What’s the Best Room Arrangement for a Meeting or Talk?

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Room Arrangement

This excerpt is from the book Smart Speaking by Master Speech Coach Laurie Schloff.

Create an engaging and comfortable atmosphere for your meeting.

How tables and chairs are arranged forms an important part of the visual image and atmosphere you create in public speaking. The room arrangement affects how you relate to your group: Are you in a semicircle to show equal status, or are you looking down forebodingly at the audience from behind a lectern on a raised podium? Your chosen setup affects how group members interact with one another as well. 

The arrangement should suit both the group and the goals of the session. 

I remember the time a client ushered me into a room set up for an interpersonal skills workshop designed to teach employees how to handle conflict better. The moment I stepped into the room I knew World War III might begin by lunchtime. My host had set twenty chairs in a circle for people who didn't like one another much to begin with and were now, because of the setup, feeling pressured to communicate. I suggested people rearrange the chairs in a less face-to-face fashion, and the tension lessened.

Tips for Room Arrangements

1. Decide what kind of atmosphere you want to foster:

  • formal versus informal

  • peer relationship to audience versus authoritative relationship to audience

  • maximum group interaction versus minimum group interaction

  • emphasis on information versus emphasis on feelings

2. To the extent that a room offers flexibility (there may be a table too large to move or chairs with desk arms and no tables), choose the arrangement that best suits the atmosphere you want to create.

3. If you have carte blanche beforehand to specify the kind of room you want, and how it's equipped, as well as how it's arranged, here are some additional factors to consider:

  • The size of the room in relation to the expected size of the group. Too big a room can be depressing; a small room can feel confining.

  • The kind of table surface available (tables and chairs are much more comfortable for taking notes than the chair-with-arm type of desk).

  • Whether you need a table or a lectern for notes, props, or your own comfort (this will rule some of the above options in or out). You may or may not be able to specify your preferred arrangement, but always arrive early so you can check that everything is in the best shape possible.

Now go ahead and enjoy your meeting, knowing that your set-up is as ideal as possible!

Room Arrangements

Circle

Advantages:

  • Allows participants to see each other

  • Conducive to expressing ideas and opinions

  • Leader can join circle as an equal

  • Encourages shy people to participate

Disadvantages:

  • Creates a touchy-feely tone if no tables

  • Unwieldy with a very large group

  • Uncomfortable for some people if leader needs to use blackboard, slides, or flip chart

  • Participants sitting next to the leader may feel uncomfortable

Classic Classroom (participants in rows, with you in front)

Advantages:

  • Conducive to imparting information

  • Convenient for use of visual aids

  • Enhances focus on leader's authority

  • People feel comfortable taking notes

Disadvantages:

  • Adults strongly associate setup with school

  • Feels artificial with a small group

  • Discourages spontaneity and interaction

  • People in the back may feel invisible or left out

Squared-off "U" (tables like three sides of a square, with you in front)

Advantages:

  • Allows interaction

  • Squareness sets a more businesslike tone than the circle or semicircle

  • Lots of room for you to move around in the middle of the "U"

  • Convenient for use of visual aids

Disadvantages:

  • Space in the middle can make the whole room feel empty

  • Won't work well with more than about twenty people

Semicircle

Advantages:

  • Multiple rows can accommodate more people than circle or squared-off 'U'

  • Lets leader be both authoritative and open to group participation

Disadvantages:

  • Can feel more crowded than circle or classic classroom

Square (one large table or small ones forming a large one)

Advantages:

  • Better than circle for taking notes

  • Fosters more team spirit than the other options

Disadvantages:

  • Possibly not enough elbow room, particularly for left-handers

  • Can get cluttered with distracting items

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See also:

  • How Do I Warm Up the Audience: Twenty-One Tips
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    How Do I Warm Up the Audience: Twenty-One Tips

  • Audience Engagement and Interaction for Student Speakers
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    6 Audience Engagement and Interaction Tips for Student Speakers

  • Mastering the Art of Persuasion
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    Mastering the Art of Persuasion: Top 10 Practical Techniques for Effective Public Speaking