4 Ways to Excel When it’s One-to-a-Very-Large-Group

When a group climbs over three hundred people, it behaves like a small city. There is always someone somewhere in the audience doing everything that people do in public: eating, talking, pointing, and carrying on. On the perimeter, a steady flow of people arrives and leaves.

There will be large I-Mag (image magnification) screens broadcasting your image to the people in the middle and back rows who are watching you as if you are on TV rather than live. Lights are often blinding, making it difficult for you to see much of what is going on, and you will be relying on at least one microphone. It is an intimidating form because of the lack of information you receive from the majority of your audience.

I did not fully understand how to work a crowd this size until eleven hours after my first presentation to eighteen hundred people. I was in Minneapolis as a keynote speaker for the American Society of Association Executives. I spoke first thing in the morning, around 9:00 a.m. At 8:00 p.m. I had the opportunity to watch Jay Leno entertain the same crowd. Here was a consummate professional speaking to the same people I had addressed I was intensely interested. I stood on the sidelines where I could observe him work and see the audience at the same time.

I watched Leno work the front few rows, the first three hundred people, and let the cameras take care of conveying this interaction to everyone else. He had few encounters with the whole room. For example, when everybody laughed, he paused, waited, and then spoke to everyone, saying something like, “You like that, don’t you?” Then he went back to the front rows for his give-and-take.

Here is what I learned from Leno:

  1. Go to the people you can see and connect with easily—in his case, the first few rows. Make eye contact and banter with them.
  2. Drive the connection with those who are within normal human range. With them you can rely on your instincts.
  3. Rely on the camera crew to impart this to everyone else.
  4. Remain open and responsive when the larger group expresses itself, like the laughter I mentioned.
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