Does size matter? How audience size changes speeches

Does the size of an audience matter to you, the speaker?  Should you do something different if your audience is large or small?  What about if you’re prepped for a big turnout and you only get six people?  Or you’re prepared for 100 and 250 people show up for an SRO event?  What then?

OK, size does matter, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.  Let’s get the misconceptions out of the way first. 

You can – and should – still be interactive with an audience even if it’s large.  I often work with speakers who are used to audiences of, say, 35 – 100, and are just facing the prospect of 300+ audiences.  They tend to assume that the interactivity they’ve gotten used to in the smaller audience won’t work with the larger one.  So, they want to know, what do I do instead? 

The answer is that you continue to be interactive.  Virtually everything that works in an audience of 35 will work with an audience of 350 or even one of 1000 – you just have to work much harder to put more energy out, to ensure that the directions are much clearer, and that you allow much more time.  It’s a larger ship and it takes longer to turn it. 

To be sure, you may have to simplify some exercises a bit, but surprisingly little.  The main idea to keep in mind is that you have to still think of yourself as speaking with a few people.  You’re still having a conversation. 

I once gave a speech on teaching to graduate students who were going to be teaching for the first time.  We expected maybe 50 students to show up.  500 arrived.  I decided on the spot to keep to my plan, which was heavily interactive.  I waded into the audience and had one-on-one conversations.  It worked beautifully, because I kept the 2 rules of interactivity in mind:

You must have no doubt that the audience will respond.   When I waded into that audience, I was not going to allow the audience to sit on their hands.  I demanded (and got) a response.  That’s the mindset you have to have. 

Whatever the audience does give you is wonderful.   This second rule is of course true of audiences large and small.  The things people think of to say or ask on the spot are not always earth-shattering.  No matter.  Treat them with the respect due the courage that it took to speak up. 

OK, so what about an audience that is different in size from the one you’re expecting?  What do you do?

If the audience is smaller than expected, be prepared to throw out your prepared remarks.  Audiences can get uncomfortable if they think they’ve decided to attend a presentation where few other people show up.  They fear that the speech is going to be a disaster for some reason, and they didn’t get the word.  So acknowledge the ‘elephant in the room’ and make a virtue of it.  “I love that there are 7 really dedicated people here!  You must really care deeply about (the topic)!  Let’s just have a conversation and make sure that we answer all your questions!” 

If the audience is larger than expected, be prepared to adjust your technique.  It sounds like a nice problem to have, right?  But in fact an audience that is bulging at the seams can cause real problems.  The folks in the back might not be able to hear you, the standees are going to feel put upon because they have to stand, some people may not be able to see your visual aids, and so on.  Here, you need to be sensitive about what’s going on in the room and make a huge effort to accommodate everyone.  Repeat what you’re saying for people in the back.  Offer to stop and let some people go half-way through if they want to so that they’re not exhausted by the chore of standing for an hour.  Explain your visuals, or find some way to distribute them — after the fact, perhaps.  Whatever the difficulties are, be sensitive to them and offer your audience help to the extent possible.  Attendees will deeply appreciate the courtesy and will reward you with their devotion. 

Overall, a large audience is different from a small one.   Large audiences move more slowly, take in your wonderful insights more slowly, and respond more slowly than small ones.  You have to wait for them.  Large audiences want to laugh and have a good time.  You shouldn’t pander, but you should be prepared to relax and have a laugh – at your expense, if necessary. 

You need to put out more energy for a larger audience.  You need to work the room even more vigorously, and make sure that you’re talking to everyone, including the back row, not just the first few rows of seats.  And finally, you need to focus your passion even more clearly so that your message travels the larger distance to the wonderfully big audience. 

What are your experiences with audience size?  Share your insights and stories in the comments. 

Comments

  1. says

    The largest crowd I ever did theater in front of was 250 people during college.
    In speaking, I have seen both sides of that number. Your thoughts are spot on in terms of adjusting to the crowd.
    Something sticks with me. It’s a quote by Joe DiMaggio. Late in his career, he was asked by why he still played so hard. He said, “I always think, there might be someone out there in the stands who’s never seen me play.”
    Audience size will dictate the amount of energy you put into it, but regardless if there’s 20 people or 200 or 2,000, you give it your all. You simply never know who’s in that crowd and what influence they have.

  2. says

    Paul — that’s a great point. To all the professional public speakers out there — Paul is absolutely right. Every audience member is a potential connection, customer, or ally. Always remember that!

  3. says

    I think you’ve got it spot on when you say that, “You must have no doubt that the audience will respond.”
    I think there is something to be said for confidence.
    And it comes from two places:
    1. Confidence in yourself. (The audience can feel it)
    2. Confidence in the audience.
    Speakers must believe that the audience is in their corner. They aren’t there to be disappointed. They aren’t seeking deprivation. They want the speaker to win, and win big.
    I just sat through an unmerciful hour of horrendous presentation (behind the lectern, dry monotone, slides spelling it out for me faster than he could speak…). I took out an article I had been waiting to read and read it. But the entire time, in the back of my mind, was this hope that it’s going to get good at any moment. And I believed that up until the very end!
    Perhaps there is a reinforcing relationship between the two: Confidence in own abilities and confidence in audience support for your delivery?

  4. says

    Hi, Peter —
    Thanks for the comment. I love your perspective, that even though you were disappointed for an hour as an audience member you were still ready to be pleasantly surprised. That’s a great reminder to all speakers that the audience IS on your side. Have the confidence!

  5. says

    This post provides some really great ways for adapting to audience size. I think it’s so important, no matter how big or small the crowd, to make the audience feel involved. The more involvement, the more likely the audience will walk away remembering what was said. Often when I’ve sat through speeches with a larger audience I’ve felt like the speaker was talking at me as opposed to to me.
    I agree that with a larger crowd you definitely need to put in more of an effort. It’s much easier for the audience to slip away from the speaker when there are hundreds of other listeners and it’s less intimate. It’s important to make your audience feel as though you notice them and that they aren’t simply just another face in the crowd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *