The Audience Is Not Full Of Ghouls
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MHSc in Translational Research

Banner Credit: Zoya Retiwalla for the TRP

Effective communication is a cornerstone of numerous fields. In translational research, powerful communication is indispensable. Our outstanding faculty member – Sandy Marshall talks about her journey towards becoming a compelling speaker. 


Sandy Marshall | TRP | November 17, 2019

Translational research requires persuasive communication. If we want people to change their beliefs or behaviours, we need to make our new idea or intervention compelling, often through presentations to a group: conferences, patient focus groups, networking events, pitching to venture capitalists or meetings with mentors and colleagues. Is your heart racing yet? You are not alone. Presentation anxiety is a powerful barrier to progress.  
My most potent stage fright was at public speaking contests when I was 10 years old. I liked writing speeches and, if I practiced 99 times, I liked delivering them, too. But as soon as a judge asked me a question, my brain would shut off. Somewhere between their mouths and my ears, their words became gibberish. It was tremendously embarrassing and frustrating.  
I have a theory as to the cause of stage fright, from reading a review on social connectedness [1]. Humans have a fundamental need to belong [2]For our ancestors, belonging to a group provided protection, shared resources, and reproductive opportunities [3]. Surviving in isolation was near impossible, and rejection from a group put ones survival at risk [3]. Thus, genetic selection has favoured attachment and closeness, and even the possibility of rejection consumes us and influences cognitive performance [4, 5]. When I gave that speech, I became so overwhelmed by the possibility of the audience rejecting me, that my brain was unable to comprehend their questions.  
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I am now a course instructor. I stand in front of over 30 accomplished students whom I admire to lead workshops and address questions for hours at a time. And I love it. This term I have been wondering, when and how did my anxiety wane? The answer, I believe, relates to connection. 

Connect with myself  

The fight or flight responses are not conscious and are difficult to control, but not impossible. I learned and practiced breathing in high school for athletics, singing, and pain management. I found that breathing is just as critical for public speaking as it is for muscle strength, full notes, and pain relief. Your diaphragm is the key to regulating this system,” explains voice coach Caroline Goyder [6]. Our brains need reassurance, Everything is okay, I will not starve to death if this audience does not love my speech.’ Slow, deep breaths deliver that message; my knees steady and my stomach settles. Breathing connects me to my subconscious. 

Connect with the audience 

During my undergrad, I took a class in a different department from mine. I did not know anyone in the class, and I was certain they were all smarter than I was, and I did not belong. Near the end of the term, we had to give a presentation to the class and exchange peer feedback. I did a terrible job. I had not practiced enough, I read from notes, and then my clammy, shaky hands actually dropped my pages of notes all over the floor. Total bust: imposter exposed. I went home and trepidatiously read the peer feedback, “You really know your stuff, don’t be nervous!” “Great project!” “What does carcinoma mean?” “No need to be nervous, you are great!”  
I was stunned. I did not think I had made a single friend in that class, but all of the feedback sounded like friends–encouraging and supportive. Nothing like the terrifying ghouls I had assumed they were. 
With this new insight, I became more comfortable speaking to a group of my peers, but committee meetings during graduate school still horrified me: speaking to experts in my field who were all there to evaluate the extent of my inadequacies and determine whether or not I was worthy enough to continue the program.  
Minutes before my second committee meeting, Michael Ward, an MD/Ph.D. candidate at the time, found me quietly imploding in the student room. Concerned perhaps by my green face or canine-like panting, he asked what was wrong. I sputtered, “Committee meeting.” Then Michael sat down and put it quite simply,   
Your committee members want to support your learning. Bring a pen and paper and write down everything they say and ask. Soak up all the knowledge you can from them. 
The dinosaur that had been sitting on my chest evaporated. What a fantastic vantage point. Experts, committee members, and professors are not monsters looking for opportunities to crush me. They want to support my learning; they are potential mentors. 

Let the audience connect with me 

In high school, we had an opportunity to read our work aloud to the entire grade plus Len Blum, a Canadian screenwriter. I read a piece about my mom’s illness and lost my voice in the middle. I could not create sound for a long moment. I took a few deep breaths, trying to convince my tears to stay in my eyes. Afterward, Len pointed out that what I considered a mistake was the most powerful moment of the story. He said, “We all needed a minute. If you’re overwhelmed with emotion and feel like you need a break, your audience probably does, too. Use silence as part of the story.” Being vulnerable let my audience connect with me. 
Since then, I have noticed that even foolish mistakes have a positive effect. In the middle of class last week, I glanced up at the screen, saw that my slides had vanished, and squealed. Yes, a startled, squeaky, ridiculous over-reaction to an easily solvable tech issue. After clumsy mistakes such as this, the audiences reaction has been consistent: warm chuckles, then their posture and facial expressions soften, their eye contact and engagement increase. Perhaps when I squeal, sneeze, or stumble, I become more relatable and trustworthy–qualities essential to persuasion.  
I still get nervous. I still need to breathe. But my perspective has changedBy connecting with my audience and letting them connect with me, I fulfill that fundamental need to belong, and the anxiety is not nearly so potent. More than that, these people, articles, and experiences have reframed my stage fright: to look at the world with a growth mindset, and not shrink from the spotlight.  

Editor: Zoya Retiwalla for the TRP



1.McNamara, L., P. Colley, and N. Franklin, School recess, social connectedness and health: a Canadian perspective. Health Promot Int, 2017. 32(2): p. 392-402. 
2.Adler, A., The Education of Children. 1930, London: Allen and Unwin. 
3.N., D.C. and B.B. J., Social acceptance and rejection: the sweet and the bitter. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 2011. 20: p. 256-260. 
4.N., E., et al., When we need a human: motivational determinants of anthropomorphism. Social Cognition, 2008. 26: p. 143-155. 
5.Knowles, G. and G.W. L., Benefits of membership: the activation and amplification of group identities in response to social rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2008. 34: p. 1200-1213. 
6.Goyder, C., The surprising secret to speaking with confidence., in TEDxBrixton. 2014, TEDx Talks.