Give Your Audience the “Best Seats in the House”

Originally Featured in Professional Speaker Magazine

Two world-renowned scientists attend a seminar on bone marrow transfer research in cancer patients. A third expert is presenting a paper. At one point, both attending experts lurch in their seats in disbelief. However, they are separated by only one person in a straight row, and so do not see the other’s non-verbal expression of disbelief. Had one seen the other, they would have met during the coffee break with the presenter, and even arranged an extra session before the cocktail party that evening to correct a point in the research. However, having been separated by one person, neither one carries their disagreement further – and the effectiveness of bone marrow transfer research for cancer patients is slowed by one year. All because of straight-row seating.

A recognized professional speaker moves into her audience, presenting a heartfelt message What she does not see is that those seated on the outside of the front row have to stretch and crane their necks to see her the closer she gets. They have to suffer in pain to receive her warm message if they want to look at her.

Billions of Seated Hours, One Hour of Pain at a Time

That compulsion to set straight rows causes more pain and suffering than medieval torture techniques. Yet a straight-row mind-set and compulsion prevails throughout the meetings industry. The basic belief is that the way to maximize seating in any meeting room is to set the chairs in traditional straight-row, theater or classroom/schoolroom style. In smaller board meetings that translates into hollow square, u-shape and boardroom rectangular table sets. Here is what straight-row seating costs your presentation as a speaker.

What Straight-Row Seating Costs Your Presentation

Straight-row sets bleed the voltage from your presentation and require additional energy just to get your message across. Tom Antion, humorist, reports a major increase in audience response to humor when individuals can see each other in curved-row seating. Straight rows allow each person in the row to see only one person on either side.

Be aware that the room set by itself may be negatively impacting your presentation. At the recent NSA Platform Skills Lab, audience member Max Dixon reported that he was beginning to feel irritation, even anger, toward the person seated directly in front of him for blocking his view of the presentation. That configuration was simple straight-row theater style, similar to the each-chair-right-behind-another mode from interlocking or ganged chairs.

More Depends on the Presenter in Straight-Row Sets

You better be good. The success of your presentation depends more totally and pointedly on you when you are in front of a straight-row set, for there you are in a 1:1 relationship with each person in the audience. They can see only a person on either side and a rug of heads in front of them, so you are the sole stimulus presenting to a group that is visually bombarded daily by the media. So, even if a revered, seasoned member of your audience lurches at a comment, responds heartily or eagerly ‘takes notes, that person’s response to your presentation is seen by only a few others in a straight-row set.

And even when audience members find your presentation interesting, from 30 to 70 percent of those in straight-row theater-style sets (for the larger keynotes or general sessions) report physical discomfort just to be able to see the presenter on stage. After 15 to 20 minutes, those seated on the extreme outside quit looking at you. They pull out their program and start reading it, not because they aren’t interested in what you are saying, but rather because it hurts too much in neck or back strain to look at you.


Turning one’s neck more than 15 degrees to either side restricts blood flow along the vertibular arteries to the brain. That limits individual learning. Many of those in straight-row seats, especially those in the orchestra seats front row far right and far left, have to turn their heads up to 80 degrees to see the presenter. When the presenter wishes closer contact with the audience with a Donahue-like walk up the center aisle, those seated on the front inner aisle may have to turn their necks and bodies up to 180 degrees to follow the presentation. Continued twisting takes its toll on the lower back, blood flow to the legs, ability to breath deeply, fully, and provide the 25 to 30 percent of oxygen the brain requires to function normally. The audience member’s internal learning mechanisms are impaired by the direction the chairs are facing.

The Best Seats in the House Are Not There

The area directly in front of the speaker in these straight-row sets, the only decent seats facing the presentation directly, aren’t set. Typically, this is a large, energy draining center aisle. You are better off, even in a straight-row set, with a straight-row center section right in front of you, and an aisle in between each outer seating section.

