You're comfortable speaking 1:1 or to your team. But what about when the stakes are raised? Do you know the secret of succeeding with large audiences?
How’d you like to appear on television, fail to answer a question given to you, and still win a brand new Cadillac convertible?
That was the experience of Thelma Farrell Bennett, a homemaker from New Jersey who was the first contestant on the 1950s game show “The $64,000.00 Question.” On the show (one of its original versions was “The $64 Question” on radio) contestants answered increasingly tough questions in a category they chose. They could quit at any point and pocket their winnings, or keep going toward the ultimate payoff. From 1955 until 1958, the show was a huge hit across America, and the phrase "the $64,000 question" is still used today. 
The task that these contestants faced depended upon stage presence and confidence, and something even more important: focus! For audiences to believe in you and what you're saying, you need to give 100% to the task at hand. Learn my theater-inspired techniques for speaking with control and command at all times. Download my free cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking.".
Speakers have their own $64,000 question. And answering it the right way can make the difference in whether you're an effective presenter, or one who struggles in front of audiences:
"How can I be as comfortable in front of a large audience
as I am speaking to a small group?"
It's a question speech coaches hear constantly, for a simple reason: Most people speak easily and naturally in interpersonal conversations or, say, to their team at work. But when it comes to a bigger audience, self-consciousness and even anxiety rear their heads, changing the equation completely. These speakers are convinced they're not as effective (and certainly not as comfortable) with a large audience compared with those small groups.
And in most cases, they're absolutely right.
In this post, I'd like to discuss two ways you can answer your own $64,000 question, if it involves a need to become as comfortable with large audiences as you are with small groups. One solution depends on you, and the other has to do with audience dynamics.
Why You're a Natural Performer
Sociologist Erving Goffman published a book in 1956 (interestingly, at the same time as our quiz show) entitled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It contains an idea that's an essential one concerning becoming comfortable with high-profile speaking. In his book, Goffman reminds us that we're all performing, throughout the day every day of our lives.
Think about it: Don't you adjust your behavior, speech, and even actions according to the group you're with and the needs of the interaction? The "you" at work is different from the you at home with your family, out with your old high school friends, or trying to negotiate a circumstance where you're uncertain and unfamiliar with the people or surroundings you find yourself in.
In other words: you're always playing a "role." It isn't always conscious, and it doesn't involve faking anything or trying to manipulate others. But it's a terrific reminder that performing is something you do effortlessly, naturally, and constantly. It's one reason you should know the causes of speech anxiety that create fear of public speaking and how to overcome them.
Once you understand all of this, it should be easier to accept that a formal speaking situation in front of an audience is just "another performance." It's not as special as you may think—and it doesn't involve any extraordinary skills that you don't already possess in abundance.
Why an Audience Wants You to Succeed
The other side of the coin has to do with your audience rather than you, but here the news is equally good. I'll start with a tough love message, and then explain why you should welcome it: your audience doesn't care about you.
Every audience member is in a perpetual what's-in-it-for-me mindset when they listen to your presentations. They genuinely want to get something positive from the experience, to know that their time is being well spent, and that attending this talk was a good idea. So although you may be obsessed with how you're doing and how much the audience is observing every tick of your performance and judging you accordingly . . . it just ain't so.
Give yourself over to their needs, trying your best to meet those needs through what you say and show. That's the essence of the public speaking situation, and homing in on that beacon will always bring you home safely. To learn more, download my free cheat sheet on the 5 essential techniques of speaking for leadership.
And one more fascinating thing about audience dynamics that my years as a stage actor have taught me: In terms of what anyone will retain and act upon after your presentation, the audience's response to you remains individual, not collective. Think about how you feel when you're an audience member: you respond individually to the speaker and the presentation. The "wave" at a sporting event may make you part of a shiver of collective excitement, but not listening to a speech or presentation.
You can also help yourself through self-talk. Avoid thinking "audience" at all, which will probably trip that anxiety response (and certainly stay away from "crowd"). Think "listeners" or "people." After all, that's what an audience always consists of, whether the size is 20 or 20,000.
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