As a public lecturer, Dale Carnegie frequently spoke to a small audience scattered through a large hall in the afternoon, and to a large audience packed into the same hall at night. He found the responses he got from each group to be interesting:
The evening audience laughed heartily at the same things that brought only a smile to the faces of the afternoon group. Additionally, the evening group applauded generously at certain spots of his speech while the afternoon group was utterly unresponsive at the same points in his talk.
There were a couple reasons for these disparate reactions. For one thing, he found that elderly people and children were more likely to attend his afternoon sessions, while the evening crowd was more vigorous and discriminating. But by far, the biggest factor he found to explain the differing responses was the fact that the afternoon crowd was much smaller than the evening crowd, and thus more scattered about the room.
The fact is that no audience will be easily moved when it is scattered. Nothing dampens enthusiasm in a public speaking forum like wide, open spaces and empty chairs between the listeners.
Henry Ward Beecher said in his Yale Lectures on Preaching:
People often say, “Do you not think it is much more inspiring to speak to a large audience than a small one?” No, I say; I can speak just as well to twelve persons as to a thousand, provided those twelve are crowded around me and close together, so that they can touch each other. But even a thousand people with four feet of space between every two of them, would be just the same as an empty room … Crowd your audience together and you will set them off with half the effort.
Much of it is psychological—A man in a large audience tends to lose his individuality. He becomes a member of the crowd and is swayed far more easily than he would be as a single individual. He will laugh at and applaud things that would leave him unmoved if he were only one of half a dozen people listening to you.
Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself giving a talk to a sparsely populated room. Ask those in attendance to move closer together and toward the front of the room and you’ll be more likely to get the responses you’re looking for.