Presenting to a large group of people can be challenging even for experienced presenters. Specific difficulties may arise due to the size of the audience, such as:
Large group presentations usually occur at conferences or lecture theatres, with the audience size ranging from 50-300+ people. Due to the nature of these events, it’s usually a rare opportunity to influence journalists, business partners, potential employees and customers.
This article presents practical suggestions for speaking to large audiences, encouraging you to develop strategies to overcome problems and develop an effective speaking style.
Techniques which are important for small groups, such as eye contact and body language, become less effective in large group settings. This is because the presenter is trying to share them amongst the whole group rather than focusing on a few individuals.
Therefore communicating complex information or data becomes more difficult and the delivery of your presentation will need to change to suit this environment. Understanding the venue, the audience, possible audience questions and the ranges of knowledge become even more important.
With careful preparation, you’ll be able to communicate effectively and deliver your message to influence the audience.
It’s vital that you have a full understanding of your material. This will help you identify clear main points and construct a strong linear argument. Use these points to select appropriate visual images, examples and analogies to help your audience understand key concepts.
Large group presentations benefit from carefully chosen visual images to make bold and instantly accessible statements. Think about using handouts to support your presentation. This will give your audience something concrete to ‘take away’ and is a powerful way of communicating complex detail which might be lost in the large group setting.
Another important aspect of your preparation includes the need to have a clear understanding of your performance as a whole, including the pace of delivery and how you plan to use your visual aids.
This can best be achieved by mapping out your presentation in advance to identify what you will need to do at each stage. Some presenters make notes on their script to remind themselves to do certain things at certain times, such as, pausing, changing slides and even smiling.
You could be presenting to anyone, or you could be presenting to a very specific group of people. Either way, it’s important you know exactly who your audience are prior to even planning your presentation.
If you’re presenting to a group of students, think about their specific studies and what they have the most experience in. If you’re presenting to a room full of journalists, you need to understand that what you tell them is likely to appear in some form of media over the coming days.
Potential clients will need to be advertised to, while business partners want more in the way of business credentials and the potential of your product or service.
For your audience to be able to enjoy your presentation you need to tell them something they feel is relevant to themselves. Try and find out before the presentation by contacting the event organiser and asking:
If you are unable to contact the event organiser, you can always visit social media for previous events, check out any blog posts or press coverage.
Even a well-prepared presentation can fail if you are not in full control of your environment. If possible, visit the venue beforehand to explore the physical layout and the audio-visual equipment.
Visualise yourself presenting there, ask yourself these questions:
If you can’t visit the venue, request some photos of the venue or ask for a list of technical specifications to help you prepare.
After writing your presentation, you’ll need to practice it to be able to deliver it confidently and concisely. We’ve listed both traditional and new methods you can use to practice your presentation skills.
This is the hardest thing because you often can’t control it but you’d be surprised that you can often ask the conference organiser for a preferred time.
Here are some guidelines:
A particular difficulty associated with presenting to large groups is that the presenter feels distanced from the audience and vice versa. It's important to try to break down this barrier from the moment the audience comes in. Use the following strategies:
Large venues often prevent audience members asking questions and may limit any discussion that you try to generate. Clearly announce where you’ll be taking questions so that the audience knows what will be expected of them.
If you’re not interested in your own talk, why should others be? People have come to see you speak so enthusiasm is essential if you’re hoping to get the right message across. Most of the audience will have a phone with them which they will be ready to switch their attention to if they lost interest.
Enthusiasm demonstrates a number of essential characteristics, including confidence and a clear understanding of what you’re talking about. If you’re naturally quiet, it’s vital that you practice being as clear and concise as you can be.
To appear enthusiastic, here are some pointers:
With a large audience, the knowledge on the topic you are presenting will be vary greatly between different audience members. Therefore it’s essential to keep your presentation as simple as possible and easy to follow.
The goal of the presentation is just to give the audience a basic sense of what you do and why it matters. They simply need to know:
The conventional wisdom is that the audience can only remember 3 simple things about any presentation 10 minutes after they’ve seen it. Make sure you are clear what you want the audience to remember before even writing your presentation.
It can be difficult to stick to allotted times during a conference or organised talk. Often you will find yourself over-talking about certain points and eating into your remaining time. If you finish the presentation earlier than planned, there is more time for questions and the audience will appreciate it.
The best way to manage to a time is:
It’s very embarrassing to be cut off mid-presentation, or having to rush the final section to finish on time. This will dramatically diminish the user experience and any possibility of your message resonating with the audience.
Large presentations usually require dimming the lights and using spotlights. This makes it incredibly difficult to see your audience members. On top of this, you may be projected onto a large screen behind you so the people in the back of the room can see you.
You’re going to have to look around the room as you would in a smaller presentation. Fake eye contact if you need to and scan the audience as best you can. It will appear to your audience that you are engaging with them personally.
A good presentation includes much more than your voice. Some tools which you might think about using to bring your presentation to life include:
Live polling example using the Sli.do presentation software.
Some people find presenting to large audiences much more nerve-wracking. This is partly an issue about not knowing the members of the audience, and partly the potential for embarrassment if you make a mistake. And of course, when you’re nervous and tense, you are by definition less relaxed. What all of this means is that it is much, much harder to build rapport with your audience.
Use a summary slide to show all the key points you have made along with your call to action. It can also show your name and contact details.
