A Small Audience Can Make for a Tough Room
June 5, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

In March, I wrote a blog post on how to give a presentation to a small group. A small group presentation is far less formal and far more conversational than a large-group presentation. The advice I offered in that post was on how to interact with the audience: how to make eye contact, how to listen more than you speak, how to use your body language.

What are the other differences posed by very small audiences? You don’t use the large hand gestures and powerful voice projection that you use with large audiences. Posture, however, is just as important. You’re not standing, but make certain you don’t slouch. Keep your feet flat on the floor. That will give you the most balance for the least effort.

One of the unfortunate qualities of small groups is that the room gets tougher as the audience grows smaller. Smaller groups are nearly always composed of more high-powered individuals. When you are trying to persuade fewer than five people, it usually means you are trying to persuade the leadership of an organization, and leaders tend to be more skeptical. That’s part of what they are paid to be. You may find it difficult to generate excitement among these people.

But a small group has its compensations: it will be much easier to analyze. When you’re preparing your presentation, you can create detailed profiles of each person you expect to be in the audience. Your sources of information are colleagues, friends, co-workers, and social media. These can give you information about job description, tenure, history, and interests. Eventually you may learn something about each person's hopes, fears, aspirations, goals, and drivers. If you’re trying to persuade these people, you need to figure out what’s in it for them, and that may be unique to each person.

Nearly any decision you would ask this group to make is likely to come down to two alternatives: change or stability. Most people tend to choose one or the other most of the time. To a change seeker, you can emphasize the way your proposal breaks with tradition or the way it innovates, or how it is in line with the latest thinking on a certain subject. To a stability seeker, you can emphasize how your proposal helps to protect assets, capitalizes on existing skills and talents, or fits in with an organization's original mission. Prepare arguments for both approaches and be prepared to switch if you discover in the meeting that somebody isn’t just what you thought they were.

Finally, practice with your equipment — whether it’s a laptop, a tablet, or a phone connected to a screen — until you can operate it gracefully. You might assume because the audience is so small that your equipment is not as important. In fact, it’s more important than it is with a large group, because what you do to operate it is so much more visible to them, and that means your equipment can be a deadly distraction. 

You need to know your equipment so well that you become sort of transparent — to work the equipment with such grace and self-effacement that the audience sees only the presentation, not the machinery that supports it. Rehearse your presentation until you can do it by feel, the way this Australian Scout troop assembles a tent blindfolded, with their feet!