Addressing BIG audiences - inside secrets

The title was just crafted for click bait... there are no great secrets in here. But I will share some of the things I consider valuable when presenting to large audiences.

Presenting is a personal thing. You have to find your own style that you feel comfortable with and that works for your audience. So, there are no "answers" or silver bullets, but I'll share with you what works for me.

First, it's worth sharing my freshest thoughts. I had the privilege to present to a very large audience last week... my biggest audience to date by thousands, and it was live streamed too... so it was a significant stretch for me. Here are some observations from that event:

Thousands in the audience is not harder than a hundred

I guess it was a bit more stressful, but such a big audience justified more preparation, which reduced the stress for me, so it really was not more painful or difficult just due to the sheer number. Other factors made it a bit more challenging, though.
Backup plan A, B, C and D are all worth having in place.

At one presentation, the person who introduced me, closed my computer just as I was about to walk on. That killed several things, including the dual screen set-up with notes and my fancy clicker and demo plans. My paper back-up notes was removed by a quick sweep cleaning team as I walked on to the stage. But Plan C was ready to roll, and I knew I had a plan D too if needed... so that really meant I could focus on the story.

Stories stick

People compliment me for all sorts of things afterwards, but I know some of these are not deserved. E.g. "You must have a great memory for all the data you recited." True, I did mention three (irrelevant) data points early in my presentation to ensure that I at least give a bit of data-candy for the data-hungry, but that was all I could remember without my notes. But the stories I told, stuck. People remember those. They feel drawn into the flow of the presentation with the stories. So, tell stories. The easiest ones to tell are of some *personal* experience. Or tell them as if you were there, even if you have to construct some inconsequential colour ("smelling the grass") to make it more real. Remember, stories like beginnings (set-up), middle (development, some crisis), and an end (the great resolution).

Side note: This massive audience I presented to last week was a very, very broad audience. Some where students from Africa. Some where US government policy decision makers. Some were dentists. Stories was probably the only way I could keep them all engaged.

I've contributed to a book by Martin Manser on "presenting secrets". (Just for clarity: I don't benefit from sales.) If you need tips on the basics, it's worth checking that out. In the book I share some of my slide and presentation stories and techniques. In very short, I use slides significantly in the planning process, but then I eventually replace all the text with an image that really constructively contributes to evoke emotions. (Not bland stock photos or common clip art... some photo of the street where it happened.) I tried with this most recent presentation to introduce blanks slides (Bob McDowell taught this as an important technique to get people to focus on the presenter, and he used to say that pressing "B" in Powerpoint was the best feature of Powerpoint), but found that my test audience/friends reported that they sort of stressed on my behalf when they perceived the slides to be "broken". So - I did not have any completely blank slides. (Instead, my "blank" slides contained two lines to indicate a pause symbol, and nothing else.)

Timing & pace

This last audience had a lot of different nationalities in... 83 countries were represented. And I knew they were not all fluent in rapid-fire English. (Come to think about it, neither am I! My mother tongue is Afrikaans.) Also - my content included a theme of dreaming and thinking more, so I slowed right down. That gave people a chance to listen and think. (And it gave me more thinking time). I find that I almost always have more content than time. So - I not frequently *plan* to have only content for 2/3rd of the time.

Connect with the audience

This might just be true for me. But I find it immeasurably valuable to meet with several of the attendees informally before the big presentation. I like to mingle over the coffee breaks. For this big presentation, I also attended their previous sessions to know what they think. What they ask for. What they wonder about.

E.g. the mingling taught me that the audience were more multilingual than expected. It taught me that they were more open and eager to innovate (compared to the profile I expected). They were more European and less Google-friendly than expected, so I could tune my content to address this. I could ask them about some old examples... and discovered they've not heard many of the great older stories, so it gave me confidence to tell the good, old stories again.

I also feel that I then already have 5 or ten "friends" in the audience when I start, which always helps.

In smaller audiences, it's really important to keep an eye open for signals from the group... are you on the right track, or have you lost them? (And it you wonder, ask them.)

The start

One of my friends always advise that getting the audience to smile in the first few seconds is crucial... so try and make a non-controversial joke early on.

Another great starting strategy is to show some humility. See the TED presentation about the power of vulnerability. Bob McDowel taught me to explicitly start by saying you are humbled by the audience. It's normally true. Are you and your content really worth the time of 100 people? Let alone thousands of medical experts! Acknowledge you value their time.

I don't like showing videos. People could watch it on YouTube. If you can't do a better job (than the video) telling a story in person, then practice more! But if you have to, consider showing only the 4.5 seconds with the punchline. Or show the video without sound, and talk over it. But videos introduce a lot of risk for you as presenter, so use with care.

