Event Planning Checklist (Pt 1): Room Set-Up Tips from Top Speakers
YOUR EVENT PLANNING CHECKLIST:
DOES YOUR ROOM SET-UP HELP SPEAKERS SUCCEED?
The purpose of this series is to provide valuable tips for your event planner checklist. When it comes to booking event speakers, almost nothing is as important to making the investment pay off as the nature of the venue and how it’s configured.
Any event planner checklist should include a few key elements relating to the room and how well it enhances or interferes with the presentations of the speakers you’ve hired.
Most veteran speakers are road warriors who have spoken in virtually every kind of venue over their careers. More than anyone, they know what environment will help them best engage the audience to assure a successful outcome. One thing I know for certain when booking event speakers; the goal of the speaker and the event planner is the same – to make certain the audience has the best possible experience. Whether you book motivational speakers, experts from academia, or former world leaders, incorporating these insights into your event planner checklist is a wise move.
As with so many things in life, success with booking event speakers begins with tending to the fundamentals; in this case, we’re talking about the venue. Event spaces come in so many varieties: indoor, outdoor, large and small, good and bad acoustics, odd dimensions, etc. More often than not, the room you’re working with will be less than perfect. This little essay is intended to be a fun way to help you add to your event planner checklist.
I asked a group of top speakers to tell you – in their own words – about some of the situations they’ve encountered while on the road – as well as some of their best advice on how to stay out of the soup. What they have to offer might make you laugh and might make you cringe but it should help you create the optimal setting for your speakers to deliver effective presentations. Hopefully these comments will spur an idea or two for your event planner checklist. By understanding what’s on the minds of the experts who have spoken at hundreds of events, you’ll be able to create an environment where they have the best possible chance of really engaging your audience.
CONTRIBUTORS (l-r): Gary Bradt, Bill Herz, Erik Wahl, Susan Cain, Geoff Colvin, Tony D'Amelio, Tom Morris, Ben Stein
THE SPEAKERS WEIGH IN
DISASTER AT SEA
“Probably the worst was a talk I gave on one of those dinner cruise ships. This was a fairly small group, maybe 30 or 40, and the ship's dining room was barely big enough to hold them. When I checked it out before the cruise departed, the air conditioning was so loud that I knew I couldn't be heard -- there was no sound system -- so I asked that they shut off the AC when I started my talk. When the time actually came, however, the ship was underway and the engines were MUCH louder than the air conditioning. When the staff obediently shut off the AC at the beginning of my talk, it didn't make a bit of difference to the noise level, but it did cause the crowded dining room to become very hot. I tried to yell my remarks over the sound of the engines, but I doubt if more than half the audience could hear anything. Perhaps the one saving grace was that by that time pretty much everybody, except me, was drunk.”
– Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine, Author, Talent is Overrated
ODD-SIZE ROOMS NEED EXTRA SOUND REINFORCEMENT TO COMPENSATE
“One time I was invited to speak and receive an award from a university during a reunion. The room was laid out in the shape of a long skinny rectangle, and the acoustics were terrible — so the only people who could hear me were the people at the top of the rectangle. The rest, I imagine, carried on happily reuniting with their former classmates — what else could they have done?”
– Susan Cain, Author, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Rethinking the After-Dinner Speaker
FEAR THE BIG ROOM HALF-FULL
“1,000 people can generate great energy, unless they're spread out in an NFL football stadium or an arena. I had that experience once. The stage was on the 50-yard line - mid-field and a LONG way from the audience. A great sound system was in place but it was a strange vibe overall in an otherwise empty stadium.
“If you want to meet somewhere like that, fine; give people a tour but then cluster them in a place that can sort of make sense, like behind where the team would sit during the game, and have the speaker up close, not far away and high in the sky. Whenever the room is much bigger than the size of the crowd, rope off the seating area and have the ushers send people forward. It enhances the crowd energy tremendously and makes for a much more successful audience experience.”
–Tom Morris, Noted Philosopher and author, If Aristotle Ran General Motors
PLAYING WITH THE BAND
“There are so many stories I could tell you, but the one that stands out is an event in Florida where the client had scheduled me to speak at one end of the room and an electric jazz band at the other end of the room . . . at the very same time! I had to shout to barely be heard . . . it was awful. Eventually, I marched down to the other end of the room and gave each member of the band $100 to stop playing for 45 minutes . . . the client was a BIG bank and to give them their due, they were so grateful to me they have booked me repeatedly since.”
