When it comes to speaking in front of a large audience, there are all sorts of chicken and egg issues. If you just tell yourself it’s not a problem, then you can be conversational and very relaxed.
So, how do you speak to a large audience? You’ve got to have a specific goal for your speech and you should think about what is it you want people to actually do after you have finished. Sound conversational, don’t yell and pause for maximum effect and impact. Pick one spot – way out to the left – and hold that eye contact for a full thought. Then go to another part of the crowd and do the same.
But how do you actually tell yourself, “This is easy?” Because what’s really happening is – your eyes see all these people and, at some level, you have an emotional or physical response, which is, “Oh my gosh! Look at all these people looking at me!”
Therefore, today I am going to show you the main tricks you need to know about speaking to a large audience. So, let’s dive in.
As a side note, I think you should also check out these books about public speaking which are really good.
Table of Contents
The main reasons why we are afraid of speaking to large audiences
I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is it’s actually pretty easy to speak in front of large crowds (i.e. 100 – 10,000 people).
All you have to do is the same thing you do when you’re talking to a friend or colleague and you’re relaxed, interesting and being conversational and telling stories and examples. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it doesn’t make it any easier, because we as human beings are hardwired to be nervous about speaking in front of large crowds.
What happens is we tense up, our heart starts racing, we get scared and our brain and our memory stops working and our body is telling us to run.
Well why is that?
You are “separated from the herd”
It is important to understand a little bit of the background. Evolutionary biologists believe human beings are hardwired to fear public speaking because public speaking is essentially being separated from the crowd. That means we are separated from the herd and, in prehistoric times, if we were in the jungle as part of the herd it was safety in numbers.
The old cliche says that if we’re completely separated from the herd, or if we’re just all alone in an open field and predators can see us from every direction, we’re vulnerable and we could be attacked.
The fight-or-flight response
People react with the fight-or-flight response in similar situations relating to fear of public speaking. This means that our physiological system prepares us for fighting (i.e. presentation) or fleeing (e.g. rushing from the stage or rushing one’s scheduled presentation).
So, that’s why many scientists believe that humans are so nervous about speaking, especially in front of large crowds. That’s not good. That’s why our bodies react differently, why our hands get wet – our bodies are telling us to not think and run.
If the performer experiences fear, the fight-or-flight response will also reflect in tension in the shoulders, which, in turn, affects breathing, functions of the nose, head, neck and body.
You’ve got that adrenaline rush and more energy. But that’s also when your body isn’t working well from the neck up.
You don’t have the ability to think clearly or to recall information because your body is telling you to spend all of your energy running. And it makes perfect sense if you’re in the jungle about to be attacked.
Unfortunately, if you’re about to give a speech at an event or a major tradeshow conference of 2000 people, that particular response isn’t very helpful. All it does is gets in your way.
And that’s what tightens us up and makes us scared. That’s what makes our brains shut down. Unfortunately, it’s that nervous response that then creates all sorts of other speaking pathologies with respect to this large audience.
What is your main goal while speaking to a large group?
In many ways, speaking in front of a big crowd is the same as speaking to any size audience. So, here are three possible outcomes of your speech:
#1 You make a horrible impression
There’s always the chance you will make a horrible impression. I hope not, but there’s always that chance.
#2 You make no impression
You make no impression, which is what happens to most people most of the time.
#3 You make a great impression
There’s a chance you make a great impression, and you actually communicate ideas that people understand and remember.
And that’s what I believe your goal should be. That’s what you should be focusing on.
You’ve got to have a specific goal for your speech
So, the first thing you’ve got to do, if you want to be an effective speaker, is to have a specific goal. It’s like that in any other aspect of business or in life – you’re not going to succeed unless you have something specific in mind.
Your goal can’t be, “Oh, I just want to get through this.” That’s a defensive, negative mentality. That’s like at the beginning of your year, going to your financial adviser, saying “All I care about is don’t lose money.”
Well, in that case, stick it in your mattress and hope there’s no inflation that’ll solve that problem. That’s a horribly negative goal.
It’s not ambitious, and I want you to have high ambitions for this speech because it’s a great way of distinguishing yourself from your competitors and others because most people are too afraid to speak in front of large crowds.
Realize that it’s just not that hard to speak in front of a large audience…but you’ve got to be focused.
