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Want to Sound Smarter? This Stanford Professor's Simple 3-Point Technique Will Help With a little structure, you can impress audiences with your ad-libbing all day.

By Matt Abrahams Edited by Frances Dodds

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Peter Reynolds

What would you do if you had to jump in unexpectedly and give a presentation with only a few minutes' notice?

Sarah Zeitler, marketing manager at a publicly traded manufacturing conglomerate, found herself in exactly this situation. She'd organized a videoconference for 200 people — and when one of her speakers didn't show up, she had to fill that slot herself. How? "I took a deep breath," she says, and then she deployed a structure that I taught her. It's called "What - So What - Now What."

We all, in some way, need to speak spontaneously — whether it's like Sarah in that meeting, or just when a conversation takes an unexpected turn. And strange as it sounds, you can prepare for spontaneity — not by pre-scripting an interaction, but simply by creating some boundaries and habits that increase your chance of success. One of the most important steps is to think about structure and how to design your messages, which is exactly what Sarah did.

Related: The Complete, 20-Step Guide to Ace Public Speaking

Image Credit: Peter Reynolds

I'll get back to the "What - So What - Now What" structure in a moment, but let's first focus on why structure is so important in the first place.

Today I'm a lecturer of strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and author of the new book Think Faster, Talk Smarter. But I first learned the value of structure as a student when I worked as a campus tour guide. My bosses trained me to set expectations and to provide visitors with a clear path or direction. When I started my tours, I didn't simply say, "Hi, I'm Matt. Let's go," and start sharing whatever information struck my fancy. Rather, I started our discussion by outlining for visitors a sense of where we would go, and by extension, where we wouldn't be going. In the process, I answered common questions, such as how long the tour is and whether we'd take any breaks.

By sketching out a basic road map at the outset and then executing on it, I gave myself clear direction for the tour and also made it easier for visitors to relax, pay attention, and absorb what I was saying. If visitors hadn't known what to expect, a little voice in their minds might have continued to wonder about what they would later experience.

When conveying our ideas to others in a wide variety of contexts, we do so much better if we follow a road map or structure and articulate it in some way at the outset. Just like on a tour, this alerts our audience members in advance to what is coming. Think back to the last time you listened to someone ramble when they spoke or meander when they wrote. How did it feel? Were you engaged? Was their message clear? Or did you quickly lose patience, get distracted, or tune out?

Related: Successful People Have 2 Types of Goals, a Stanford-Trained Mindset Expert Says. Without Both, You Won't Reach Your Potential.

When I mention structure to clients and audience members, some of them confuse it with a mere listing of information. They think that if they organize what they want to say into a series of bullet points or slides, they have a structure.

Don't get me wrong: Lists can be a wonderful thing…at the grocery store. But lists won't help us respond better and deliver more compelling messages.

A structure as I define it is a narrative or story that logically connects ideas with one another, organizing them into a beginning, middle, and end. "What – So What – Now What" is one such structure — and it's my favorite, on account of its simplicity and versatility. You start by discussing an idea, topic, product, service, or argument (What). Then you explain why it's important, helpful, or useful (So What). You end with what your audience should do from here with this knowledge, including how they might apply it or what actions they should take (Now What).

Here are a few other structures:

1. Problem > Solution > Benefit

You evoke an issue, offer a solution, and end by discussing the benefit that your solution will confer.

2. Point > Reason > Example > Point

You make a point, give the rationale behind it, offer some illustrations, and wrap up by returning to the point.

3. Comparison > Contrast > Conclusion

You make a comparison, begin by reflecting on the similarities, then the differences, and wrap up by coming to a conclusion.

4. Situation > Task > Action > Result

You describe an event that transpired or evoke a situation, then discuss the challenge in front of you and what you did to address it, and end with a discussion of the results you obtained.

As a speaker and speaking coach, I've found that structuring my presentation affords at least four benefits.

First, as I've suggested, arranging information as a logical story helps keep our audience's attention and interest. Beyond previewing where content is going, a story structure has built into it the ability to make connections or transitions between ideas. "There's something propelling a story," historian of education David Labaree says. "It's more of an intellectual struggle to simply follow a logical argument. But if you can weave [information] together into something that feels like a story, then you're more likely to be able to draw people in."

Related: 3 Tips on How You Can Stop Using Meaningless Buzzwords

Second, structure helps both us and our audience to remember important messages. We humans are miserable at remembering information. Our brains are designed to forget much of what we experience, but they're also designed to seek out, enjoy, create, and remember narratives. By structuring our communication as a logical sequence with a beginning, middle, and end, we prime our messages to be noticed and retained, both by us and our audiences. One study of students giving in-class presentations found that only a few told stories, but that their peers found these stories far more memorable than statistics. Queried afterward, 63% of students reported recalling stories from the presentations while only 5% recalled data points.

Third, structure makes processing information easier. In part, this is because we explicitly signal the structure to readers and help them orient themselves as they receive information. Research in cognitive neuroscience supports this. Scholars like to talk about "processing fluency" — how easily and smoothly information gets encoded in our brains. It takes a certain amount of effort for our brains to process random collections of information, but a structure boosts processing fluency because we don't have to work as hard to make sense of individual pieces of information.

And fourth, structure improves our own thinking.

You might presume a disciplined structure makes our job as speakers more difficult. Quite the contrary. In spontaneous situations, we have two big problems we must solve: what to say and how to say it. Having a structure solves the "how to say it" part, while also influencing "what to say." When we're telling a story with a logic embedded in it, we know at every point where we've been and where we're going. That frees us to spend more mental energy thinking about the actual content we seek to deliver.

In short, structure gives us confidence. We don't have to clench our fists silently wondering if we'll come up with something to say after we finish our current thought — and our audience doesn't have to wonder where we're going, or whether we're respecting their time. We have a road map, and we're all on it together, from beginning to middle to end.

Related: 18 Ways to Showcase Your Intelligence

Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Abrahams LLC. From the forthcoming book THINK FASTER, TALK SMARTER by Matt Abrahams to be published by Simon Element, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster

Matt Abrahams is a leading expert in communication with decades of experience as an educator, author, podcast host, and coach. As a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting.

He is the author of multiple books, including most recently, Think Faster, Talk Smarter.

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