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.