How to organize the room

One more post about conferences. (Except it’s really about any meeting).

Easily overlooked, but incredibly important: the way you arrange the room where people speak.

The venue owner (hotel/convention center) wants something easy. Your boss wants something cheap. You
want something tried and true so you don’t get blamed. The end result?
Mediocrity. Boring sameness. What a wasted opportunity.

In the scheme of things, a great room at a conference is a bargain.
Spending what it takes to make it work has a huge payoff. That said,
here are some thoughts:

"What does this remind me of?"

That’s the subliminal question that people ask themselves as soon as
they walk into a room. If it reminds us of a high school cafeteria, we
know how to act. If it’s a bunch of round tables set for a chicken
dinner, we know how to act. And if there are row upon row of hotel-type
chairs in straight lines, we know how to sit and act glazed.

If it’s a place where we’re used to saying ‘no’, we’re likely to say
no. If it’s a place where we’re used to good news or important news or
just paying attention, we’ll do that.

You can use this Pavlovian reaction to your advantage, or you can be
a victim of it. A non-traditional arrangement can make people sit up
and take notice. A rock concert feel is going to raise the energy level
of even the skeptics. A circle with no tables makes people feel naked.
These are tools, and you get to choose.

If you have to serve lunch, serve lunch. Big round tables, lots of
talking. Then have people stand up and go hear the speaker. In a
different room, with a different setting, one that works. No one ever
heard a speech that changed their lives when sitting around a round
table having just eaten a lousy lunch. Mixing the settings serves no
purpose, wastes time in the long run and saves very little money.

Do you see that this is just more marketing? You tell a story with where you put the chairs.

If you could do one thing, make one choice, it should be this: make
the room too small. Standing room only. People hanging into the hall.
Watch what happens to your energy level.

If you’re speaking TO people as opposed to encouraging a wide
ranging discourse, put the stage along the narrow wall of the room. (in
a 30 by 80 room, that means the 30 side). Making the room narrow and
long is far better than wide, because it puts the audience in the plane
of the speaker.

This also makes it far easier for the audience to see the speaker
and the slides/screens at the same time. This is critical. I can’t tell
you how many times I’ve watched people stare at the screen and avoid
the speaker, or find themselves bouncing back and forth.

iMag: That’s the projection of the speaker on the screen. This is
pretty expensive, but for groups over 500, it’s almost mandatory in our
1984esque world. If you want to get far more bang for your buck, hire a
second cameraman, with a hand held camera. When you switch from one
view to the other, you add enormous action to the event.

Screens: Big screens are a lot more reasonable than they used to be.
Get the absolute biggest and brightest you can afford. Bigger! Big
screens, near the speaker. Really close to the speaker. That’s a big
help for the audience and for your energy.

VGA cables: Have more than one. Switchers are cheap. Nothing worse
than having speakers stumbling around swapping laptops. And put the
cables and the laptops up front, not in back to be controlled by a tech
guy who doesn’t care quite as much as you (or the speaker) does.

Music: Every time you introduce a speaker, play loud and inspiring
pop music. Not for long, but enough to cue people to remember the way
they feel at the Oscars and stuff. After all, those memes are there
waiting for you to leverage them.

Marching bands: Yes, they’re cheap. No, people don’t like them
particularly. I’ve seen this done a number of times, and people are
more amazed and aghast than impressed.

Aisles: Watch a room fill up. People always sit on the aisle, don’t
they? Don’t do rows of 40 or 50 chairs with no aisle. Have lots of
aisles. Every ten chairs or so. Why not? Makes it faster to get in and
to get out, and doesn’t hurt your density so much.

Lights: Make it dark in the audience. Make it light on stage. This
works every time. Practice the lighting in advance, even for a smaller
group.

Q&A: For large groups, don’t do Q&A. It sucks all the energy
out of the room and stilts the end, "Well, if there are no more
questions…" Instead, solicit questions from key people in advance,
write them on index cards and have someone raring and ready to go with
a microphone and a finite list of questions, bang, bang, bang. It’s not
a press conference, it’s a speech.

Small groups: Even groups of two–don’t go along with a lousy
setting just because that’s what is offered to you. Why would you pitch
yourself or your project in a noisy restaurant, seated on a banquette,
with one person on your left and two on your right? Don’t do it.

If you are using a laptop for a small group, get one with a big screen. Get a simple USB remote. Don’t use live web access if at all possible. And make sure that the right person sees the screen (and you) at the same time. If you can’t do these things, don’t use the laptop.

If you’re willing to travel to meet with someone, put in the extra
effort to do it in a setting that works. Befriend the admin, befriend
the maitre d, even from 1,000 miles away. Both you and the person you’re meeting with benefit when you
create a room that works.