Converse to my video style advice, I love doing demos. Nothing is as compelling as seeing the stuff for real. But keep it snappy and short, and don't spend more than 10 seconds setting it up, or you've wasted your audience's time. During my last presentation, I had three lovely demos, but because of early tech problems, I did not show it, and did not even refer to it.

Interesting factoid: When I was doing Microsoft TechEd conferences in the early 2000's, we found that presentations where the demo went wrong, was frequently rated higher than ones where there was no demo or where the demo was very slick.

See vulnerability above. And people also learn a lot more about you and the product by seeing how you try and resolve it. ("Let me quickly check the permissions on this feature...? Oh, perhaps it's this setting... nope. Ah - sorry, I'm logged in as the wrong user.")


I love questions during my presentations. That gives me cues to know what resonates with the audience. But taking questions on the fly in general does not work for big audiences.

What I find is super big audiences, especially technically minded audiences, is that the people asking questions over the mic in front of everyone, frequently have one purpose only. No, they are not really asking a question. They want to look good in front of their peers. "You said that for widget X, you should always do Y. But that is not true on Platform Bla when running version of app Z. So there, look how smart I am!"

If you get those kind of "Questions", your best response is to make the questioner feel super smart: "Wow! You are really switched on! Well done for spotting that! Next question?"

You'll get the serious questions afterwards.

I can't recall a difficult question ever that could not be answered with a "That is a really interesting perspective/question. Let me think about it a bit, and let's talk afterwards."

One common mistake that I make (and I've seen a lot in others) is trying to interpret the question much more complexly than it was intended. "Can it flip backwards?" And instead of a "yes", we might start to explain when, why and where it could, and where it could not.


This is of course the most important part. Share your perspective and your knowledge. Don't try and pretend you know more than you do... you'll just feel uncomfortable and the audience will read that very quickly and loose confidence in you. Rather share passionately what you do know.

It's so important to build your content for the audience. What would they like to hear? What are they thinking about? What worries them? What can fire them up?

I once presented to a customer and their internal employees. During the coffee break before my slot, I realised they are all worried that they might loose their jobs in the next round of redundancies. That was all they discussed. So I knew, my inspire/tech message would just land of deaf ears. There were not thinking about next week, just the next day. So, I started explaining how they could engineer and create their new job... inside or outside the company. They were hanging off my lips, and I shared the core messages that I wanted to get across too.

One common pit-fall I've seen is to take an existing presentation, and then try and dress it up as the session the audience wants. Don't do it. You'll end up talking about something different than what is printed in their brochure, and half might walk out after 10 minutes. Rather, find the core message and story they want to hear (and you want to deliver), and then packaging that with a story.

This takes time and refinement, and it's a skill that can be developed. (Eric Schmidt is an excellent presenter. But watch some of is early presentations... and you'll be inspired by how much someone can improve!)

I remember one of my biggest failures of mis matched content: I presented to an Analyst (Butler) conference as a young enthusiastic technical expert. I did not understand what Analysts cared about, so I just thought I'll give them my sales pitch. The more I realised they don't like my "by-it-now!" presentation, the more I tried to sell to them. I'm grateful for my employer who took a risk by giving me the chance. I won't make that mistake again, soon! :)

If you know the storyline, the main points well, then you should be fine even if all the technology fails, the lights are off and you are talking just from memory.

Feeling at home

I mentioned right at the start that you should find your own style. If you want to run a marathon, you won't tackle it with the wrong shoes. Neither should you tackle a big presentation in a suit if you are going to feel more comfortable in a t-shirt. Or the converse. Dress comfortably. Use your own laptop if you can. Use your clicker if you can. Don't rely on a new laser clicker if you've never used it before.

If you are presenting in a super big hall with a massive screen behind you with your face on it... don't ever look at it. When you do, people will see the back of your head, and will see you get a shock on stage :) Leave that for afterwards!

Just before going on stage

Make sure you have turned off screen savers. Warm up your voice by talking out loud to someone or yourself. Don't drink coffee, you'll have enough adrenaline. You don't want to overdose. Don't drink a super cold water/cool drink either... your insides will shrink and be stressed... a warm water (or tea?) is probably much better.

See this TED presentation by Amy Cuddy about taking the right posture... I stretch a bit before I go on stage, smile big. Talk loud. This will help get the right endorphins (I think?) woken up, ready for action.

I'm sure there are lots more to say... so feel free to add to the comments below, to add your wisdom.

PS: Follow-through and follow-up

I've not done a great job planning the follow-through, and I will do it better next time. Make sure you've got a #hashtag ready. Publish it beforehand. Have your follow-up blog post ready with slides etc. Ensure handouts to the audience include a way to be contacted. And then have time (and if needed a team!) ready to respond to the avalanche of email that will try and track you down afterwards. 

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