You walk into the room and see a traditional seating set-up for your panel discussion: White draped table at the front on a podium, theater-style with two columns of chairs, with a path down the middle. The overhead screen is at the front in the middle of the room. Looks pretty good, right?
While typical for many meeting venues, and perhaps most comfortable for you, the presenter, meeting planner, or hotelier, it is NOT the best seating arrangement for an audience-centered discussion.
So what’s wrong with straight rows?
1. Focus. The seats directly in front of the podium are the only decent seats in the house. Everyone else has to adjust the view to get a direct line of sight to the moderator and panelists. And yet we give up this prime real estate to a multimedia projector table or vacant space for a center aisle. Whenever possible, place the chairs in front:
2. Energy Drain. Any feng-shui expert will tell you that the energy flows out of the room through a center aisle. Wherever possible, keep the straight row center section right in front of you, with an aisle in between each outer seating section.
3. Safety. You may want to have some ability for people to get in and out of their seats, so you can modify the seating with some extra aisles starting a third of the way from the stage. This way, the energy won’t flow out of the room!
4. Blocked View. Unless you are sitting in the front row, there will always be somebody taller or wider in the seat in front of you. If you are lucky, you will have a semi-obstructed view of the podium. Worst case, you have to lean one way or the other just to get a clear view. Wherever possible, stagger the chairs so they aren’t lined up like soldiers behind each other.
5. Pain. Unless you are sitting right in front of the podium, chances are you must turn your neck slightly to see the moderator and panelists. If you are on the far reaches, then you are probably putting more weight on one butt cheek than the other and are constantly readjusting your seat! Do this for an extended period of time, and it starts to hurt! Wherever possible, angle the chairs toward the podium.
6. Disconnect. If you want to connect with the audience, the best way is to enable the audience to connect with each other. They simply can’t connect with each other if they can’t see each other. Straight rows allow each person in the row to see only one person on either side (and the back of somebody’s head – but that doesn’t help connection!) Wherever possible, curve the seating around the podium, so the audience can see each other.
Finally, if you can, ask for the overhead screen to be placed on the left, looking at the front of the room (otherwise known as upstage right!). Since we read from left to right, make it easier for the audience to “read” what you are saying by placing the screen to the left of the stage (downstage right in theater terms). Place the screen at the same depth as you will be standing and close enough to your center position so that your audience’s eyes won’t have to travel a great distance from you to the screen. Furthermore, should the moderator or panelists have to point to something on the screen, they can use their right hand without turning their backs to the participants!
Depending on the venue’s capability, you can transform a ho-hum, boring traditional theater-style room set into an audience-centered seating arrangement. Being able to view the panel discussion in comfort, as well as to see each other enhances the dynamics of the session. In the best of all possible worlds, orient the seats toward the front so they can comfortably connect with the moderator, panelists and with each other.
For more resources on how to make panels better, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.
Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.