Imagine speaking to 500 people. Or 1,000. Or 10,000. Or ten million.
You can’t, so don’t even try.
Can you speak to one person whose opinion you value, for whom you want to do right in their eyes, someone who will say to you after your presentation: “That’s the kind of speech I know you’re capable of. Well done.”
Of course you can. In fact, that’s the only person you can speak to when addressing the filled-up seats of a large auditorium, or thousands listening to you on the radio, or millions watching you on TV. (Got an important speech coming up? Find out about The Genard Method's short-term and powerful Presentation Coaching.)
For Effective Public Speaking, You Need to Personalize Your Listeners
For most people, large audiences bring on self-consciousness, anxiety and nervousness where none existed before. Like every speech coach, I’ve heard this sentence hundreds or even thousands of times: “I’m fine in front of a small group, but getting in front of a large audience terrifies me.”
It doesn’t matter that this isn’t logical—after all, these are the very same individuals you feel perfectly comfortable around chatting in a café or sharing comments with in a meeting. But something about the aggregate of a large grouping of these same people makes speakers break out in hives.
Solving this problem is relatively simple, since it means going in the opposite direction from where your fear is taking you. Leave the many behind, so you end up with the one. Literally. No one can stare into a television camera or even 2,000 people in their seats and come up with a way of talking to all of them!
So select that one person whose opinion you cherish and speak to him or her. Personalize your talk. You’re at your best when you’re talking to another person about something that matters to both of you (a good definition of speaker and audience!). Call up that feeling, and just . . . talk. You’ll come across as your authentic best, and you’ll be whittling down that AUDIENCE MONSTER to a manageable and even enjoyable size.
Four More Tips to Speak with Presence to Large Audiences
- Get close to them. If your audience is set up to be too far away from you, find ways to close the distance. Once, at a conference, I scouted the venue the night before and discovered I was expected to speak in a cavernous auditorium (to 75 people at this breakout) with a nearly postage-stamped-size stage at one end. Enough of that! I thought. I delivered my entire talk in the aisles and never got up on the stage once. If handlers are present, politely but firmly point out that you’re the speaker, and you’d like to improve the set up. It’s painful for me as an actor to say this, but traditional theater seating with row upon row of seats is a terrible configuration for a speech. Find ways around that if you can!
- Make your greeting longer. Your greeting is an essential part of your speech because it opens the channel of communication between you and your listeners. Too many speakers rush into their Introduction and leave any kind of greeting behind. Here's how to start a speech powerfully instead—with twelve foolproof ways to grab your audience!Remember: audiences need a relationship with you! At a medical conference, a video was shown that was heartbreaking. The next speaker told the audience that he wanted everyone present to absorb for a moment what they had all just watched. Then he asked their permission to start his speech. He understand that everyone needed that moment to share the experience.
- Meet people beforehand. Will there be opportunities for you to meet some audience members before you’ll speak? If there are, take advantage of them. Introduce yourself, say that you hope they’ll enjoy your talk, and tell them you welcome the opportunity to chat afterwards. It’s a great way to "lower the stranger quotient.” More than once, I’ve done this and have heard a comment I was able to use in the opening of my talk. It’s amazing how your audience can seem smaller if it’s sprinkled with familiar faces!
- “Touch them.” The big reason we feel anxious in front of a large audience is because we feel isolated from them. Often that’s physically true; but it’s that psychological distance that’s worse. It can feel like a lonely monologue. So work to create a dialogue instead. Here are two ways you can do that: (1) Ask questions—actual questions if your audience is small, rhetorical questions if it’s large. People who are asked questions respond mentally. And (2) Find ways to phrase what you’re saying in terms of their world, not yours. In other words, always bring them into the conversation. “Touching” an audience this way will dissipate the feeling of isolation, replacing it with a sense of community.
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