I’ve been fortunate enough to have had opportunities to present to large audiences before. I say fortunate because I find the process to be exciting and a lot of fun. And if you’re a good SE, it’s only a matter of time before you end up speaking to a group of 100 people or more too. So how do you best prepare when that inevitable situation arises? Here are my lessons learned.
Usually you get asked to do a big presentation because you displayed to someone that you were really good at giving talks to small audiences. Being SEs, that’s kind of our bread and butter. The mistakes comes though, from thinking that a BIG presentation is pretty much the same as giving your standard talk. Paradoxically, the best presenters make a big presentation FEEL like a smaller, more intimate talk, but it requires a tremendous amount of skill and preparation to make a talk seem informal or off the cuff.
So why are these talks so different? Here are a few reasons:
- Smaller margin for error as mistakes are amplified
- Pressure (which causes mistakes)
- Greater variance in audience expertise on subject
- Presenting to a cold audience vs a warm one
- Less interactive
Let’s face it, these presentations are big opportunities to shine in your career. There is a lot at stake and so you want it to be absolutely perfect. But no talk is perfect, so you feel pressure to minimize those mistakes. And that pressure makes it even more likely you will make them.
In a small group setting, you also have the benefit our audience interaction, you get to know them and their expectations before you present. Your rep often warms them up for you so that by the time you begin the group is interested in you and what you have to say. In a big talk you usually get a nice introduction which helps, but it’s a poor substitute for interaction with your audience.
The last bucket is logistics which is basically all of the administrative and situational differences you encounter such as:
- Bright lights so you can’t see anyone
- Using a clicker instead of a mouse, or having to give a demo from a podium instead of sitting down
- Coordinating with event staff about timing, working the mic, where the cameras will be, or how to signal a slide change, etc
When you add all these factors together, it becomes more clear why we feel a natural apprehension–it is truly a unique experience. But here are a few critical techniques and tips I’ve come to rely on to boost confidence and maximize the outcome.
It seems intuitive to practice, so most people do. However I’ve found that certain types of practice work way better than others. Here’s what doesn’t work well: writing down the bullet points you want to cover, then rereading the paper until you memorize the order. I tried that one time before presenting to a group of 500 people. Because I didn’t have exact wording down, I didn’t have a clear opener and in the moment I couldn’t remember what I wanted to open with. So it took me what seemed like an eternity (probably 15 seconds in real life) before I just jumped to my 1st slide and started reading. Not good! Here’s what I’ve done since then: write out the full script of what you want to say. Or minimally the first 5 minutes if a long speech. Once you have the script perfect, read it out loud to yourself until you think you have it memorized. This is where many people stop, but you are just starting.
Memorizing something to yourself is different than memorizing it to where you can speak it under a different, stressful environment. The best way I’ve found to replicate this without going overboard is either at home or in your hotel room or in an empty hallway at the auditorium you need to find a mirror and a lamp. Position the mirror so you can look at yourself at eye level, and take the shade off the lamp and put it right in your field of vision to the point you have to squint. THEN rehearse your full speech start to finish, over and over again until you can nail it at least 3 times in a row. What you’ll notice is that looking at yourself with the “spotlight” on you makes it very difficult to remember your script. You’re essentially inoculating yourself against that first “deer in the headlights” moment when you first step on stage.
Many speakers spend all their time before a speech talking to other speakers or the event staff or everyone but the people they’re there to communicate with. So plan on getting there way early and talking with people beforehand. This is surprisingly easy when you’re a main attraction. Walk up to a small group and introduce yourself as a presenter and tell them you’d love their feedback on a couple topics you were presenting on. Most likely you won’t end up changing much in the presentation, but it’s really cool when you can bring up a subject during the talk and refer back to a conversation about how Bob @ company xyz had a really great perspective on this. It builds rapport with the audience, makes them feel like you’re a person and not reading a script, and makes you feel more comfortable that you know how your audience is likely to react to your content.
Always find a way to get into the room beforehand so that you can see the setup. This is especially true at regional tradeshows where there likely isn’t a professional team helping you prep ahead of time like you would have for larger events. Find the person “working” the stage as early as possible so you can learn the cues and workflow. If you don’t have a chance to rehearse being introduced and working the mic you will be at a real disadvantage because your brian will focus on the things it isn’t prepared for. If you have your script and the logistics nailed, you can relax more which leads to fewer mistakes and a greater ability to think on the fly. Once you see how the logistics are set up, I would then do a couple final full rehearsals in that mode replicating as much of the environment as possible. Go so far as to fake grabbing a mic and turning it on and all that so you create just a bit of muscle memory before the actual presentation.
With your speech well in hand, some rapport with the audience before you begin, and a good understanding of all the logistical challenges, you will be in a fantastic position to give a great speech. When you walk off the stage having nailed it, it is quite an addictive feeling.
Have any other tips that you’ve used in big presentations? Hit the comments. And good luck at your next big event!