The oft-forgotten nervous factor
in academic public speaking

Gabe Nisker, Sports Editor - October 16, 2018

The hallowed aisles of Leacock 132 are almost a rite of passage for undergraduate students. The massive 601-seat lecture hall can often feel humid and sticky, and there’s occasionally a rat to be found. It’s usually the home of prerequisite lectures, and, thus its atmosphere isn’t often defined by its occupants’ enthusiasm.

But, as uncomfortable as it may be to listen to a lecture in Leacock 132, it figures that teaching one can be even worse: A sea of faces, eyes staring at you, the sound of so many keys clicking on laptops. Leacock 132 lectures are typically recorded, which adds the element of permanency to every performance—it’s like writing in permanent marker. For many of us, public speaking can feel daunting, terrifying even. It’s so universal, in fact, that there’s a word for a fear of public speaking: Glossophobia. Lots of people experience some form of this speech anxiety; it’s tough for anyone to stand up and make a presentation with so many eyes watching.

A professor of the Department of Psychology, Dr. Mark Baldwin has taught at McGill for 20 years. For the past five, he has taught PSYC 215: Social Psychology in Leacock 132. He opens his classes the same way each time, taking care of administrative needs before pausing and asking the full house if they have anything they’d like to ask or talk about—for instance, one student has asked him about his career path.

“I don’t know [how that started]. I was just kidding around one day, basically,” Baldwin said. “It was mostly because you want to give people the time to ask administrative questions and bring up issues from the last class [....] And then, gradually, [...] the class sizes I was teaching [...] grew. It just seemed like it’d be fun to let people talk about whatever they want to talk about. And so, this year, people are actually doing that.”

The open forum provides a sense of ease to the proceedings, so it’s no surprise that Baldwin suggests that teaching a lecture in Leacock 132 is not so different than teaching a smaller lecture.

“It’s generally said that, once the class [size] is 100 people, you’re lecturing the same way as if it’s 600,” Baldwin said. “It doesn’t really change.”

HIST 387: The First World War is one such 100-student lecture. This semester, course instructor Colin Gilmour teaches that class in Arts West 120, as well as a 21-student seminar, while he puts the finishing touches on his PhD thesis. However, he notes that the number of students in his First World War class is not what he struggles with.

“I don’t think of it as ‘I’m speaking to 100 people, oh my gosh,’” Gilmour said. “I’m just thinking: ‘What am I saying? What am I going to say?’ My stress is more focused on that as opposed to thinking about all the people.”

For Gilmour, the number of people listening is a secondary concern; organizing a captivating lecture is enough of a challenge on its own. With classes ranging from 50 minutes to nearly three hours, professors and course instructors alike can have difficulty keeping audiences engaged.

“A lecture is about organization and trying to find a way to engage students because you’re talking for an hour, hour and a half, or even three hours,” Gilmour said. “I’ve done summer courses where it’s three hours of lecture, [...] it’s like a marathon on your senses to do that.”

Dr. Harry Zwanenburg, a life coach and public speaking instructor in the Longueuil area, insists that capturing an audience’s attention is critical. Zwanenburg often instructs students in small workshops of around 25 students. In order to teach them how to be comfortable in front of an audience, he, too, must be comfortable with his audience. Zwanenburg works to build a relationship with the audience through his speech. He believes all good public speakers—and their speeches—share three important elements.

“You have a good structure for your speech, you have good content [...], and the third aspect is that you have a good delivery,” Zwanenburg said. “[That comes] with your vocal variety, with your body language, with your slides, with how you dress, how you walk, and how you stand.”

Structure and delivery often come before content: Presentation must captivate an audience before they can engage with your material. Zwanenburg teaches his students to work backward in the writing process.

“You try to start with the end,” Zwanenburg suggests. “You want to see what your message is, what your conclusion is. And, if you know your [destination], it’s easy to find a path to get there, to find a road to get there. So, then, you know what you try to say, what you try to leave people with, the action you want them to take, or what you want them to think about.”

Insight into the public-speaking process is fundamental to being at ease with it; seeing the consistencies—the way public speakers use the same tricks and tips every time—can be useful for speakers worried about standing up and making a presentation.

