Public Speaking. The largest number of people in your audience?

What the the largest audience you’ve ever had, in a public speaking situation? Mine would be about 15 and it was co-workers at a previous job. I felt perfectly comfortable speaking in front of people I knew, but I think if I spoke to a group of strangers, I’d probably be a bit nervous. Anybody out there ever spoken to 100, 1000, 10000 people. If so, how did you get past your nervousness? Any tips or tricks? (and don’t say imagine everyone in their underwear).

The reason I’m asking is because there is a good chance I’ll be speaking to a group of 100+ people in the next month or so.


I’ve spoken in front of 300 or so people before. I just looked out over their heads, said my bit, and sat down. The more you work it up into a big deal in your head, the tougher it’ll be. Just remember that they’re almost certainly not going to judge you nearly as harshly as you judge yourself – if you think you did an okay job, you probably did a great one.

I’m one of your typical shy, retiring dopers with the social skills of a Trappist Monk. I’ve also given public speeches to 100+ crowds. I found it was remarkably easy. As long as you know roughly what you want to say, you should be fine. Unlike regular conversation, everyone listens (or maybe they were all napping), but no-one interrupts. It’s the interruptions on off topic conversations that always seem to trip me up in regular conversations. I never imagined anyone naked except this one chick who was totally Spanish or maybe some kind of Italian.

[sub]don’t tell jokes unless you’re really, really good[/sub]

Public speaking terrifies me. The largest group I ever had to address was about 300, at an IMS database conference (and they couldn’t get the mike working-yikes!). I never really got over my fear; ten people scared me and I felt like a wreck with 300 out there. But my boss told me I had to do it, so I did. Once I got past the prepared part of the presentation, I was fine. I had no problems answering technical questions in front of the same group.

To prepare, I had practiced my talk till I could do it in my sleep; the Q&A just felt like chatting with a bunch of people about fun topics that I knew intimately.

The most I’ve talked to at once is about 150. I try to ignore my nervousness and focus on what I’m saying and going to say.

My tips are:

  1. Know your subject very, very well.
  2. Know any handouts very, very well and have two other people proofread them.
  3. Anticipate questions and try to answer them in your lecture. It’s OK to say, “I will get to that issue in Section 2.” so long as you do speak about it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, let me follow-up on that.” or ask the audience what they think.
  5. Find a couple of friendly faces in the crowd and talk to them. This helps you focus more than looking over everyone’s head.
  6. Give attendees an evaluation sheet that allows them to rate both you and your content. Read them and remember to act on the bad reviews but also pat yourself on the back for the good reviews.

Good luck, it’s riding a bicycle - the more you do it, the better you get.


I guess I probably spoke in front of 1,500 or so people when I graduated from high school as class Salutatorian. I’ve always been terrified of public speaking, but I’ve also always been good at it, which means it seems to be often I am expected to do it. :slight_smile:

That was an easy speech–I wrote and memorized a poem. I didn’t really have my mind on graduating at the moment, so I wasn’t too worried about my performance. Mentally I was already in college living in a dorm!

The most nerve-wracking public speaking thing I ever had to do was deliver a teaching lesson, in Spanish, as a kind of practice run to wrap up the first part of the course (second part, of course, teaching ESL to migrant farmworkers.) The practice run was videotaped and I had no experience teaching. It was to be 30 minutes long. I got through it, and actually I think ever since I have been less afraid of public speaking. I used to worry for weeks if I had a speech, now I can prepare one the night before.

And god oh god why did I not discover MS PowerPoint sooner? I used to memorize all of my speeches, now I can just take a few word cues every few sentences or so, slap 'em on a slide and deliver visual and verbal awesomeness. :slight_smile:

Hilarious memory about a Spanish presentation I was doing on surrealist art in Spain. I was terrified of my professor, she was FROM Spain and kind of hard-core and critical, and I agonized over the presentation for weeks until I delivered it.

I got home that day and my husband asked how it went.

I was like, ‘‘Well, I did pretty well, I think. I mean I didn’t really screw up at all during the presentation… and she sort of smiled and said, ‘‘good job’’ but that’s really it.’’ I frowned. ‘‘I could have done better.’’

My husband with a single question was able to pinpoint the ridiculously high expectations I have for myself. ‘‘What did you expect?’’ he asked. ‘‘Did you think a single tear was going to roll down her cheek as you read your breathless conclusion?’’

Well yes, I realized. That’s exactly what I expected. The image of my grouchy, forceful Spanish teacher from Hell struggling to control her emotions out of absolute awe and reverence for my presentation made us both collapse into hysterical giggles.

We like to use this story anytime I’m getting carried away with anxiety over something.