Meanwhile, Back at the Presentation: You’re the Expert

A straight-row arrangement announces that you are the only source of important input in the room, the only stimulus worth attending to. You are clearly delineated as the authority. That may have been the intention in Puritan churches where the sinners focused on the pulpit for salvation. Most of your audiences will probably not have the same motivation to watch you, or the feather on the nose should they snooze.

If there is any residual resentment in your audience members for the 12 to 16 years they were immobilized, silenced and intimidated in an educational system, you are more likely to be the recipient of that resentment when they see the room set. They will refer to you as the “teacher” and the meeting space as a “classroom.”

Product Sales Suffer as Well

Orvel Ray Wilson, of The Guerilla Group Inc., noted a 10 to 20 percent increase in back of room (BOR) product sales as a result of curving the table configuration in his classroom sets. Audience dynamics increased by 300 percent with curved-row seating.

Wilson had attended my presentation on “Seating: The Hidden Dimension in Presentation Dynamics” at the Irvine Workshop. When I spoke with him a year later, he was pleased about the techniques, but thoroughly frustrated with meeting facility resistance or inability to set the room as he requested. Similar reports from meeting professionals led me to approach major hotel chains to offer them training in Audience-Centered Seating principles.

Market-Driven Facilities: Ask and They Will Sell It

Numerous national vice presidents of marketing of major hotel chains informed me that they are not interested in taking the lead in providing innovative and optimal seating. They claim to be market-driven, fully capable of providing the set requested by the meeting planner. They are experiencing a seller’s market in which they feel little need to scramble for business. That is where the speaker needs to take the initiative. We are the market. And we need to work in partnership with the meeting professional and the meeting facility to get the optimal presentation circumstances.

You have to be specific and detailed in your request of a room set from the meeting planner. Unless you make a request, you may not be asked for your preference. Be prepared to deal with the inertia or resistance you encounter from the beginning and follow through to ensure you get what you want. If you do not get satisfaction from a meeting facility, I would be happy to track the service afforded by these facilities. Let me know.

Use the Guest Benefit Angle

This is the hospitality industry. Assure the facilities that “their guests would benefit from this arrangement,” says Steve Waterhouse, who sits the housemen on the outside chair of the front row. He asks them how much they would pay to sit in that seat for an hour. Quickly converted, the housemen oblige with the curved-row sets Waterhouse requests.

Meeting Facility: An Oxymoron?

A meeting is supposed to convene people, bringing them together face-to-face for a common purpose. If you have straight rows, you don’t have a meeting. People simply cannot see each other. They would be better off in their home office on a satellite TV hookup. At least then they would see each other face-to-face. What you do have with straight-row seating is a collective assemblage, similar to people who happen to show up in a train station at the same time. A facility is supposed to assist, facilitate or “make easy” whatever the function. Straight rows do quite the contrary. But erudite discussion of basic institutional purpose will only annoy the meeting space staff, so be specific, detailed and firm in your request. You are the customer. And your request benefits the ultimate customer: your audience member.

“We’re Setting for the Last Presentation”

When a breakout room is to be used throughout the day for concurrents, many planners will provide a standard straight-row set, often claiming that it is for the presenter at the end ofthe day. Just as often, that presenter has made no such request, nor even been asked for room specs. Your request may be turned down on that basis, even though the last presenter has not even been booked yet.

Ask to get in touch with the last presenter. Then the two of you work out a compromise. Most often, another presenter doesn’t have a clue about the best set and will request a standard setup because he or she is supposed to ‘pick one.” Inform that presenter about the benefits of your curved-row set and then make a joint request of the meeting professional.

Overturning an Erroneous Myth: Straight Rows Do Not Max the Room

Meeting professionals inform me that they are, in fact, “control freaks.” It comes with the job. They want assurances that everything on their checklist is done. Like many professionals who provide services, attention is drawn to them only when something falls through. That is not the attention they want. They are low risk takers. And maxing the room is one of their fall-back positions.

