A Guide to Speaking in Front of a Crowd

For some of us, especially the ones on the quieter side, nothing can seem scarier than public speaking. But there's no need to panic at the thought of a crowd listening to your every word, because speaking to an audience is actually far easier than a one-on-one conversation with a stranger. And that's no hot take: it's human nature. 

The big secret to public speaking is that whether you're addressing a room of 20 people or an auditorium of 200, it's only one audience.

In other words, humans tend to think and react as a single unit when grouped together, rather than a crowd of many individuals thinking and acting independently.

In this sense, laughter is contagious because humans are social animals who conform to the collective norm. You don't yell "fire" in a crowded theater for the same reason; other reactions, like panic, are contagious too. But perhaps most interesting when it comes to crowds is the influence of the leader figure (that's you).

Follow the leader isn't just a game we play as children, it's a part of our crowd nature.

When an auditorium fills with people, you can expect it to be pretty noisy at first. But under the direction of a single MC, often situated at the head of the room, everything changes. Calling the crowd to attention, the leader turns many individuals into one. They collectively cease their conversations and agendas, giving you their attention as is the custom.

When you're speaking in front of an audience, you're in control.

This is contrary to the fear that many share. The phobia goes that unconfident speakers are victim to an unpredictable room of individuals who might judge them, and as a result feel public speaking is fraught with worst-case scenarios like being heckled or even laughed off stage.

But in reality, there are far fewer what ifs when presenting in front of an audience because of social behaviors and customs, and you can even be fairly certain as to what to expect.

The same can't be said for interviews and first dates, because while dialogues between two people are improvised, public speaking is a one-way conversation prepared ahead of time.

But while an audience is far more forgiving than you might assume, there are some simple rules you should follow to help nail your speech or presentation.

Take advantage of your leader role with these tips:

Don't worry about being too formal.

Whether you're giving a presentation on chemistry or a wedding speech, a casual affect is always rewarded in public speaking. And this comes from being yourself.

The audience will follow your tone, so be open, friendly and lighthearted.

Know your audience.

"Playing to the room," as it's sometimes called, is the idea that peer groups tend to share sensibilities that you can cater to in your presentation. In this sense, you might greet an auditorium of teenagers differently than a conference room full of CEOs. This rule also applies to the occasion: you don't want the tone and delivery of a birthday toast during a funeral eulogy.

Be yourself but consider the audience and occasion to adapt accordingly.

Be prepared, and then be more prepared.

Your biggest fear (taking the stage and going blank), can totally be abated by being prepared. This is another one of those amazing features of the human mind.

If you've practiced your presentation over and over again, you'll find it will just flow out when the time comes, without even really thinking about it.

And that means you can turn your focus to the next important aspect of public speaking, or your body language.

Be mindful of your body language.

Come out from behind the podium and try to maintain eye contact with your audience. Use non-verbal gestures, like pointing or being expressive, to help reinforce your ideas.

Slow down.

If you're a little nervous, you'll naturally be speaking quickly. And your perception of talking slow might even still be pretty fast.

Take your time and remember to pause in between main points and ideas.   

It's easy to be your own worst enemy when you've got an upcoming public speaking engagement, especially as an introvert. But like all phobias, your fears and concerns tend to be irrational and exaggerated. Not only are your negative thoughts unhelpful, but they're also probably false.

Remember that the situation is naturally in your control, and with the right preparation, you can rock your speech or presentation. 

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