“If I'm really nervous, I'll look above the back row, and only as I start to calm down do I start looking at people or the audience,” Baldwin said. “I do think that one of the things that helped me along the way is realizing that [your external appearance] almost never shows how anxious you feel because that spirals. If you feel anxious and then you're worried that you look anxious, then that makes you more anxious."

Gilmour, too, has found that while he likes to look around during a lecture, he will typically avoid prolonged eye contact.

“If I look at people during a lecture, it tends to make me nervous,” Gilmour said. “Because any hint in someone’s face of ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I’m confused’ [...] sets off a little alarm bell, ‘Am I going too fast?’ [....] All these thoughts start to cramp up.”

Zwanenburg notes that building a sense of comfort ahead of time can help speakers overcome this fear.

“I always tell people [to] explore what the venue is, know who the audience is, know what computers they have, [and] know where you stand,” Zwanenburg said. “Go a day early if you can, walk [to] that podium that you’re going to speak from, or see the room and also see the back of the room.”

Another way to get comfortable speaking in front of a crowd is to prepare and practice. One of many clubs on campus that allow this opportunity is the McGill Toastmasters Club, where current and former students can speak weekly about their own chosen topics for several minutes. John D’Agata, director of pension & benefits at McGill, is a longstanding member of the club. In a written statement to The McGill Tribune, D’Agata noted the club’s role in tempering nervousness.

“What the audience perceives versus what we feel inside of us when delivering a speech are not necessarily one and the same,” D’Agata wrote. “Every speaker must confront a certain amount of nervousness before delivering a speech. This is completely normal, and what the toastmasters program attempts to do is help members learn how to manage and control nervousness and eventually channel it into positive outcomes.”

As with many phobias, glossophobia can best be treated with repeated exposure. Beyond steady practice, there are other tools in the speaker’s toolbox to help calm the nerves—for instance, classic comic relief. Cracking a joke can help relieve the room of some of its stressful tension, and it also acts as an effective guide for the lecturer to know how the lecture has progressed thus far.

“I try to use some [humour], partly because it makes me more comfortable,” Baldwin said. “And it is a gauge of how much people are paying attention. If you get a laugh where you expect to get a laugh, then you know people are listening.”

Once nerves are under control and a general idea of how to structure the speech takes shape, then comes what could be considered the most difficult part: Preparing the actual content.

“What many speakers forget is that they give too much information,” Zwanenburg said. “It’s like data overload. At some point in time, you say ‘hey, that’s too much. I can’t take it anymore, and, so, I can’t listen anymore.’ So, as a speaker, you have to find the right balance between sharing information and making people think.”

Gilmour notes that he has found success setting limits for what goes into a lecture, particularly when it comes to the pages of notes that he’ll prepare beforehand. Particularly in academia, it’s easy to get carried away speaking about a topic you’ve studied for years.

“It’s kind of like a robbery in an art gallery,” Gilmour said. “Everything in the room has value and there’s a certain importance to it. ‘What can I carry out of here? What are they going to be able to carry out of here? What’s going to really resonate the most?’”

For him, there is a learning curve to finding this balance—something he aims to refine as he gains teaching experience and feedback. He has started to collect that feedback from his seminar students during the semester; the best responses he has received contribute to his growing sense of duality between lecture and seminar, as he must focus on letting his seminar discussions develop. Unlike in a larger lecture, silence is okay, as intimidating as that may be.

“600 is a mass but, it can actually be less intimidating,” Gilmour said. “Because 20 people, they’re all right here and they’re all looking at you, and there’s no way for you to not engage with them very directly and in very close quarters. You can’t go into that state of lecturing and focusing on the material that much.”

Public speaking is a constantly-evolving process: It does not take long to realize that it can be difficult for anyone, even the most gifted students or professors, to lock down the ideal speech or the ideal presentation.

“That’s something I’m still definitely trying to get better at and trying to perfect, if it’s at all possible,” Gilmour said. “To understand what’s almost like a formula to say, ‘How do you go about selecting what people need to hear?’ Because it’s all subjective. Anyone who teaches a course is putting together their subjective perspective on that topic.”

As a speaker, it is easy to take comfort in that discomfort. Knowing that professors feel the same anxieties as the rest of us, stepping up to the plate becomes less of an ordeal. Hitting a home run would be great, but just going to bat is laudable in and of itself. It’s about working to one’s individual strengths and putting the effort in.