Think about what is it you want people to actually do or think differently
What is it you want people to actually do, coming up to you afterwards? Is it asking for your card or for more information about your service or your product? Maybe you are looking for funding for your startup?
You need to have a very clear sense of exactly what your goal is. Then, and only then, can you figure out what to say.
Prepare no more than five key ideas
Here’s what I recommend:
- Brainstorm every single message point you would like to convey to this audience
- Prioritize and narrow down to the top five
I’m a big believer that any time you’re giving a speech, you should really focus on just five key ideas or five messages. Well, why is that?
Now, all the many years I’ve asked people, “How many messages do you remember from the best speaker you have ever seen?” somehow, I’ve never actually had anyone remember more than five points from a speech. So, that’s why I urge you to focus on just five points.
When you dump a big load of data during your speech, then that’s the real sign of a very insecure speaker. Because what you’re really saying is, “I’m afraid people aren’t going to like me and think I’m smart. So, I’m going to have to tell everybody everything now and then they’ll respect me.”
You need to have a story for every one of your messages
What’s the biggest difference between great speakers and awful ones is that great speakers have a story to flesh out – every single message point they have. It’s to illustrate the point so the audience can remember it.
Great speakers adapt to the mindset of their audience and that’s what you’ve got to do. So, you’ve got to figure out the ideas you’re trying to communicate. And then think about how you can use every tool to make them come alive.
Maybe it is a surprise for you, but the number one tool that you have at your disposal is a good story. Please remember that a story doesn’t have to be funny. It doesn’t have to be overly emotional.
Simply put, a story is you recounting a real conversation you had with a real person about a real problem and a real place – what was said, what that person said to you, what you said back, how it was resolved and how you felt about it.
That’s all there is to it.
How to speak to a large audience?
Now, we’ve all seen people who are really good and dynamic talking one-on-one, or to a couple of people sitting around a boardroom. They’re commanding, they’re funny, they’re interesting and engaging.
But if you put them in front of a large audience, then it’s awful because they’re nervous and they start reading from a script. You may think, “I know a solution to that. I won’t use a paper script – I’ll use a teleprompter.”
#1 Don’t use a teleprompter. Instead, come across natural, relaxed, comfortable and confident
We’ve all seen speakers at political conventions (people who are not full-time newscasters) trying to read a teleprompter. And the result is often disastrous. It’s because the teleprompter, for those who aren’t professionals and who haven’t practiced enough, makes people sound awful. Well, you know – all of a sudden:
- Your speed is the same
- Your volume is the same
- The pausing is the same
- The tone is the same
- You sound like a robot
Teleprompters only solve one problem: “I don’t remember what to say because I’m scared.” But it doesn’t solve the bigger problem, which is, “I look and sound scared to everyone in the audience, and I look and sound boring.”
That’s a huge problem. Therefore, let’s not lose sight of the real goal of your speech.
So, if we talk about how to speak to a large audience, we have to get back to what we’re really trying to do, which is:
- Come across natural, relaxed, comfortable and confident
- Communicate and actually get people to focus on the message
- Get people to understand and remember the message so that they can do what we want them to do
#2 Don’t yell. Instead, sound conversational
Do you know what another big problem is when you’re speaking to large crowds? That’s right, folks…it’s yelling.
Now, in this day and age, if you’re speaking to a crowd of 100, 1000 or 5000 in a major convention hall or an outdoor stadium, chances are you’re going to have a microphone. Which means you don’t have to yell, and that in order to be heard, you can speak in a conversational tone and you can use the full range of your voice.
Here’s the problem with yelling: nobody likes to be yelled at. It’s irritating to the ear. Yelling is a particular type of monotone because if you yell the same speech at the same volume, you’ll see how consistent and annoying it is.
It’s kind of like someone punching you in the arm – after a while, it’s really going to hurt, even if they’re not hitting that hard.
So, yelling is too consistent.
Also, if you’re on any kind of video that people are watching later on YouTube, then you’re going to look angry and upset. That’s probably not the image you want.
Now, when you’re giving a speech to a large crowd, you want to sound conversational and you want to sound like you’re just talking to one or two people.
The hard part here is that psychologically, you’re seeing people a long way away and therefore you want to be heard.
So, if you’ve got a microphone, you need to fight the impulse to yell. It’s one of the biggest detriments to good public speaking in front of a large crowd.
