Guide for Presenting to Large Groups of People

November 14, 2017 - Dom Barnard

Making a presentation to a large group of people can be challenging to even experienced presenters. Due to the size of the audience, difficulties arise such as the lack of contact with the audience, increased fear of making mistakes and accessing whether the audience has understood what you are saying.

These 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 guide presents practical suggestions for speaking to large groups, encouraging you to develop strategies to overcome the problems and develop an effective speaking style.


Preparation for speaking to large audiences

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 with the whole group rather than focusing on a few individuals.

Therefore communicating complex information or data becomes harder and the delivery of your presentation will need to change to suit the new environment in which you are speaking. Understanding the venue, the audience, possible audience questions and the ranges of level of knowledge of your audience become even more important.

With careful preparation, you’ll still be able to communicate effectively and deliver your message to influence the audience.

Understand your material

It’s vital you have 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.

Plan your performance

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; to pause, to change slide, even to smile.

Know your audience

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.

Large group of people to present to

For your audience 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:

Understanding the venue

Even a well-prepared presentation can fail if you are not in full control of your environment. If at all possible, visit the venue beforehand to explore the physical layout and the audio-visual equipment.

Visualise yourself presenting there, ask yourself these questions:

  • What problems might arise in this space (e.g. where do people come in and go out)?
  • Where’s the best place to stand so that everyone will be able to see and hear me?
  • Is all the equipment that you need there?
  • Where is the volume control?
  • Do the lights operate at different settings (i.e. will you be plunged into complete darkness and unable to read your notes when trying to show slides)?

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.

  • How many people will be in the audience?
  • Who is speaking before / after me and on which topics?
  • Is there a theme for the event?
  • What level will the audience be in terms of knowledge / experience?
  • What do you think they’d want to hear about?

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.

Practice aloud

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.

  • Virtual reality (VR) - lets you practice different presentation techniques in realistic environments from the comfort of your own home. It’s a great middle ground between an online course and in-person coaching.
  • Friends or colleagues - this is a great way to get detailed feedback on how you are performing. Set yourself a task and ask your colleague or friend to observe you and then give you feedback. Giving and receiving feedback is a powerful process but needs to be handled sensitively.
  • Solo with a video camera or voice recorder - by using a video camera or voice recorder you can work on your communication style. Work with short sections - for example start by working on just your opening. Perform and watch / listen back a number of times until you feel you have developed what you have done sufficiently to move on.

Pick the right speaking slot

This is the hardest thing because you often can’t control it but you’d be surprised that you can often ask the conference organizer for a preferred time and others don’t so you might get your request met.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Try not to speak first - everybody is late to conferences so the best people will miss your presentation.
  • Don’t speak straight after lunch - for the same reason as above.
  • Best slots are in the morning – it gives a chance for people to are interested to meet you throughout the day. Also, in the afternoon people are generally more tired, particularly after a big lunch.
  • Avoid the coffin slot - if you speak Friday at 4pm at the end of a 5-day conference you’ll be speaking to no one. Everybody leaves early on a Friday to get home.

During the presentation

How to connect with a large audience

A particular difficulty associated with presenting to large groups is that the presenter feels distanced from the audience and vice versa. It is important to try to break down this barrier from the very moment the audience comes in. Use the following strategies:

  • Display a title slide which includes your name whilst the audience are drifting in. This will help set the scene and prepare the audience for your talk.
  • Avoid hiding at the front whilst the audience are coming in and settling down. Instead, move amongst the audience, welcoming people that you know.
  • Encourage the audience to start filling the venue up from the front. This puts you more in charge of the event and encourages casual dialogue.
  • Introduce yourself and your talk (don’t assume that everyone knows what’s going to happen next)
  • Check that everyone can see your visual aids and hear your voice.

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.

Be enthusiastic

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.

Enthusiastic presentation and body language

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:

  • Project your voice, particularly in a large conference room
  • Use your hands to emphasise key points
  • Speak clearly and don’t mumble
  • Speak slowly to emphasise key points
  • Use the full range of your voice

Use visual aids

Visual aids can be an important tool in improving the effectiveness of presentations to large groups. They can be particularly useful during key stages of your presentation, for example:

  • During the introduction
  • Display your name and the title of your presentation
  • Define particular technical terms or abbreviations
  • Indicate structure, either diagrammatically or in text
  • Display an image which encapsulates your theme
  • Highlight a question you intend to answer
  • Support technical detail with clearly displayed data
  • Indicate sequence by linking points together
  • Summarise your main points at the end
  • Display your email address or phone number so that people can contact you after for discussion or further questions

Keep it simple for large crowds

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:

  • Who has a problem?
  • How are you solving this problem?
  • Why does this matter?

