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Seating Layout


Techniques Public speaking > At The Venue > Seating Layout

School hall | Classroom | Cafeteria | Rectangular | U-shape | Round table | Ellipse | Open circle | Rock concert | Ad hoc | See also


The layout of seating in a room where you are presenting can have significant effects on the people, the comfort they feel and attention they pay to you.

School hall

The standard layout for presentations to many people is in the format of the school hall, where rows of seats all face the front. The same layout is used in theaters, lecture halls, movies and other environments where the general goal is to pack as many people as possible into a limited space and focus their attention in one direction.

This is often the best layout when you have many people, but it does have limitations. The closeness makes getting to a seat difficult, forcing people to tread on others' toes and invade their body space. It also constrains interaction between people, which can be good or bad, depending on your purpose.

Variants on the School Hall include raking the seats for better view and curving the audience, surrounding the performer and allowing more people to be closer in, as in the Roman Coliseum on which all modern stadia are based.


A common variant on the School Hall is the Classroom, where the rows of chairs each have tables in front of them. This takes up more space but allows people to rest books and drinks in front of them, allowing them to read and write as needed. A question for this is how many desks are adjacent, with what aisles between them.

The Classroom gives delegates a social barrier between them and people in front of and behind them. People close behind can be particularly discomforting, as primitive responses cause us to fear unseen attacks.


In the cafeteria style, tables (often round) are scattered around the hall, with chairs around them as in a café or restaurant. If people are going to be mostly facing the front, do not put chairs that face backwards. Thus most tables will have about 270' used for chairs.

The Cafeteria style forms groups of people who will naturally interact. You can allocate specific people to put friends together. You can break up social groups (and form new ones) by getting people to sit with people they do not know. Or you can just let them sort themselves out. Each has its pros and cons and depends on what you seek to do with your audience.

This layout gives an informal style in which people can feel comfortable. Do not spoil this by cramming in too many tables or too many chairs per table. If you have too many people, you may have to revert to a Classroom.

Rectangular table

Many rooms are rectangular and a rectangular table fits well into this space. The table may be solid all the way across or may be a set of smaller tables placed end-to-end (this is more common in larger rooms).

The shape of the rectangle can be significant, as rectangles which are long and narrow lead to people being unable to see one another on the same side. It also can create an us-and-them situation where people are facing each other across the table.

Long tables can also be awkward for delegates who are often looking at you sideways. If they need to write, people on the left hand side (looking from the front of the room) who are right-handed may have to stretch to write things down.

Rectangles also have power positions. People at the narrower ends can see others better, and such places are assumed to have more authority vested in them. Middles of sides also are more powerful, as the person here can look equally left and right to see everyone.


A minor variant on the Rectangle is the U-shaped layout. This takes a rectangle and chops off one end, preventing people from sitting with their backs to you.

If you are using a U-shape, but have a table at the front, you still have many of the disadvantages of the rectangle. You can obviate this by ensuring you can walk into the middle of the U, so you can go and talk individually to people or small groups. This can become a far more interactive and dynamic environment.

Round table

The Round Table, as so nobly noticed by King Arthur, is a very equal structure. No one person has a power position, as in the Rectangle. This sense of equality can be very empowering as it negates power jostling.

The Round Table also allows everyone to see pretty much everyone else.


The ellipse is like a 'squashed circle'. It has the power elements of rectangles at ends and middle-sides, but it does address the problem of rows of people not being able to see one another, which is important for conversation.

A big advantage of the ellipse is that it fits better into a rectangular room than a circle, which can make it a useful compromise.

Open circle

The Open Circle is just that -- an open circle of chairs without any table. This can be very disconcerting, as we use tables as protective barriers to psychologically 'defend' ourselves from others. Tables also hide our lower body, where we often displace our anxious body language whilst we hold our upper bodies firmly to order (watch out for those tightly crossed legs!).

This structure is widely used in therapeutic groups, where the goal is to open people up and help them share their inner feelings.

Rock concert

Even better than the School Hall for packing people in is the Rock Concert, where there are no tables or chairs and people either stand or sit on the floor. This gives a dynamic environment where people can move about and where they are forced to stand very much in one another's body space. This is not necessarily a bad thing and can lead to crowd effects, where the audience become emotionally connected and can be moved as one. Political meetings sometimes use this principle.

Ad hoc

Finally, you can hold meetings anywhere. Informal setting can include the park, a local coffee-shop, the end of an office with people perched on various tables and so on. Ad hoc meetings are often temporary or otherwise short-term. They have a sense of reality as their settings are in non-isolated places. They may be 'gather round, folks!' meetings or grabbing a bunch of people and 'let's find a space'.

See also

Workplace design


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