Public Speaking: Seating

January 19th, 2009 by Frank Damelio

dreamstime_5881728[1]Does this make any sense?  The closer together your audience is seated, the more likely they will give you robust applause.   It’s a fact – proven countless times to professional speakers and entertainers.

Since this is not a science, nobody is certain as to the cause of this phenomenon.  The prevailing theory is that proximity is directly related to any contagious activity.  If one person claps, someone right next to her is likely to naturally do the same.  Put a few seats between them, and one person applauding may remain clapping alone.

Another theory is that your audience is more attentive to your presentation when they are closer together.  This may be because a tighter audience enables you to focus your eye contact and voice projection to a denser population, while a spread-out audience dilutes your focus and impact.

I learned this performing magic.  I would do a set at a walk-around function and get enthusiastic applause SOMETIMES, while other times people would simply say “cool, you’re good!”  Once I figured a common denominator was proximity, I tested my theory.  Bring them in close and 95% of the time I’d get applause, but once  audience members were separated by more than a few feet from one another, the applause rate dropped to about 10%. I shared this with other professional entertainers who concluded the same.

Application:  When you give a presentation it KILLS your effectiveness when people are “peppered lightly” around the room.  Make sure you put seats close together (avoid cramming like sardines). 

Put out less than half the seats you think you will need.  Wait until they fill, then provide more seats. You are forcing them to sit close to one another, and they will unknowingly benefit from a better received presentation.  An additional benefit is perception – it appears that your attendance level is higher than you expected.

What to do if you the seats are fixed in position or pre- set for you?  Use a hand out, and place one on each of the first 20 seats (if you are expecting 50 attendees).  When people walk in, invite them to grab a seat with a handout.

After many years of professional public speaking, I say with confidence that proper audience seating tremendously enhances your success as a speaker.

I invite anyone who is doing multiple presentations to similar audiences to test this fact for themselves. We’d love to hear about your experiences.

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4 Responses to “Public Speaking: Seating”

  1. Nick Allain Says:

    I wish we had the opportunity to use these tips at our movie premiere. Unfortunately, seating turned out to be a nightmare. The movie before ours ran 15 minutes into our allotted time block and many people had arrived 30 minutes early. The complicate the seating situation, every third seat was actually a table and both seats/tables were bolted to the floor. The size of the theater and what you’ve said about keeping folks as close as possible was actually the reason we made such a large push to get people into the show.

    The next time we set up a show like that, I think we’ll rent a more typical theater but I’m still curious if there was anything we could have done given the circumstances.

    – Nick

  2. Frank Damelio Says:


    If I recall correctly, you had the place pretty packed. (Your movie was great!) With respect to seating, you didn’t have much flexibility. The only option I could see would be to have ushers seat people.

    Good luck and call if you ever need advice.

  3. Target Intellect Blog » Public Speaking Getting Applause Says:

    […] presentations you do where applause is desirable and appropriate. We’ve already discussed optimal audience seating that will facilitate audience reaction and applause. In this entry you will discover the nuances […]

  4. Target Intellect Blog » Public Speaking: Layout and Floor Plan Says:

    […] first is seating.  While technically this was not a “seating” issue because much of the audience was […]

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