Presenting to Large Groups
and Conferences

See also: Self Presentation

Much of our section on Presentation Skills applies to both large and small groups, but there are a number of issues that are particularly important when presenting to large groups.

Developing an understanding of these issues will help you to get your message across more effectively.

This page explains more about these issues, and how you can overcome any problems to present effectively even to very large groups or at major events.

The Structure of a Large Event

In this context, ‘large’ is taken to mean an event involving more than 100 people. It will usually be a conference or similar event. There will be a number of invited speakers, a formal programme of presentations, and the conference will probably last at least a day.

There may be both large and small presentations going on at the same time. The larger presentations are usually called ‘plenaries’ and involve all participants. The smaller ones are called ‘breakouts’ or ‘workshops’, and will be of interest to a limited number of people only.

Usually, the first or most important plenary presentation is called the keynote speech.

The seats will almost invariably be laid out ‘theatre’ style, which means rows of seats.

Occasionally, they may be in ‘café’ style, with large round tables holding 10 or 12 people. Here the seats will be placed so that people can see the screen and speaker without having to turn around. The 'cafe' style layout is used more commonly for ‘away-days’ and interactive events, rather than formal conferences.

Implications for Presenters

There are various key areas that presenters at large events, such as conferences should consider.

These include:

  1. Positioning
  2. Equipment
  3. Lighting
  4. Managing your Nerves

1. Positioning

A large, formal event will almost always have a podium or stage where you will be expected to stand and give your presentation.

There may be a lectern, although that will often depend on the type of event as many events have moved away from this kind of system now. It sounds obvious, but you will also be in a very large room, holding a lot of people.

You will therefore be physically separated from your audience, both by distance and height.

2. Equipment

You will almost always have professional sound and audio-visual equipment at a large event.

You will be expected to send your presentation in advance, and it will be loaded up for you, ready to present. You will probably, in a modern conference centre, have a wireless control for your slides, as well as a wireless microphone.

A more old-fashioned venue might have wired systems that will tether you to one spot.

Really large venues may even have cameras projecting you onto screens above the stage so that those at the back can see you more clearly.

These systems allow you to reach out to your audience and engage with them better, because everyone will be able to see and hear you clearly.

3. Lighting

The main hall in most conference venues has no natural light.

It may have stage-type lighting, and the lights in the room will be dimmed during the presentations, with a spotlight on the presenter.

This makes it nearly impossible to see your audience, or make personal eye contact with any of them.

4. Managing your Nerves

Some people find presenting to large numbers of people much more nerve-wracking.

This is partly an issue about not knowing the members of the audience, and partly the potential for embarrassment if you do something wrong. And of course, when you’re nervous and tense, you are by definition less relaxed.

What all of this means is that it is much, much harder to build rapport with your audience.

Tips for Building Rapport at a Large Event

Because you are physically separated from the audience, you need to work much harder to build rapport at a large event.

Some helpful tips include:

  • Use more variation in your tone of voice than you would normally. Just as when you are speaking on the telephone, and people have fewer visual cues, you can use your voice in a presentation to emphasise your feelings.

    Concentrate particularly on projecting warmth and pleasure at being there, especially at the beginning.

  • Remember that even if you can’t see the audience, they can still see you, especially if you are being projected onto a big screen. Look around the room, just as you would in any other presentation, and smile as you do so. It will appear to your audience that you are engaging with them personally. This sounds cynical, but it is actually very effective.

  • Make your content more engaging. This is easy to say, but harder to do, of course. Consider using jokes and humour, especially early on, and also starting with one or more very bold or unusual statements, or perhaps a short piece of very effective video, to make people sit up and take notice.

  • Make sure that you are very familiar with your presentation, as this is likely to make you more relaxed about it. Have a look at our page Coping with Presentation Nerves for some other useful tips that will help you to relax more.

Top Tip!

If you struggle to cope with the idea of talking to large numbers of people, which many introverts do, one very good way to manage is to focus on just two or three people in the room, preferably spread throughout the audience.

Make eye contact with them, and smile, and talk to them personally. The rest of the audience will not know that you are not smiling at them all, and you will sound much more relaxed and friendly.

Ultimately, however large the event or audience, a presentation is still about getting your message across.

You might have to work a bit harder to engage your audience in a larger room, mostly because you are further away and/or more distanced by technology. But you also have a much larger potential impact. Focus on that, and the extra effort will seem worthwhile.