I regularly speak to audiences of 200-300 people. The biggest audience I’ve ever had would have been about 1,500 or so. I think that the principles are the same no matter how large your audience:

  • plan clearly what you’re going to say. Have a good idea of the key points that you want the audience to grasp.
  • outline these key points to the audience at the start.
  • then say them clearly. And I agree with Tapioca. The “insert joke here” type of speech almost always falls flat.
  • at the end, summarise it all again.
  • and always, always stick to your time limit.

A final tip - if you’re asked a question from the floor and you don’t know the answer, it’s best to say so straight away. It’s very obvious when a speaker attempts to fake an answer.

I can’t recall the largest – maybe 300, or more when I was on TV.

I have absolutely no fear of speaking in front of the group. If you told me right now I would have to speak before 10,000 people in two minutes, I’d just ask, “What subject?” If no subject, I could always fall back on something about movies.

Basically, I’m a showoff. And the more people in the audience, the more comfortable I am. The important thing is that a crowd has a lot of inertia. They will sit and listen as long as you can speak about something that enthuses you.

Maybe 50 - 100 for classes or work related stuff. I think 5-20 is probably toughest because you are right there with everyone and it’s easy for people to blurt out questions or otherwise distract you. 100 or 1000 people you are just addressing a sea of faces.

I’m lucky that I also have a dry sense of humor. I can say something witty and if it goes over well, great. If it doesn’t, I was being serious dammit.

My biggest reminders to myself are:

  1. Relax
  2. Slow down
  3. Relax

The biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to was pretty big. In 2003, I gave a five minute speech to about 5000 soon-to-be new U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony in Houston. I was a law clerk warming the crowd up for my judge, who was presiding. Strangely enough, it was no big deal and I really enjoyed it. It seems the bigger the crowd, the easier it is.

Kind of a long story, but this is as short as I can make it: I was teaching English in China and was hired to go to a school Christmas party. A car picked me up, then I was ushered in the back door of a building. The principal came up to me and said, “You’re just in time… You’re on!” and before I knew it I was onstage with two teachers, a microphone, and I’d guess about 3,000 to 5,000 people staring at me. The teachers asked me three questions about America then I sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I had a blast. I’ve also spoken to several groups of about 150 or so.

I think the keys are to think nothing but positive, confident thoughts. Those people out there aren’t looking into your soul, they simply take in what you project. When you get up in front of people, you are the boss, so you better act like it – you don’t have to feel like you’re the boss, you just have to act like you are. The time is yours, dammit, and don’t ruin it by blowing through your speech, or apologizing for glitches, or staring down at your notes the whole time, or making self-deprecating jokes. Be the man!!

I once heard a politician tell a story about impromptu speeches: If you’re thrown out in front of a crowd, grab the lectern with both hands, stare down everyone in the audience, and start speaking in a booming, confident voice. You’ll eventually figure out what to say.

Note: The gathering I was paid to attend was actually a Christmas party for the Party. For whatever reason, the Young Pioneers (hybrid of the Boy Scouts and the Chinese Communist Party) decided that year that Santa Claus wasn’t a counter-revolutionary. Maybe it’s the red hat.

I occasionally have opportunities to speak in front of small groups (10-15) of people at work to give presentations and that’s fine by me.
Likewise, I frequently speak at my small church, but it’s even closer there than with co-workers, so I really don’t feel nervous.

I pretty much pegged the scary-public-speaking scale (for me, at least) last summer: I spoke at a church in Brazil in front of a couple of hundred people, in Portuguese.

That took a whole mess of preparation.
I made darned sure I had practiced and practiced each of the main points, to the point that I was quite comfortable starting with a few pages of hand-written cheat notes that had the broad topics.

So, here it is…

  1. Know your opening sentence frontwards and backwards.
  2. Get your key points in order so they tell a story.
  3. Practice enough so you know exactly how long it will take and you don’t get stuck anywhere.
  4. If it fits the context, stick a funny story or two in the middle to break it up (self-deprecatory humor works well).
  5. Don’t go too long. It’s easy to do without realizing it.
  6. Know your closing sentence even better than your opening sentence.

Once you are confident that you have prepared sufficiently, you should have the confidence in front of the audience.

My mother is a professional speaker and author and spends 200 days a year on the road speaking to groups of 50 - 5000 people on 5 continents. Of course, I ended up with none of her personality traits and hate public speaking even though I have developed strategies to deal with it and be semi-good at it over time. My largest group was probably about 300 at work.

However, I think it is more notable that twice in the past three months I have walked into a room at work to find out I was the key speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert to a rather large group of people. I work for a mega-corp with giant conference rooms and full audio-visual gear yet somehow that little detail slipped by. I panicked both times and left the room for 2 minutes and came back and delivered good but not the greatest training not only to the people in front of me but also to people hooked up to teleconferencing from all over the world. The only thing that saved me mentally was that I was completely confident that I knew the subject matter better than anyone else could ever hope for and both sessions went for 2 hours. Those would count as my most daring public speaking moments.