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 yourself what you want the audience to remember before even writing your presentation.

Stick to your allotted time

It can be hard sticking to allotted times during a conference or organised talk. Often you will find yourself waffling about certain points and increased the planned completion time considerably. 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:

  • Practice with a timer
  • Have less slides than you think you’ll need

It’s highly embarrassing being cut off mid presentation, or having the 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.

Fake eye contact if you need to

Large presentation 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.

Take advantage of technology

A good presentation includes much more than your voice. Some tools which you might think about using to bring your presentation to life include:

  • Visual diagrams and images to give context to what you are saying
  • Live polling and quizzes during the presentation
  • Laser pointer to highlight areas on a diagram
  • Presentation controller to change slide remotely
  • Non-linear presentation software
Example of live polling during presentation

Live polling example using the Sli.do presentation software.

Managing your nerves

Some people find presenting to large numbers of people 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 do something wrong. 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

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 you use 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.


Things NOT to do

Don't begin with an apology

Many people worry they won’t be interesting to the audience so start by apologising about taking up their time. A common scenario is when there is a great presenter before the persons slot, 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, 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.

Don’t turn around and read the screen

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 lot 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.

Don’t use bad presentation slides

The visual look 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 of the large group as they might not be able to ready everything on the slide due to being far away.

Don’t rush to the end

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 will is another way to reduce you rushing to the end, and even marking in your presentation where you want to pause and take a deep breath can help.

Don't just read a script

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 and random points – this stops your learning your speech word for word and forgetting what to say next if you get interrupted.


Read our article on Ways you Annoy your Audience when Public Speaking.


Understanding the presentation stage

Positioning yourself on stage

A large, formal event will almost always have a podium or stage where you will be expected to stand and give your presentation.

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.

Equipment at the event

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.

Really large venues may even have cameras projecting you onto screens above the stage so that those at the back can see you more clearly.

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.

Lighting while you’re on stage

The main hall in most conference venues has 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.

Lighting at a large conference presentation

Read more about understanding the presentation stage in this SkillsYouNeed article.


Tips for building rapport with a large crowd

Because you are physically separated from the audience, you need to work much harder to build rapport at a large event.

Some helpful tips include:

  • Use more variation in your tone of voice. Just as when you are speaking on the telephone, and people have fewer visual cues, you can use your voice in a presentation to emphasise your feelings.
  • Remember that even if you can’t see the audience, they can still see you, especially if you are being projected onto a big screen. Look around the room, just as you would in any other presentation, and smile as you do so. It will appear to your audience that you are engaging with them personally. This sounds cynical, but it is actually very effective.
  • Make your content more engaging. Consider using jokes and humour, especially early on, and also starting with one or more very bold or unusual statements, or perhaps a short piece of very effective video, to make people sit up and take notice.
  • Make sure that you are very familiar with your presentation, as this is likely to make you more relaxed about it. wait until everyone is settled before you start to speak (remember, you are in control of the event, not the audience).
  • Announce the start of your presentation and wait for quiet (don’t be afraid to calmly and politely assert your control by asking for quiet if this isn’t forthcoming).

Consider these points about the audience

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.

Line of sight (can the audience see you?)

This is the ease with which you can make eye contact with the audience. Some venues are long and thin where it can be difficult to make contact with those in the furthest corners of the room. Other venues are shallow and broad where 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 sector to make sure that each area of the audience feels involved.

Audibility (can the audience hear you?)

It is of course vital to make sure 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 also be aware that it can restrict your movement and produce variable sound levels (e.g. as your head turns away from the microphone). Practise 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.

Attention spans (is the audience paying attention?)

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.

Audience behaviour (is the audience unresponsive)

It is always difficult for your audience members to pay attention for 100% of the time, and you should allow for this. Try not to become too sensitive 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.


Conclusion

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 your audience’s attention. It is important to be well prepared and to have a clear understanding of what you will be doing and when this will happen. Although working with large audiences can be challenging, attention to both detail and process can result in a powerful presentation that interests and informs.