A late surge in registrations, expensive meeting space, unpredictable attendance; each and all promote turning over the room set to the facility and asking them to “max the room.” That means getting the highest chair count into that presentation space. That is a sure way to CYA: cover your anatomy. (Note also that once the chairs are set in place, no one seems concerned whether they are accessible, or whether anyone ultimately sits in them. Yet, a chair is not a seat until someone is in it.)

Nearly everyone in the meetings industry worldwide mistakenly and unquestioningly maintains that straight-row sets will accomplish maximum space utilization. This is the belief at the bottom of the straight-row mind-set. And it is simply untrue.

In every room I have set in a meeting facility to date, using the six AudienceCentered Seating principles and fine tuning, especially that of curving the rows, we have met or exceeded the capacity listed for traditional straightrow theater style.


In fact, I may have contributed to that unfortunate belief. I was in error in my June 1994 article for Professional Speaker -“Room Setup Advantages with ‘State of the Art’ Seating” in stating that “at most you give up six seats per hundred, or 6 percent. So if you plan space for 636 theater style, you can accommodate 600 with semicircular seating.” (P. 9.) That percentage was an overly conservative figure determined by setting a room capped by a fire code.

In a March conference held at the Minneapolis Hilton (the 1995 NSA Convention site) we exceeded the straight-row capacity in breakout rooms by 26 percent. And at Grand Traverse Resort in Michigan, we comfortably and safely packed 73 chairs in curved rows in rooms that could only accommodate 67 in straight rows. Capacity alone makes curved rows appealing. So here are the six principles we utilized in setting those rooms.

Audience-Centered Seating™ Principles

  1. Set to the long wall.
  2. Curve the seating to face the presentation.* No straight rows.
  3. Flare aisles 45 degrees off the end of the podium. No center aisle.
  4. Face each chair directly toward the presentation.
  5. Cut single-chair veins or access lanes into long rows every sixth chair.
  6. Set the last row on the back wall. Leave aisle space in front for exit.

*Curved-row sets, rows curved sufficiently so that participants can see others in their own row, serve the meeting functions formerly ascribed to semicircular sets. Being able to see each other for networking opportunities, view the presentation, comfort, safety, access and capacity are an essential part of this request.

Immediate Full-Back Set

Even if the facility is adamant and unyielding in their insistence on setting straight rows for body count, you can insist on several of the Audience-Centered Seating principles with AudienceCentered Theater Style in illustration A. Angle the outside seats, still in straight rows, toward the presentation.

Wide-Ranging Presentations Require an Elliptical Set

Your presentation style may dictate the degree of curve in the rows. If you roam the stage like Tom Peters, then shape the seating in an ellipse (see illustration B).

Seating Matters

Fixed-Place Presentations Do Well with a Semicircular Set

However, if your presentation style is more fixed and contained in one space, then choose more of a semicircular configuration (see illustration C). This is also the more intimate arrangement. You can use a compass, placing the pivot point in the basic center of your presentation area, and drawing increasingly larger concentric semicircles toward the back of the room. Then mark off aisles from the front corners of the podium at a 45 degree angle toward the exits, or draw them directly toward the exits, expanding to accommodate more traffic flow and schmoozing in front of the exit doors.

Never, Ever, Ever, Ever Give Up!

The straight-row mind-set will yield slowly and be replaced by a curved row mind-set in the worldwide meetings industry. The pain of the straight-row set will eventually be intolerable to audiences and straight rows will be shot down like the Minutemen shot the British who insisted on standing in straight rows. Then we will be able to return to seating that the Greeks and Romans institutionalized about 800 A.D.

Meanwhile, you need to approach meeting facilities armed with a specific request as well as a firm determination to obtain your preferred seating arrangement. Being in the vanguard of a movement requires such resolve. And our audience members deserve the best seats in the house now, not when the meeting facilities get around to it.