The inimitable, brilliant, and always interesting Seth Godin posted a critique of banquet tables for 10 on his blog recently (http://bit.ly/1hcjqHH) and it brought up the issue of room layouts for speakers in a powerful way for me.
As Seth says, the banquet table is designed to make life better for the banquet organizer: “The table for ten is a platonic ideal of the intersection of the geometry of bread baskets, flower arrangements and salad dressing. Bigger and you couldn’t reach, smaller and there’s no room.”
Unfortunately, the same table makes life immeasurably worse for the speaker at the banquet. No matter what you do, someone – indeed, a good portion of the audience – has her back turned to you, and to each other. It’s impossible to communicate with someone when his back is turned. And the audience itself is fragmented because of its self-alienation.
Seth’s solution is to put 5 people at 4-person tables. The crowding promotes good conversation and networking. Sadly, it doesn’t really solve the speaker’s problem. A good portion of the audience still has its back turned to you.
What’s to be done?
The obvious solution is to eliminate round tables altogether when a speaker is present. The only justification for round tables is eating, so let’s institute a ban on speakers while eating. In most of the cavernous conference centers around the world, there’s plenty of room to eat in one room and then move to another for the speaking and listening.
It might improve everyone’s digestion. And allow people to focus on networking over the breakfast, lunch, or dinner – and listening to speeches at other times.
Let me repeat: round tables of any size doom the speaker-audience relationship to failure. Let’s eliminate them for better conferences.
What’s the alternative? Following are my takes on various room styles, their pluses and minuses, from an article I wrote a little while back. As you’ll see, I suggest a compromise for improving rounds: fill them half-full, so everyone is facing toward the speaker. That, of course, won’t help with networking.
My favorite room layout by far is the U. You can begin your speech in the center, at the top of the U, and work the audience easily up and down the sides. You’re never far from anyone, and everyone feels connected. Some U’s are several rows deep, and for those you may want to walk up – once or twice only – into the second row, depending on how hard it is to navigate. But never stay long deep in an audience, because some people will experience your back to them, and that’s not good for the reasons I’ve already outlined.
The success of a classroom style layout depends on how many aisles there are. If there’s at least one, you can work the aisle to get deep into the rows at least once or twice. If there’s no aisle, then the studies show that you’ll only connect with people who are in an inverse triangle in relation to the front. The base of the triangle is the front row, and the tip is at the back center. It’s why goodie-goodies sit at the front of the classroom, and hooligans sit at the back. The former want to connect with teacher, and the latter do not.
Auditorium style layouts give you lots of opportunities to work the aisles, provided that they’re accessible, and you don’t have to leap over obstructions, or climb down dimly lit stairs to get to them. When you study the hall beforehand, decide on your strategy. If it’s too difficult to get into the audience, then work the stage. The audience will interpret your efforts as attempting to get to them, and that’s second best. Once again, don’t spend too long deep in the aisles, because people can only turn with difficulty in auditorium-style seating.
These are perhaps the worst sort of settings, because it’s very hard to work the audience when it’s spread all over and facing in different directions. And yet it’s a style you will see in hotels across the known universe. Meeting planners love rounds, because they get tables to set, and they can put interesting centerpieces on them, they can feed the audience, and so on. But they are tough on speakers.
You still need to work the audience – in fact, you need to work harder. Try to negotiate with the meeting planner to have the rounds only half-filled, facing the front, so at least half the audience won’t have its back turned toward you. Keep the house lights turned up if possible, and consider beginning your talk in the back of the room in order to get closer to the people there. Then move to the front, and work the center, left and right, going into the second set of rounds once or twice.
RECTANGULAR BREAKOUT ROOMS
These are rooms where audiences go to die. They’re long, the acoustics are typically awful, and the ceilings are low. The audience feels like it’s in a shoebox, and tends to sit near the back so that it can make a surreptitious exit half-way through. In these rooms, ask the audience to move forward to the front rows, pleading acoustics, and work the front and left and right sides. If there’s a center row, use that to get deep into the shoebox once during the talk in order to revivify the audience in the back.