How to Present, Part 3, Preparing for a Large Audience

2017-08-25T15:24:56+00:00 15 May, 2009|Tags: , , |

Part 1 of this series was about how to present numbers effectively.

In Part 2, I shared some thoughts about putting together a presentation for a small audience. In this article, I will talk about preparing to present to a large audience.

Apart from the stage fright that many of us feel, presenting to a large audience is usually easier than presenting or facilitating for a small group. You often have more control over your presentation to a large audience. The time frame is usually shorter and you will most likely not need to moderate a discussion or answer many questions.

Let’s say you have been asked by your manager to make a 20 minute presentation on a complex project that you successfully managed. Over 100 people are expected to attend your talk.

Where to begin

Preparation always starts with knowing the audience, understanding their expectations and clarifying your goals. See part 2 for a discussion on these topics. Do some informal research by asking your colleagues what they would be most interested in hearing. Talk to former team members to get their input on what should be included in the presentation. Try to find someone who has presented to the same audience before and ask them what the audience was most interested in hearing.

Choose the right content

Review project documents and highlight facts that you think are worth mentioning. Resist the temptation to include charts or diagrams just because they are already in a format that you can recycle for your presentation.

Focus on what the audience needs and wants to hear. The art of presenting effectively is to distill the most important information for the audience. Provide a concise overview of the project, including the reasons why the project was needed and a history of the major milestones achieved.

Devote the bulk of your time to the discoveries and lessons learned during the project. People want to hear about your experiences, how you pioneered a new technology, how you mitigated risks, how you managed stakeholder expectations, etc.

Assume that there will be experts in the audience, so provide specific facts and rich examples. Don’t forget to give credit to the people who made this project a success. A good way to do this is to include a team picture in your presentation.

For a discussion of how to present numbers and how to use PowerPoint, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

Using notes or a script

Some people prefer to write a complete script for their speech. Others just jot down a few notes with key phrases or quotes. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods. A script allows you to think through your content and build your arguments logically. However, if you rely on a script during the presentation, you are bound to the lectern and are less flexible.

Loose notes allow for more spontaneity in talking and walking around. I have seen people give a speech using a script while maintaining eye contact with the audience. Gabi Reinmann, Professor of Education at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich, Germany, posts her presentation scripts on her German blog. The site is a great reference for how to write a well-thought-out script for a speech.

What is my presentation style?

Be yourself. Don’t put on a show or try to play the entertainer if that is not your style. There are many types of successful presentation styles: factual, factual interspersed with humor, informal conversational, or interactive and engaging.

Learn from others

You can learn a lot from attending presentations or watching TED videos.

The beauty of the beginning

Pay attention to how experienced speakers open their presentation. Do they start with a question, a story, a picture, a problem, or something else? According to Elliot Masie, the first three minutes are crucial. The audience will evaluate you and decide whether to engage or not.

I like to start a presentation either with a brief story or by taking a quick poll in order to engage the audience. For example, I would recommend starting the project presentation either with a story about an issue the team faced or by taking a poll of how many people have faced the same issue.

Some other things to pay attention to:

  • How do presenters handle questions from the audience?
  • Do they use PowerPoint or Keynote? How many slides? How much text is on each slide? What kind of images, graphics do they use?
  • Do they end on a memorable note? How do they close the presentation?

Practice, practice, practice

Use a video camera

Nothing is more enlightening than seeing yourself on video. Video is brutally honest. Film yourself going through a “dry run” of your presentation. Use a tripod or place the camcorder on a shelf so that it is stable. Check the sound quality before you start. A lot of camcorders do not have a good built-in microphone. If you can, borrow an external microphone.

When watching the video, first pay attention to your body language. What are your arms doing? Do they support what you are saying? Do you look engaged? Nervous? Do you use humor and smile? Then just listen to your voice without looking at the video. How does your voice sound? Do you talk loud enough? Monotone? Are you speaking too fast, too slow? Do you repeatedly use fill words like “actually” or “um”?

Invite your friends to be the audience

This is the rehearsal before the big show. Arrange chairs as they will be for the real event. Make your presentation and ask the audience for honest feedback. Encourage the audience to ask questions. Gather feedback on your body language and how you answered questions.

The rhythm is it

How is your timing? Get a sense for how long you will devote to each section. Note the time needed for each section in your outline or script.

Mise en place — put everything in place before you begin

  • Check out the facilities in advance if you can. It puts my mind at ease to know what the room looks like and what resources I have available. If somebody helps you set up, make sure you know how to reach them if something is not working.
  • Arrive early. Make sure you have time to get set up before your audience arrives. That way, when people start to arrive, you will be able to engage in a conversation.
  • Have water within reach. Edward Tufte said that making presentations and taking airplane rides are the two most dehydrating experiences that people face. Take your time to have a sip during the presentation. This will also allow your audience to digest what you have just said. I remember Jan Chipchase, a design researcher for Nokia, delivering his entire presentation at a user experience conference with a bottle of water in his hand. He mentioned that he just got off the plane and needed to drink a lot. The audience didn’t mind because what he had to say was worthwhile.

Enjoy the performance

You have done all your prep work, so enjoy the performance but keep an eye on the timing.

Feedback and reflection

Applause after the presentation and feedback from participants at the apéro that follows will give you an idea how well received your presentation was. You will probably know what went well and what didn’t. Take some time to reflect on your performance and note what you will do differently next time.

Also see:

How to Present, Part 1: Show the Numbers

How to Present, Part 2: Preparing For a Small Audience

Additional resources

Chris Brogan. Make Better Presentations – The Anatomy of a Good Speech Elliot Masie. Diary of a Keynote Speech Edward Tufte’s presentation tips

Justus Bender. Das erste Mal: Eine Rede im Bundestag halten. Die Zeit, 18.02.2009. Gabi Reinmann. Reden schreiben versus Folien besprechen

Image: Audience by Duncan Davidson licensed under CC BY 2.0


Claxus is an international training & consulting firm based in Switzerland. Claxus translates research into leadership practices that enable individuals and organizations to thrive and excel.

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