If you go and watch a professional busker, you’ll notice that they spend nearly half their performing energy and time on ‘organising their space’.
They’ll try to make sure that there’s a wall behind them to reduce distractions, and they’ll have a range of methods, jokes and tricks in order to get the audience to build and – crucially – get closer together. Over and over again, you’ll see a busker say things like ‘Come cup to the rope – watch this carefully’. Why? Because the way space is laid out for an audience will have a profound effect on their experience of an event. Broadly speaking, the closer people are to each other, the more energy and laughter there will be. The closer they are to a performer or speaker, the more engagement they will feel.
For buskers, this is largely about ‘the hat’ – the amount of money they collect at the end of the performance. But the psychology applies equally to ‘business events’, because you always want your audience to have an excellent experience.
However, many people who organise venues love a bit of ‘space’ – they’ll stick an aisle down the middle of an audience (which is totally bonkers because that’s exactly where most good speakers will be looking!), they’ll make sure there’s a gap of several feet between the stage and the audience (why? Are they expecting a pit band to turn up?!) and they’ll always, always have too many chairs, meaning that the room fills up from the back, and everyone has to experience that awkward moment where someone with a clipboard runs around in a panic just before a speaker starts shouting aggressively ‘Please sit NEAR THE FRONT’ to people who have no intention of moving anywhere.
In the past, my advice has always been simple – set the space up better. Eliminate ‘middle aisles’, and get people closer together,
However, our old friend Covid has ruined this advice, like it’s ruined so much else. I’ve been experimenting at live events with ways of creating that ‘audience intensity’ while still adhering to the guidelines (and basic common sense) which we need in order to keep live events going.
I’ve found a few things worth experimenting with – where possible, seating people at round or half-round tables, and bringing the tables as close together as possible works well. People are still ‘distant’ from each other, but the lack of a straight line in terms of how they’re seated means that they ‘feel’ closer and – because they can see more people around the room than they would in straight lines – it’s easier for the audience to feel engaged with each other, and this builds energy.
A similar thing is true if you haven’t got tables – arranging chairs so that they’re on a gentle curve allows you to have space between them, but still get a sense that the audience ‘feel’ close to together.
Don’t let people fill up from the back! Take chairs away so that there’s no spare space. If you’ve got 60 people booked in, don’t put out 70 ‘just in case’. Put out 55 and have 10 chairs tucked away at the back of a room if people need them. It’s much more exciting for an audience to see people asking for extra chairs – it really suggests a ‘standing-room-only’ feel to an event.
If you’re in a venue with fixed seating, lecture-theatre style, then rope off the rear rows.
Lastly, people will do what you tell them, as long as you’re clear in your instructions. Appoint one or two people at the start of an event to guide people as they come into the room, and to be politely forceful about filling the seating from the front. If you want to make this work really well, then hold the audience outside with coffee and don’t open the presentation space until most people are there – you’ll find people obey instructions much more when everyone’s trying for a seat at the same time.
The fundamental point here is that, however you organise the space, you don’t want the audience to feel like they’re isolated or distant from either each other or the presenter. Assess the space from the point of view of the audience – what experience do you want them to have? And don’t let venues bully you into doing only what works for them!