About 1500 at a community college theater just prior to a talk by Bill Cosby, I was one of 6 folks in a public speaking class that was using the occasion for our final. The first guy only had about 300 people in attendance and the theater filled while others did their thing. I went on just about the time Mr. Cosby was scheduled to start. I kept my talk on a lighter subjects such as throwing perfume filled water balloons from moving cars (make sure the window is down!). I got some laughs and a nice round of applause when I finished. I actually was more nervous a few months later when I had to speak in front of 25 people at a water district meeting.

I was the Faculty Speaker at graduation one year, so I’d guess 3000 or so. The stadium was full, as were all the added seats on the field. I don’t get nervous speaking in public, so it wasn’t all that bad. I had rehearsed my speech, I focused on a few students down front who I knew and could make eye contact with, and I made sure to stay the right distance from the mike.

I used to do magic on a semi-professional basis, and the largest crowd was 300 people or so. I’ve given speeches and presentations in front of audiences of 50 to several hundred people.

I would regularly get extremely nervous before the event, but once I got out there I’d do really well. I like being the center of attention and having everyone watch me.

The start is important. When I’d do a magic show, I’d use one of my simple, but impressive tricks, a disappearing handkerchief, to get a good reaction, and then get on a roll from there.

For speeches, I like starting off with a dry, unexpected joke. For example, one of our dealers had a half-day seminar and asked six manufacturers to give 30 minute presentations. We were scheduled to go next to last, so the audience was pretty tired by the time it came for my presentation. I started off by thanking people for their time and said that they only needed to concentrate for another 30 minutes. You could see the puzzled looks as people were trying to compute that, since they knew there was another presentation afterwards. After a tiny pause to let then be confused, I continued by saying that there was another presentation afterwards, but since it was another company, I didn’t care if they slept through that one. It got a good laugh, and my presentation was ranked the best of the six by far.

I’ve done poetry slams of about 100 or so. Add me to the “know your material” crowd. You’ll sputter, spit and choke through it, or worse, look like a stooge if you don’t know it.

Also, relax. It won’t be anywhere NEAR as bad as you think it will. Things never are.

As a child my mother roped me into speaking at church on a regular basis, and a few times I had small speaking (or singing) parts in stage plays put on our ward. So these would have been in front of anywhere from a hundred or so up to maybe four or five hundred people. These were all from ages about 5 to 12.

I never enjoyed it all that much, and it was always just memorized lines.

As an adult I do a lot of training on new systems, both hardware and software. These are usually small groups, or even one-on-one. I’d guess the largest group was probably 75 or so. After 20 odd years of doing it, I still feel a little nervous, and I still usually show the symptoms before I start, like slightly shaky hands and sweating a little. After I get started I calm down, and I’m told I usually give good presentations. But I still have to remind myself to slow down, relax, and try to connect with the group a little.

Tips? I’ll agree with the previous posters.

  • Know your material.
  • Know your handouts.
  • Be prepared for questions but don’t be afraid to say you’ll cover that later.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. But make it a point to say you’ll find out and get back to them, then do it.
  • Know your audience and make sure your level of detail is appropriate. If I’m talking to users, the information should be 70% what buttons to push, 25% reiterating the basic process and telling them how easy it is, and 5% why it was done this way instead of that way. If I’m talking to programmers it’s 60% design decisions, 35% implementation, and 5% about other cool code we’ve written ;).
  • Remember it’s very often much harder to give a short presentation that’s useful to the audience than it is to give a one or two hour presentation. Watch your time limits and don’t get bogged down in details that are available in the handout material if it takes you off the main points or makes you run over.

I try to make eye contact with the group, usually kind of doing a slow pan back and forth, and trying to look at both the front rows and the ones farther back. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, so you have to find what’s comfortable for you in this.

I think the largest group I’ve spoken in front of was the audience at my D.A.R.E. graduation ceremony - in 5th grade. That was, well, ten years ago, and I don’t really remember how many people were there. My guess would be 150-200. Years later, one of my friends told me she watched the video tape from that ceremony - she said she could hardly understand me, I was talking so fast.

Later in life I got better at public speaking, but probably for no more than 30 at a time. Things I would have to focus on were usually breathing, slowing down, and knowing my material well.

I find there is a happy medium with nerves - you need to be a bit nervous to give a good talk, it fires you up. My weakest talks have been in places where I was totally calm beforehand. I’ve spoken to some guys in my field who are really outstanding speakers and they have all said the same - you need to be a little bit on edge if you want to deliver a great talk.