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 1984-esque 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.