Creating a Comfortable Experience in Large Groups

Whether it's the added pressure to be funny or entertaining, or the number of eyes focused on you, presenting to large audiences can be a depersonalizing experience.

Although you may prefer leading small groups, there are times when speaking to larger audiences is necessary. I've seen presenters who can speak brilliantly to small group lose their entire personality in a large gathering. The collective experience looks like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The problem begins when you mistakenly think your audience will initiate a welcome, or at least be pleasant. Prepare for blank stares and crossed arms, whatever behavior makes you want to crawl under a table. It's your job to set the tone and in the end, you get what you give. Act formal and your group will follow that lead. Smile, and that's what will come back to you. Who's gonna make the first move? I can tell you it won't be the group.

Let's dispel a myth that gets in the way of realizing this outcome. It has taken me years to realize this. There is no "right" way to be in front of a room. Believe it or not, your audience does not want you to put aside your personality. They will never tell you this. They're waiting to see if you have the guts to do the unthinkable — be yourself.

With this in mind, here are some practical ways to keep from having the life sucked out of you and your group.

  • Start with an icebreaker: Your audience is just as uncomfortable as you are. Most participants are terrified about being singled out. Ease into participation by having audience members pick a partner and introduce themselves. By giving them a minute to check in like this, you'll create a positive mood in the room that you can build on.
  • Get those hands up: Take informal surveys of the group by asking, "Show of hands, how many of you (fill in the blank)" This allows people to participate without singling anyone out. There's something about hand raising that is just comfortable enough for even the shyest person. Again, the focus is on bringing them out of their shell.
  • Ask questions but answer them yourself: For example, you end one of your points with "Now why is this important?" Pause. Let them think about it. After a few seconds, give them your thoughts. With a thoughtful answer to your own question, you'll get the golden egg in presentations -- the participant "head-nod". There's nothing better than the head nod. It's the participant's way of saying "I couldn't have said it better myself." If you can produce repetitive head-nods throughout your presentation, you've got the group in the palm of your hand. It's an unconscious act and best of all, the behaviors contagious.
  • Ask people to write down their thoughts before answering a question: Let's say you ask, "What are the top five reasons people hate public speaking?" For the first few seconds people will be processing the question. Before any hands raise (which will be few) ask the group to write down three ideas. Let them write for 30 seconds, then open it up to responses. From those few moments of self reflection and writing, you will get such thoughtful responses that you'll have to cut off the dialogue.
  • Read out loud to your group while they follow along with a handout: Contrary to popular belief, people love to be read to. The key is to couple it with thoughtful interjection. Read, pause, and provide commentary. There's nothing inherently wrong with reading to a group. It's when you add no extra value that it comes off as patronizing and unsatisfying.
  • Get out from behind a podium and move around: Focus your nervous energy into something productive. When you move around, you're satisfying a physical need that otherwise might show up as twitching your fingers or playing with your hair. You want to avoid people fixating on something like this.

The good news is if you apply these techniques, your presentation quality and group satisfaction will improve dramatically. The bad news is with every new presentation, you need to make the first move and help people get the attention off themselves. You do this by getting the attention off you, which in turn rubs off on the group.

What techniques do you use to make you and your audience more comfortable? Send an email to hteibel@teibel.com and we may quote you in a future newsletter!