We are all school-kids at heart. Yes, we are a little older, some of us a little greyer (or balder) and we might have real jobs, family commitments and maybe rent or a mortgage to pay. But when it comes to entering a conference room, most people instantly become school-children again.
By which I mean we sit up the back of the room, in the back rows, leaving the front rows empty. We do this for the same reasons as when we were at school. It is easier to hide and be inconspicuous. We can slip in and out of the conference room easily. We can check our mobiles without anyone noticing. The presenter prone to interactive activities or question asking or……yikes….bringing an audience member up on stage, simply isn’t going to pick on the naughty kids up the back.
Bottom line, it allows us a bit of breathing space, away from the lime-light (or at least the stage lights). Those people in the front row are so vulnerable right? What if the presenter asks them a question they can’t answer? What if the conference has a magician? He’ll definitely choose some poor guy in the front few rows to come up on stage to saw in half or humiliate in some way, right? So I’ll avoid all of that and sit up the back in safety, unlike those front-line fodder at the front of the battle.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing you. If I weren’t the guy up on stage speaking or MC’ing the conference, I’d be up the back with you, sending a few surreptitious emails. So I get it. I too don’t want to appear to be the teachers pet or look too interested………yep, it’s just like school eh?
Now I know there’s a few people reading this who are thinking “Oh, not me, I always head up the front because my eyes / ears aren’t what they used to be” or “I want to help the speaker out because I know what it feels like”. Now that is great, well done you – but you are in the minority. Its up the back of the bus for most of us.
But here’s the thing. As a speaker, it sucks when no one is sitting up the front, or just as bad, when there’s only 250 people in a room set for 500, meaning the delegates are sitting in small clumps of 1’s and 2’s, with copious empty seats and rows. It is damn hard speaking over the top of several empty rows and near impossible to make eye contact or get some visual cues from your audience. Getting people to chat with each other? Forget about it.
This simply makes it extra hard for the speaker to engage the room, to get people to laugh or confer with each other and well, the atmosphere in the room just isn’t the same as a room where everyone is close to the front, packed in tight, with people on either side of them, creating energy, engagement, conversation and ‘buzz’. We ALL benefit from that kind of room right?
But as a presenter, I feel I never want to ask people to move forward at the start of my presentation because it can come across as a “downer”, a bit like the School Principal castigating the naughty kids up the back, and perhaps humiliating them as they reluctantly slink forward as everyone else looks their way (and even if they do move forward, it is likely to only be 2-3 rows closer to he front, but still not in the front few rows, God forbid!!!)
Simple solution. Apart from setting up roped barriers like at a concert, conference organisers or conference committee members or staff should stand at the back of the room like security guards (smiling though, we don’t want to this to become too hard-line) and gently and in good humour request and usher people towards the front. Offer fun incentives for people to fill the front rows (chocolates on their seats?) or offer your arm to escort them to the front. Urge them forward from the moment they enter the room, not once they have found their comfort seat up the back…..getting them to move later is like evicting a squatter.
Some delegates will smile politely and refuse to move forwards, not for love, money or chocolates, but I am always surprised at how compliant delegates are if they are asked (even firmly but politely) by a smiling conference team member (but more often than not, they aren’t asked).
So for the sake of a better conference, let’s get on the front foot, front up and head to the front.
Andrew Klein is a conference MC and Pitching / Presentation Skills speaker, who loves his audiences to sit up the front, but is often a hypocrite, and can be found up the back of the conference room. Ask him nicely though and he will head up front.