#3 Pick one spot – way out to the left – and maintain eye contact for a full thought. Then, go to another part of the crowd and do the same
The thing that unfortunately happens when people are talking to a large crowd is that their eyes float over the crowd.
They may sound comfortable and their body language may be comfortable. Also, they may have something interesting to say. But if your eyes are kind of just floating back and forth the whole time, it makes you look nervous and it makes you look uncomfortable.
So, how do you maintain eye contact while speaking to a large audience?
Here’s what I recommend with the eye contact.
Just pick one spot – way out to the left – and maintain eye contact for a full thought – just for a sentence or two. Then, go to another part of the crowd and maintain eye contact for a couple of sentences (five-six seconds) and then go to another part.
If you do that, all the people in the area you’re looking at (30 or so people) will feel like, “Wow! He/she really spoke to me!”
This technique works even if you’re on a brightly lit stage and you can’t see the crowd. Do that and you will look much more confident in front of a large audience.
Everyone else seeing you will have the perception that you’re supremely confident because your eyes are not going all over the place.
So, whether there are lights on the audience or not (it doesn’t matter), just randomly pick different spots. You don’t want to be like a water sprinkler, going back and forth. It shouldn’t be that consistent.
#4 Pause for maximum effect and impact
Here’s one thing that is a little different about speaking in front of large audiences – you need a little more of a pause between your big thoughts.
Regardless of the number of amplifiers (and there occasionally can be an echo), it takes a while for your sound to travel all the way around a large room.
You help yourself by having a little more of a pause and a transition between your thoughts. It allows the sound to filter out through the room and it allows people to process.
Part of it is folks can’t see your lips and your mouth as well as if it were an intimate audience of just about 20 people. Although there may be a big image magnification, still – there are fewer visual cues.
If you pause a little longer between your thoughts, you’ll make it easier for people to digest. And if you just speak a little bit slower than usual, it’s just easier for your words to flow through the room or through the audience.
So, keep that in mind with the speed, especially given that you might be nervous. And when we’re nervous, we tend to speak faster than usual.
#5 If you use PowerPoint, only use images to dramatize your key point(s)
When you are speaking in front of a really large audience, you have to follow some very specific rules when it comes to PowerPoint.
For starters, text bullet points are a complete waste of time. If you’re in a room with hundreds (or thousands) of people watching you, then they do not want to stare a couple of hundred feet away and read text.
Chances are slim that it’s really going to be that visible and easy for people to read. It’s only going to make you seem weak and ineffective.
So, my recommendation is if you’re going to use PowerPoint, then exclusively use images to dramatize your key point(s).
If you’ve got a whole lot of text data points, or complicated financial charts, then e-mail the material to people in advance. At the end of your speech, give them the website where they can download your stuff.
Never ever put up complex graphs if you’re in front of a large crowd. People can’t differentiate that from a distance so don’t even try.
And people certainly don’t want to read a bunch of bullet points from 200 feet away.
How to practice before large audience gigs?
It is absolutely imperative that you practice on video before you go up on a stage. If you don’t do that then there’s an excellent chance you’re never going to improve.
You have to practice in front of a video camera
You cannot know how you’re coming across unless you watch yourself. The camera doesn’t love you like your friends and family do, and the problem with friends is that they always say, “Hey, great speech!”
So, you’ve got to record yourself and practice in front of the camera. The camera is going to tell you exactly what you’re doing.
Then you have to watch it and:
- write down everything you like about this speech
- write down everything you don’t like about any aspect of style or substance.
For example, if you notice that you’re doing some weird gesture every ten seconds, make a note of that.
However, if you do something you really like, give yourself a praise. Everyone does something well in the sense that they’re not making blunders other people make.
If you finished the first round, do it again and this time try to avoid the mistakes you wrote down earlier. Keep doing it as many times as it takes. That’s the ultimate way of getting better.
So, by the time you’ve gone through four or five drafts, you can look at it and say, “Well, this is fun. This conveys what I want.” And you’re not as nervous as you thought you would be.
- Prepared speech: 10 effective tips on how to practice a speech
- How to be comfortable in front of a video camera? 14 great tips
Final thoughts: How to Speak in Front of a Big Crowd?
It you’ve gotten this far, and you follow the exercises and practice on video, you’re now in great shape to give a speech to any size audience. You are absolutely ready.