Sheila B Robinson

Reflections of an everyday educator/program evaluator/professional developer…LEARNER

Presentation Principles: Right-sizing the Room to Maximize Audience Engagement


Presentation Principle:

The right setting can impact how your audience experiences a presentation.

It’s the Goldilocks conundrum: You’re scheduled for a conference presentation (i.e. a non-ticketed event were people do not pre-register) and you get to the room, only to discover that it is either too small or too big for your anticipated audience size… definitely not just right

I recently presented with a colleague at a multi-day conference with hundreds of concurrent sessions where they assigned our session to a room that seats about 100 people. Our topic was a popular one, and the time slot was a preferred one for that conference (i.e. not during a time that people would naturally take a break and choose not attend a session). Needless to say, the room filled up and people just kept coming in long after all chairs were taken.

At another conference, one of my presentations was assigned to a gigantic ballroom that seated over 1000 people! My co-presenters and I expected that our session, given the topic and time slot, would more likely draw an audience of perhaps 20- 50 people.

What do you do when the room isn’t the right size for your presentation?

First course of action: If time permits, ask to be reassigned to a different size room. Unfortunately, this is often impossible for the conference organizers to do, but hey, it never hurts to ask, right? If that doesn’t work, try some of these strategies:

If the room is too small:

1.) When the room starts looking full enough that people are scanning for a seat before they even get too far in, ask those seated to raise their hands to signal an empty seat next to them.

2.) Often the hosts will put one or two chairs by your presenter table. If you won’t be using these, offer them to audience members. If your conference organizers or hosts are nearby of course, you can ask for extra chairs, but often, this option won’t be available.

3.) When all seats are taken, invite people to sit on the floor in the front of the room. Whaaaaaat? Adults sitting on the floor? Yes! You may be surprised, but many people will choose this as an alternative to being locked out an enticing presentation.

4.) If the inevitable happens, and people are locked out, here’s a way to acknowledge their attempt to make it in, and give them a little something for their trouble. Put a sign on the outside door with something to the effect of, “If this room is full and you can’t get in, here’s the URL where you can download presentation materials.”*

If the room is too big:

1.) If you get to the room early enough, tape off or otherwise block off the seats near the back or on one side of the room. This is one of the many reasons you may want to carry a roll of painter’s tape (which generally won’t damage surfaces) with you to presentations.

2.) Greet people as they enter and ask them to choose seats in a particular section or near the front.

3.) Quickly create a PowerPoint slide that asks people to sit near the front and have this on the screen prior to starting.

4.) If people do end up scattering and spread out in a large room, be sure to walk around during your presentation using proximity to engage them. You can also offer them the opportunity to move closer during a break.

Any other ideas to share on right-sizing your presentation space? Please add them in the comments!

*Thanks to Chris Lysy for this strategy he used at a recent conference.


Author: Sheila B Robinson, Ed. D

Voracious learner, career educator... Evaluation, Professional Development, Special Education.

6 thoughts on “Presentation Principles: Right-sizing the Room to Maximize Audience Engagement

  1. I really like this post!! I hope one day I have a talk with too many people and not enough space. Haha. But right now as a PhD candidate I worry about the room-too-big issue. Great tips!!!

  2. Thanks Sheila – this is a very practical set of tips. (My heart goes out to conference organisers, too, for their tricky task of assigning rooms!)

    The tip about carrying a roll of painters’ tape is a good one, as is Chris’s about putting a “consolation sign” on the door.

    I’d not thought of showing a slide that asks people to sit near the front in a large room, but that’s a great idea.

    Quickly making that slide might make my nerves worse though. So instead, you could make it with a cool head when you make your whole deck, and just hide it.

    Here’s how to do that, and then show it if needed:

    • Good idea to make the slide ahead and hide it. If you don’t have that done and don’t want to make one on the PowerPoint, an alternative is to make a quick sign on chart paper, if that happens to be in the room. Thanks Craig!

  3. Pingback: Presentation Principles: Two simple strategies for audience engagement and all YOU have to do is ask questions! | Evaluspheric Perceptions

  4. Pingback: Presentation Principles: Two simple strategies for audience engagement and all YOU have to do is ask questions! - Sheila B Robinson

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