They roll their eyes at me whenever I say, “Get into good spatial arrangements for small group discussion.” My students know I will challenge them if they aren’t seated in a way that gives everyone in the group equal ability to be seen and heard. Generally, this means neat circles or ovals. I don’t care that they think I’m crazy or too particular about spatial arrangement. Because I know it matters.
The way that we sit is part of proxemics, or spatial communication. Think about a high school lunch room or an office break room. You can gain a lot of information just by observing how people arrange themselves in the available seats.
It’s important to understand that seating arrangements have direct influences on things like audience attention and engagement, group discussion, and even feelings of belonging. If you have the flexibility and space to be able to arrange the seating in your room, you should consider doing so. The following 3 guidelines can help you make the best choice for how to arrange the seating for your next presentation.
1. Minimize Distractions
Your seating plan can help you minimize audience distractions and maintain focus on the speaker. This is easy when you have a small group, but the larger the audience, the more chances there are for distractions during the presentation. For larger audiences, maximize the attention on the presenter by arranging chairs so that they are facing the front of the room. This is called a traditional or theater arrangement. A study by James McCroskey showed that in traditional settings like presentations and classroom lectures, over 50% of audience members actually prefer that setup. In my survey of information on row and chair spacing, most sources seemed to agree that you should space rows about 36-40 inches from chair back to chair back, and you should leave about 2-6 inches between each chair to allow for elbow room and personal space. The main reason most speakers opt for a traditional seating arrangement is that there simply aren’t the potentials for distraction between the speaker and any given audience member as there are with other set ups.
2. Maximize Audience Engagement
Another factor to consider is how much time the audience will be listening to a speaker in comparison to how much time they will need to engage with each other in discussion. For situations in which the audience will need to interact with each other, you will want a set up that allows for eye contact and equal input from all audience members. Does the audience need to function as one larger group? If so, a horseshoe-shaped seating arrangement will allow for both a time that is presenter-focused, as well as the ability to interact with each other when needed. A recent study proved something we’ve known intrinsically for a long time: that non-verbal communication can be “an important source of motivation and concentration.” This means the seating arrangement should allow for eye contact and nonverbal interactions between audience members. Does the audience need to work in smaller groups? If so, consider using small, round tables in which the chairs can either be oriented toward the speaker or towards the group members.
3. Meet the Needs of the Audience
Also keep in mind the needs of your audience. If they aren’t comfortable, they will likely be distracted. If your audience members will have food or drinks, you’ll need to make sure they have tables on which to set these items. In addition, if they will be taking notes on laptops or manually, a flat surface will make that task easier. But keep in mind the arrangement here as well. A long conference table might place many laptops between some audience members and the speaker. It will be hard for the presenter to keep the focus of the audience if she has to compete with a row of visible screens. If your audience will need tables, pick the shape of the tables carefully. In a study of shapes in the workplace, Professor of Architecture and Design, Radhika Pathak says we should consider the emotional nature of shapes when designing presentation spaces. For example, “Circles are warm, comforting and give the feeling of togetherness and belongingness . . . Because of its geometry, it attracts attention, provides emphasis and improves concentration.” Whereas squares and rectangles, “suggest honesty and stability. They represent discipline, order, rationality and formality.” So just the shape of the table you select can play a part in the mood you want to create for your presentation.
Of course, sometimes just making room for everyone is going to be most important. In that case, you might have to forgo a more optimal arrangement to provide enough seats and space to accommodate everyone. You can find a complete list of seating arrangements to consider, along with their pros and cons here. Just remember that when you can, you should control the spatial communication in rooms where you’ll be presenting. It’s just another way to make each presentation the best it can be.
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