This slide is the only slide that can contain a lot of text - use bullet points to separate the text. Having all this information visible during the Q&A session will also help the audience think of questions to ask you. They may also choose to take photos of this slide with their phone to take home as a summary of your talk and to have your contact details.
Many people worry that they won’t be interesting to the audience so they start by apologising about taking up their time. A common scenario is when there is a great presenter before their slot so they’ll start by apologising about not being as good as the previous presenter.
Starting with an apology deflates the audience. It sets the scene for them to have a bad time. People are listening to you to enjoy themselves and to learn something.
To avoid this negativity, write a short starting paragraph and stick to it. Begin by explaining you're excited to be there, that you cannot wait to share your talk with them - let the audience know there is something good in-store.
This is a very common mistake, particularly with nervous speakers. It means that your voice is projecting in the wrong direction and results in poor body language. If you use quality images or diagrams with minimal text, you’re a less likely to do this.
This is the biggest indicator that you haven’t bothered to remember any of the context of your presentation, so it’s vital that you don’t get caught looking at the screen as a means of finding something to say.
The visual appeal of your presentation slides is extremely important for the audience to be able to understand what you are saying. Keep text to a minimum and use high quality images where possible. This helps people at the back as they might not be able to see everything on the slide.
An example of a bad presentation slide, where there is far too much text and the text itself is hard to read. Read more about bad presentation slides.
We’re all guilty of it - when we get nervous, we speed up our talking and try to get the end as quickly as possible. When we talk quickly, we take shallow breaths which don’t fully fill our lungs, meaning that we can’t reach the full range of our voice, often leading to monotone presentations.
To avoid this, perhaps have a friend of colleague in the crowd to signal to you to slow down if you’re talking too quickly. Knowing your presentation extremely well is another way to reduce rushing to the end and even marking in your presentation where you want to pause and take a deep breath can help.
If you write a script for your presentation, avoid reading it word for word off a sheet. This is a bad idea for several reasons, the main one being it will completely bore your audience.
Spend time practicing your presentation so you can do it without reading anything and get colleagues or friends to interrupt at random points – this stops you learning your speech by verbatim and forgetting what to say next if you get interrupted.
Read our article on Ways you Annoy your Audience when Public Speaking.
A large, formal event will almost always have a podium or stage where you will be expected to stand and present.
There may be a lectern, although that will often depend on the type of event as many events have moved away from this kind of system now. It sounds obvious, but you will also be in a very large room, holding a lot of people.
You will therefore be physically separated from your audience, both by distance and height.
You will almost always have professional sound and audio-visual equipment at a large event.
You will be expected to send your presentation in advance, and it will be loaded up for you, ready to present. You will probably, in a modern conference centre, have a wireless control for your slides, as well as a wireless microphone.
A more old-fashioned venue might have wired systems that will tether you to one spot.
Larger venues may even have cameras projecting you onto screens above the stage for those sitting at the back.
These systems allow you to reach out to your audience and engage with them better, because everyone will be able to see and hear you clearly.
The main hall in most conference venues have no natural light.
It may have stage-type lighting, and the lights in the room will be dimmed during the presentations, with a spotlight on the presenter.
This makes it nearly impossible to see your audience or make personal eye contact with any of them.
Read more about understanding the presentation stage in this SkillsYouNeed article.
Because you're physically separated from the large audience, you need to work much harder to build rapport at a large event.
Some helpful tips include:
It is important to think about the impact of the sheer physical size of the lecture theatre or seminar room that you’ll be presenting in.
This is the ease with which you can make eye contact with the audience. Some venues are long and thin so it can be difficult to make contact with those in the furthest corners of the room. Other venues are shallow and broad so it can be difficult to make contact with those to either side of you.
The danger with the first is that the back rows only ever see the top of your head. The danger with the second is that those to the left and right only ever see your side or, at worst, your back.
A simple way of addressing this issue is to draw a mental plan of the venue (whatever its shape), dividing this into numbered sections. You can then alternate your eye contact with each section to make sure that each area of the audience feels involved.
It's vital to ensure that you can be heard by everyone in the audience. Check volume levels with your audience but always avoid shouting. This comes across as aggressive and can be very difficult for the audience to listen to.
If there is a microphone, consider using it but be aware that it can restrict your movement and produce variable sound levels (e.g. as your head turns away from the microphone). Practice with the microphone to learn its strengths and limitations. Remember that most microphones in lecture theatres are set to amplify your normal speaking voice without the need for additional volume.
Try to vary your delivery to provide new and interesting stimuli for your audience’s attention. This can involve the use of visual aids as well as different speaking styles (e.g. factual, discursive, speculative). You can also grab attention by physically moving around the stage area. Try to do this purposefully (i.e. to make a particular point) rather than simply wandering around; this latter can be distracting. Come forward, make a point, then move again.
It's difficult for the audience to pay attention the whole time so you need to allow for this. Try not to react too sensitively to an audience’s behaviour. Unresponsive faces and heads propped up by hands are more likely to be indicative of audience fatigue than they are of deliberate rudeness.
Of course, if the behaviour of a few individuals begins to threaten other people’s ability to hear, you must act immediately, even stopping your presentation and addressing the situation directly.
Read more about these four points in this article on Presenting to large groups from the University of Leicester.
The key to speaking to audiences in large venues is to take control of the space and to carefully plan your presentation to stimulate and maintain their attention. It's important to be well prepared and to have a clear understanding of what you will be doing.
Although working with large audiences can be challenging, attention to both detail and process can result in a powerful presentation that interests and informs.