When you speak in public, you’re most often in charge of how you manage your space to get the maximum effect. A crucial aspect of connecting with your audience is designing the way they experience your words – including the physical environment that you set up for them. Let’s investigate…
In parts one and two of our Empathy series, we discussed why empathy is important and how to choose your topic to fit with your audience. In this post we’re going to take a look at location, location, location; the environment in which you speak and how it impacts your audience.
Room Layout in Public Speaking
The power of a room layout can be easily seen when you compare different venues. For example the British House of Commons has two audiences “facing each other”, which promotes participation from everyone in the audience. Whereas a theatre, such as Shakespeare’s Globe, focuses everyone’s attention on the speaker onstage and encourages the audience to listen. There are four common layouts usually used in public speaking environments:
Theatre Style Layout
Accommodates 50 to 500+ people.
This layout is good for: packing in the maximum audience size for the and keeping the attention on only YOU as the speaker.
This layout is not so good for: Promoting interaction in the room as the dynamic is for you to speak and us to listen. However, you can promote interaction by asking ‘hands up if you…’ type questions of the audience.
Also think about: What goes behind you, the speaker, to reinforce your message. Look for colours and images that support your message. Think of your stage as a set that can visually represent your message. Avoid anything moving, like an active twitter stream that will distract your audience’s attention away from what you’re saying.
Typically accommodates 50 to 100 people
This layout is good for: Public speaking settings where social interaction is more important than direct focus on the speaker. Typically cabaret layouts are used at Gala dinners and some large room workshops, where group work is needed
This layout is not so good for: Maintaining tight focus on the speaker as audience members have plenty of opportunity to interact with each other, rather than listening to you.
Also think about: What you put on the table to create a connection with your audience. Do you have something with your brand or your approach on it? Do you give them a toy that acts as a metaphor for your message? Do you give them ‘surprise envelopes’ to open up part way through your talk. Cabaret layout works best when you’re creative!
Accommodates 10 to 30 people.
This layout is good for: workshops and small group interaction. It’s my favourite layout for workshops because it provides a large area in which to move about and the audience can all see each other. This format can also work for a bigger audience as long as you have a large room.
This layout is not so good for: Large audiences, or rooms where space is at a premium
Also think about: Interactive exercises that will allow your audience to engage with each other and make use of the space available to you.
Accommodates 2 to 25 people.
This layout is good for: small meetings and workshops where people need to be able to write, particularly when the environment is professional. The boardroom dynamic creates a sense of focus and direction that means that the speakers expertise is put into focus. The audience expect to learn and take down notes.
This layout is not so good for: bringing energy to a topic. Boardrooms are often lacking in fresh air and natural light, so be aware that the energy can be lower in such a room. The table acts as a barrier between speaker and audience, so participation from the audience can sometimes be more challenging or direct.
Also think about: What goes behind you. Typically this format favours PowerPoint, but what if you use a flipchart instead? What if you turn off the projector and make your point with a few simple props?
Time to get creative
Once you understand room layouts, conceptualize how you might be able to utilize the environment to make a more memorable experience for your audience, using empathy to focus on their needs. You are in control of your audience’s environment, so don’t be afraid to switch things up:
- A “Theatre in the Round” setup, curving in the chairs at the front to be more surrounded or completely surrounded by your audience can be exciting and dynamic.
- If you desire a workshop to feel more intimate, close your horseshoe to make a circle around you.
- Instead of just standing in the front for your “Cabaret” style environment, why not move through the tables to provide more connection with you as the speaker.
- Move to the other end of your boardroom to emphasize “thinking differently” to your audience. You’ll be amazed at how simply shifting to another position can be stimulating and feel like “rule breaking”. Your audience will cheer you for it!
Sit in the audience’s shoes
Even if you have someone preparing your speaking engagement, take personal responsibility for audience empathy by looking at the view from their perspective. Start by literally “sitting in their seats” and ask yourself some questions:
- Can I see? Are there distractions? Windows, moving objects, or interesting things behind you might pull the audience away from you.
- What’s the setup? Place props or relevant visual aids on stage for the audience to see upon entering the room. Some speakers use a presentation banner but change it up with unusual items that can relate to your topic.
- Am I comfortable? What’s the temperature like? Too hot? Too cold?
- Are there any other quirks in the room, noises, or environmental factors that I notice?
When you put yourself in the audience’s shoes, you can conceptualize their experience (using empathy) and act accordingly. You’ll be able to relate to and refer to what they are experiencing, rather than to just your own speaking environment. By doing this you are practicing empathy and can create a successful environment that will meet their needs. Your audience will LOVE you for it.