Presentation Hack: Impact of Audience Size


Presentation styles do not scale well.

I'm using a loose definition of "presentation" here. Think not only about college lectures, conference keynotes, or wedding toasts...but also other workplace training, office meetings, or learning workshop environments.


Right now, I'm imaging a friend who owns a training business. He is a skilled public speaker. Having helped coordinate a 700+ person annual conference for over a decade (and attended many more), I've seen hundreds of speakers in his industry. And he's among the most polished! He's got well-designed slides, great timing, strong confident appearance, appropriately dressed, and a general tone that draws you in. Totally impressive.

I watched him give that two (2)-hour lecture to an auditorium audience of multi-hundreds. He was awesome!

Months later, I attended a multi-day class he gave to 40 students. And I was less impressed.

What I realized is that his presentation style did not change one (1) bit. If you had watched videos of him in each of the two (2) environments without seeing the size of the audiences, you'd have thought it was a replay. He spoke to three (3) dozen like he spoke to 500. It didn't work.

Why do I bring this up?

I just learned that my next workshop only has six (6) attendees!!! I can fit that comfortably around my dinner table.

This is a workshop that generally has up to 35.

I'm going to make an argument here: The difference between two (2) dozen and a half-dozen is isn't much less than the difference between 500 and 40. Maybe because the difference between 500 and 100 is almost nil. And the difference between 1,500 and 200 is damned-near zero (0).

Go ahead and read those numbers again.
  • 200+ is one (1)-sided. It's a speaker giving information to a crowd. Asking for participation is going to be a disaster, leaving some attendees completely uninterested. This is auditorium seating - and probably requires the use of a microphone.
  • 100 is about the maximum audience size where you want to ask questions of the crowd. And even at that, the questions should be typed to limit the sorts of answers that will derail the presentation. (I won't get into details on that here.) This is also auditorium seating.
  • At 50-60, the engagement should begin to take off. We can start to mess with alternate seating arrangements. "Town hall" seating is where the edges start to wrap around in a more inclusive horseshoe shape. Imagine a football stadium. I've used "town hall" layouts where multiple rows of seats were on the "sidelines" facing in, with a projection screen at one (1) "endzone" and whiteboards at the other endzone. We purposely lost a sense of front-of-the-room.
  • Fifteen (15) to twenty (20) is about the limit for a single-depth (single row deep) horseshoe seating design. Engagement is much more conversational at this point. Horseshoe, as opposed to circular, allows for a screen, whiteboard, or other main focus such as moderators, speakers, or other attention-grabbers.
  • Less than a dozen is full participation. You most definitely should see conversation, debate, and questioning between attendees. The role of any teacher is moderator or facilitator here. "Lecture" segments should be limited to several minutes, at most. Horseshoe still works well, but a headless conference table might bring this into a more intimate feel. Why headless? Because you might need that "head" to be a screen or whiteboard that everyone can comfortably see.





Back to my friend, the polished lecturer. I told him the respect I held for his stage presence. His response: He cannot do what I do, talking about how I moderate prolonged group discussions and debates with those smaller (less than 100) groups. He said he needed control, structure, and predictability. 

And that moment stuck with me. It made me consider the variety of skills, mindsets, approaches, formats, and styles available to presenters, speakers, teachers, trainers, and facilitators for different contexts. The best presenters adapt to their environments...of which size of audience is a significant factor in not only physical space layout, but in presenter style, tone, approach, and philosophy.

And a major impact is on purposeful, solicited audience engagement and participation. As size goes up, engagement should go down; it's not only expected, but respectful. As size goes down, engagement needs to go up. 

This will not be the first time I've worked with this intimate of a group...as many of my case study projects have been purposely broken-down into groups of similar size. 

But for this particular content, this is the first. It will be different. I remain confident.

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How about you? Where are you most comfortable? In front of large lecture halls where you can recite rehearsed presentations? Or in small, intimate settings where you draw out the experience, curiosity, and risk taking of a handful of people? 

Are you the Bull Shark...or the Princess & the Pea


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Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking or classroom experiences!

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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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