish our communication goals,” he writes in Think Faster, Talk Smarter.

In spontaneous communications being perfect is rare. Indeed, you must become comfortable with getting things wrong – striving for mediocrity.

That also means not rushing to respond. Take a moment to assess the situation and perhaps ask a clarifying question to determine what exactly the boss wants. You might also want to paraphrase what you have heard, buying time for reflection and making sure you’re on target. Then provide your thoughts – but don’t evaluate your performance while speaking.

“In some circumstances – especially those that crop up spontaneously – fixating on monitoring and judging our performance decreases the likelihood that we will do well. It taxes our cognitive capacities, preventing us from being as focused, creative, confident and responsible as we’d like,” he writes.

Dare to be dull. Great improvisors follow that guideline, knowing by calming themselves and taming down their expectations, they are more likely to communicate using their full cognitive resources. Steve Johnston, who spent 20 years as president and managing partner of the Second City comedy troupe, says we are often hung up trying to come out with some big idea when we speak. We want to contribute something important or transcendent. But conversations are actually built brick by brick. You can be an essential building block in the conversation if you wait, listen, and at times offer up logical connections between other people’s ideas.

A related, essential point, is that these are conversations, not performances. You are not on a TED stage. You are with colleagues, thrashing through possibilities. It’s casual. It’s an opportunity, not a threat. Relax and be yourself.

Mr. Abrahams also advises you to structure your spontaneity, like jazz musicians who don’t play whatever notes pop into their heads when improvising, but work within the bounds of informed, preset musical structures. He stresses a list of information is not a structure. He defines a structure as a narrative or story that logically connects ideas with each other. “If you rely on a list of bullet points in a spontaneous situation, you’ve missed the point,” he says.

He believes the Swiss Army Knife of structures is “What-So What-Now What.” It’s simple and versatile. You start by discussing an idea, topic, product or argument – the what. Then you explain why it’s important. Then end with what your audience should do from here with this knowledge.

Other structures:

  • PREP (Point, Reason, Example, Point): Make a point, give the rationale behind it, offer some illustrations, and then wrap up by returning to the main point.
  • Problem-Solution-Benefit: Raise an issue, offer a solution, and end by discussing the benefits of your proposal.
  • Comparison-Contrast-Conclusion: When making a comparison, begin by reflecting on the similarities, then the difference, and wrap up by coming to a conclusion.
  • STAR (Situation-Task-Action-Result): Describe an event that transpired, discuss the challenges that you had and what you did to address it, and conclude with a discussion of the results you obtained.

Finally, be crisp in whatever structure you apply. Long-winded can obscure your main point and encourage others to tune out.

Quick hits

  • London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra notes people tend to confuse habitual behaviour with authenticity. But that could condemn you to being as you always have been. Sometimes trying new things may feel inauthentic but it’s the price of learning and growing.
  • Good metaphors make you and your ideas memorable, advises digital marketer Ann Handley. Your own world is a rich source of metaphors, she adds. Keep your eyes open. Write them down for future use.
  • Hitting the snooze button doesn’t hurt your sleep or make you more tired. Cognitive tests suggest hitting the button multiple times over 30 minutes may spark alertness more quickly than sleeping through without a break.
  • Competence is how good you are when there is something to gain, says author Mark Manson; character is how good you are when there is nothing to gain. People will reward you for competence. But people will only love you for your character.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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