I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin’s amazing blog and I was fascinated to read his commentary recently on the difference between what he called front row cultures and the contrasting empty rows of some company meetings (and by extension, some conferences and meetings with the same strengths and weaknesses).

It reminded me of parallel thoughts I’ve had when confronting those rows both empty and filled as a speaker and a participant in conferences and meetings over a thirty-year career.

The urge to sit in the back of the room begins early in one’s school career. Whether stemming from attitude, fear or disillusionment, much of the student group of back-benchers moves permanently to the rear seats because they don’t want to engage in the ideas, people, and decisions being made at the front of the room.

Once you get in the habit of checking out, it becomes a permanent physical decision that is first emblematic of and ultimately begins to steer your thinking. The physical barrier informs the mental one.

You’re no longer a full player if you’re trying to participate from the back of the room.

Front-benchers, on the other hand, show their engagement by their presence. We move toward things that we like, that we care about, that we’re interested in. And we move away from the opposite. Sitting at the front of the room means that you’re in the game.

The tyranny of cool keeps most people still afraid of appearing to be a geek or a brown-noser by sitting in the front of the room, long after high school is over and the kids, whether cool or not, have gone home, or moved on, or left town.

Think about how ridiculous that is. What some hip eight-year-old said or did a few decades ago is controlling your behavior now.

Of course, there will be times when you’re forced to attend meetings or conferences that you’re not terribly enthusiastic about, but nonetheless moving to the front means that you’re in it to win it, not to lose.

That means embracing a deeper kind of authenticity than the authenticity of being half-present because you only half-approve. It’s the authenticity of full presence, with all the ambiguities and difficulties of the one life you get to live.

It’s the authenticity of showing up with a one hundred percent effort because to do less is to cheat yourself, not to register an existential vote about the worth of the entertainment in front of you.

If you don’t participate fully, you don’t get to vote.

There should be a stampede to the front of the room when a conference opens or a meeting starts. Instead, all too often, as a speaker, I resort to asking people to move up and take the first row if it’s empty. After a while, they do, and the energy in the room always changes.

Or, if I’m a conference-goer, a participant, I’ll stake out a seat in the front row in order to show my engagement and to get the most possible energy and enlightenment out of the occasion.

High school is over. It’s time to move up front.

You can join our conference and sit in the front row on April 22nd, where we’ll be talking about how to create and deliver great speeches that people will crowd in to see. Join us – spaces are limited, so sign up soon.

6 Comments

  1. The only time I’ve ever sat in the back of the room — close to the exit — was in my engineering classes during college. That should’ve told me something about the wrong path I’d set out on. I was longing to escape!

    I’m ashamed to admit this, but that’s the also the only time I’ve whispered an observation (read: made fun of the proceedings) to the person sitting next to me. You just feel more detached.

    1. I’m the exact opposite! I love sitting as close as possible (not the first row, but usually the 2nd). I just don’t understand why people want to sit in the back.

      Up front, I feel more of a participant than an observer. I don’t have to deal with the distractions of people sitting in front of me, moving around, keeping their kids occupied, etc. Plus, I’m short, so I know I’ll be able to see everything! The only possible negative is that no one else I know wants to sit that close, so I usually sit by myself, but that doesn’t really bother me. The payoff of being more engaged in the process is worth it!

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