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How to Speak to an Audience of 16,202

When my wife and I were asked back in February to train at a conference in Las Vegas attended by 16,202 delegates, we knew we faced the most exciting challenge of our public speaking careers.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll outline how we prepared for the event – and how we honed our presentation skills to do so.

This week, I’m concentrating purely on preparation.

From the moment we got the call to speak to the second we stepped on stage.

There were seven steps in our preparation:

    1. Understanding the audience
    2. Devising a plan
    3. Writing key themes
    4. Winning the audience’s support
    5. Thorough rehearsal
    6. Coping with adversity
    7. Dressing to impress

It’s my belief that putting all of these into practice in your own presentations and public speaking engagements will help you to succeed.

Understanding the audience

How to Prepare for Large Audience - Presentation Skills - Arbonne 3

Before writing a single word of any presentation, you must first understand your audience.

What’s their background?

Where are they from?

What’s the gender balance?

What are their interests outside of work?

What are their ambitions?

Everything you can learn about them.

Here, we had a distinct advantage.

My wife has been part of this audience for 9 years and has risen up through the ranks to the top level of the organisation.

Over 90% of delegates are women.

Their ages range from 19 to 75.

The audience would be largely Americans…followed by Canadians, then Australian, then British, then Polish.

They are aspirational – and seeking inspiration.

When we speak to participants on our presentation skills and media training courses – mainly at our Glasgow studios – we stress the need to know this much detail about their audiences.

Only when we understand the audience can we move on to Step 2.

Devising a plan

How to Prepare for Large Audience - Presentation Skills - Martin Luther King

Our slot would be 15 minutes long, in a conference lasting three days.

We needed to create a vehicle that would allow us both equal air time.

So we worked on a structure that would allow us to make impact at the start – then work through our themes.

First – we had to select ‘walk on’ music to give us 30 seconds to reach the middle of a stage that would be like a airport runway, with a circular platform in the middle.

The choice was a good clap-along piece: ‘500 miles’ by The Proclaimers.

That should get the audience in the right frame of mind.

Second – how do we start with impact?

The theme we’d been given was

“Thinking Like a Global Leader”

So I chose three world-famous leaders, responsible for shaping thinking across the world.

Martin Luther King – seeking equal rights for all.

John F. Kennedy – promising to put a man on the moon that decade.

Nelson Mandela – seeking his country’s liberation.

Each mention was supported by a close-up photograph of each.

We would take just a couple of sentences each…then a couple of paragraphs each.

Eventually, we’d talk for about one minute, turn-about.

Writing key themes

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The subject matter was fine – but we needed to break it down into parts.

So we extended the subject to:

“Think Like a Global Leader – by Winning Hearts and Minds”

Now Caroline could deal with the emotion of winning hearts – while I dealt with the logic of winning minds.

She would address the need to listen, support, face criticism and take risks.

I dealt with simplifying the message – overcoming objections with reason – and planning thoroughly.

We wrote each section independently – then cross-checked that it was working.

Our strong Call to Action at the end would be simple:

“Are you prepared to take these steps to become a global leader?”

Winning the audience’s support

How to Prepare for Large Audience - Presentation Skills - child

This is where the magic happens.

Too many business presentations I’ve heard are gutsy and bullish, but avoid any sense of vulnerability.

In this presentation, Caroline exposed her hatred of public speaking.

She traced it to the teasing and mocking she had received as a child when making presentations or performing in front of a crowd – and the determination to stay out the limelight as a result.

I laid bare my own hatred: of unjustified criticism.

I traced that to the teacher who told me I’d be ‘a failure like my brother’.

I then exposed the driven nature of my character, born out of fear of failure.

But each of us then outlined the steps we’d taken to overcome these difficulties.

We were saying to the audience:

“we may appear confident to you, but here’s what we’ve had to do to get to this point”

That allows the audience to see how they can overcome their own weaknesses.

Exposing your vulnerability – if handled correctly – brings the audience on to your side.

In doing so, it sets them down their own path of self-improvement.

Scout the venue

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After we got final sign-off on our script from the conference organisers, we set about rehearsing.

Together, we read aloud the script – taking our turns – with intonation we would use on stage.

For anyone rehearsing a script, it’s important to ‘do it for real’ each time.

That way, it feels natural by the time you come to perform.

By the week of the conference, we had practised our presentation five or six times.

Three days before the event, we had 10 minutes on the stage for the first time – in an empty MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.

Over 16,000 empty green seats stared down on the white runway and stage.

Strangely, it seemed smaller than we had imagined.

Several things became clear.

Firstly, the acoustics meant there would be a slight echo when speaking.

Next, the autocue would be below stage level, meaning eye contact could look low.

Finally, we were encouraged to cross the circular stage – to speak to all parts of the arena, rather than just the side we started on.

So the day before the event, we rehearsed our speech three times in our room….

We were now allowing for the echo.

We crossed the room at given points to simulate what was required on stage.

We read the first part of the sentence from the tele prompt.

We carried the remainder in our heads as we looked up to the audience.

The arena rehearsal had been invaluable.

That’s why we urge our clients to check out the auditorium and practice from there.

Our final rehearsal came 20 minutes before going on stage, waiting in the wings.

We were up to speed and ready to roll.

Overcoming adversity

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Our preparation had now taken many hours over several weeks, from inception to writing to rehearsal.

Then came the fly in the ointment.

Seven days before the biggest speech of her life, my wife slipped on a wet bathroom floor and banged her forehead on the sink.

Blood gushed from a deep cut above her left eye.

She felt it would better heal without stitches…and for six hours after the fall, Caroline sat with ice over the damaged area.

But the next day the swelling worsened.

Two days later, a black eye formed.

She was now deeply worried about taking the stage with a very clear and obvious injury.

As the conference neared, the eye blackened.

At one point, a fellow speaker had her convinced she should point out the black eye on stage – to stop people asking questions.

I pleaded with her to do the opposite – and  perform so well that all the audience talked about was her message.

After a final hour of work by a professional make-up artist at 7 am on the day of the conference, Caroline was ready to take the stage.

Dressing to impress

How to Prepare for Large Audience - Presentation Skills - shirt and tie

For a major conference, I often buy a new suit.

This time, I bought new brogues as well, that matched.

A new crisp white shirt, cufflinks and a new complementary tie completed the look.

For Caroline, a sparkling new dress, with matching shoes and silver necklace.

What should your clothes say?

They should match the aspirations of the audience.

They should help you look like the leader you’ve been asked to be.

But there’s another effect.

When you feel well-dressed, your confidence rises.

When your confidence rises, you perform better.

So now the company’s UK General Manager is on stage, announcing us into to the arena.

The Proclaimers strike up the chorus from “500 Miles”…and we step out of the darkness and into the light.

What happened next?

I look forward to sharing that in August, along with the techniques we employed in delivering the biggest presentation of our lives.

Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills training firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: < J > via Foter.com / CC BY; vince42 via Foter.com / CC BY-ND; U.S. Embassy New Delhi via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

31st May 2016 Featured in: Blog By:

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