5 things to avoid when presenting to a large audience

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Presenting to an audience is daunting

All the seasoned speakers we’ve worked with admit they still get stressed about presenting to large audiences. During a stressful talk it’s easy to slip into bad habits.

We’ve put together this top 5 list – avoid these and you’re doing well!

Steve jobs presentation

1. Don’t rush

The number one mistake made by speakers is to rush. We’re stressed, we’re worried the audience are not interested, we rush to the end.

When talking with friends, or in a small room, people can understand fast speech. But in a large space, with the problems of echos, sound systems, accents and strangers, you need to slow down. During our YC Demo Day prep Paul Graham had a great measure for the correct speed, “If it’s so slow you feel uncomfortable, that’s about right”.

How to avoid

Top tip from Michael Webb: “Put markers of what time you should be at in the text. 5 mins, 10 mins, 15 mins. That way on your watch you can easily tell if you’ve sped up, talk a calm breath, and slow down.”

2. Don’t begin with an apology

At English weddings, it’s almost expected you’ll start your speech with a joke about how bad a speaker you are. People worry they’ll disappoint an audience, they try to preempt with an admission of their inexperience.

Starting with an apology deflates the audience. It sets the scene for them to have a bad time. People are listening to you to enjoy themselves, to learn something. Therefore start with positivity!

How to avoid

Write a short starting paragraph and stick to it. Begin by explaining you’re excited to be there, that you cannot wait to share your talk with them, let the audience know there is something good in store.

Woman presenting at church

3. Don’t quickly go to questions

Sometimes speakers begin by telling the audience “I’ll speak for five minutes, then go to questions” – it instantly lets the audience down. Your listeners have travelled to be with you because they want to hear your ideas, your stories. They are excited to hear the things you think are important, and to hear the stories you really want to share. Going to questions quickly is the same as saying “I didn’t think it was worthwhile preparing a talk for you”.

Question session can be valuable, but have many pitfalls. Questions may not be well thought out, can be long and confusing, or can even just stand to advertise the questioner. The speaker’s experience is not often equalled by the questioners’ thoughtfullness.

How to avoid

Have plenty of content to hand – either a crib list of good stories and ideas to share, or by fleshing out the content in advance

4. Know your audience

For your audience to enjoy your talk, you need to tell them something they feel is relevant to themselves. A common accolade for Shakespeare is that the emotions and moments within his writing resonate with millions of people, across every century.

Outside of speech delivery, relevancy is the next biggest pitfall. No matter how good your speech is, if people feel it’s “not relevant to them” they will leave dissatisfied.

How to avoid

Some quick research will get you far! Look at the event list or promotion materials and spot what is common to the audience – are they all students? In a certain job? From a certain place? Do they have common aspirations?

Man presenting to large audience

5. Don’t just read a script

Our final pitfall is reading rather than speaking. This often happens in university lectures: the presenter stands up, then lifelessly reads through their typed notes until the end of the section. One of my first university lecturers started by asking the audience “Why are you all here?”, elaborating “Why get you all together when we could just send you the notes to read?”. The audience silently strained to consider the curveball question. The lecturer answered himself, “You’re here for a live performance. You’re here for a memorable explanation and elaboration of the course.”

The lecturer was completely right; When an audience has made the effort to come listen to you, it’s because they believe your delivery will be entertaining, memorable, inspiring.

How to avoid

Keep a high level of energy and enthusiasm throughout your presentation. Practice giving it without reading any of the notes. Try and always throw in something new to keep it fresh and entertaining.



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