– Ben Stein, Writer, Actor, and Commentator on Political & Economic Issues
SKIP THE DISCO MIRROR BALLS
“I once spoke on the dance floor of a NYC disco with the ball over me spinning and flashing. Not my idea. You could tell the audience found it very distracting. I didn't have my white three piece suit available. People had been drinking heavily and were crowded on the floor around me -- shorter ones straining to see, and hanging over a balcony above me. Not ideal.”
– Tom Morris, Noted Philosopher and Author, If Aristotle Ran General Motors
I LOVE THE GREAT OUTDOORS, BUT . . .
“Unless absolutely unavoidable, don't have your speaker outside. It's a no-win situation as you’re fighting a million other elements that are fighting for your guests’ attention. The sound, visuals, etc. can never be very good in that setting. Recently I spoke at a dinner which was outside, at a pool, next to the ocean. I was fighting the sound of the waves, the wind, planes flying overhead, etc. To top it off, the planner put the stage on one side of the pool and the tables on the other. The audience totally missed out on the fun they could have had.”
– Bill Herz, Magician & Comedian
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EVENT PLANNER CHECKLIST PRIORITY: ELIMINATE “THE GULF”
“Ask comedians, entertainers, and motivational speakers about the biggest challenge to connecting with an audience and they’ll tell you it’s “the gulf” – the distance from the front of the stage to the first row of seats. The greater the distance, the harder it is to connect, and the lower the energy. It’s no different with speakers. Many of the stories here make that point. Whenever feasible, have your audience seated as close to the action as possible. The energy will start up front and ripple through the room. It can literally change the outcome of the presentations and should be a critical goal on any event planner checklist.”
– Tony D’Amelio, Principal, D’Amelio Network
AUDIENCE SEATING MATTERS
“I could walk you through a dozen amusing stories about microphones going out, backstage banter, or air conditioning challenges. However, there is one element that is often overlooked that can have the single greatest impact on the overall effectiveness every presentation during a corporate conference.
“I have performed thousands of shows in every style of audience configuration imaginable theatre, rounds, classroom, bean bags, couches . . . but l have also found (and any musician, comedian or speaker will tell you) that seating layout is essential to unifying a crowd and creating an epic audience experience.
“Here’s the catch . . . there’s always a catch: meeting rooms are often designed to multi-task: 1) feed attendees and 2) feature the event’s speakers. When the room is set in rounds, 70% of the room is filled with large cumbersome wood circles breaking apart the audience experience. It separates the dynamics of how connected the audience is to the presenter. Even if the audience is seated in half rounds, so that no one’s back is turned to the stage, there is still a natural cavern of dead air that is created from spacing attendees so far apart. Whether it is a paid outside speaker, company president or industry executive – the organic connection to the audience is higher when the audience is connected shoulder to shoulder. It just is. This small (big!) adjustment can create the single greatest positive impact on the effectiveness of every speaker on the program.
“When an audience is seated theatre style with very few open seats the show naturally elevates to higher levels of audience connectivity, interaction and participation. We have worked extensively with Cirque Du Soleil on enhancing visual elements of our show - from positioning of screens, to use of i-mag, to sound, to lighting . . . but no one thing has more impact on the effectiveness of the performance than the configuration of the audience. It feels more like attending a live theatrical performance. Victories are more exhilarating, stories or more engaging, jokes are funnier, energy is exchanged that tugs at the very thread of our being when we are connected. That same energy fades if the audience is disconnected.”
– Erik Wahl, Artist and Author, UnThink
IF THE SETTING IS UNUSUAL, MAKE SURE THE SPEAKER KNOWS IN ADVANCE
“I once gave a talk on an airplane to 11 company presidents. It was important to know that venue ahead of time so we could have a white board and flip charts when PowerPoint wasn't available.”
– Tom Morris, Noted Philosopher and Author, If Aristotle Ran General Motors
MARBLE FLOORS ARE NICE, BUT . . .
“I spoke recently in a spectacular venue - the first floor of the Natural Science Museum in Chicago. It really was quite beautiful: part of the beauty was the marble floors and an open, vaulted ceiling with wide open spaces. All of this combined for horrible acoustics. The sound reverberated and then dissipated. I doubt more than half the audience could clearly and easily hear my remarks - very frustrating for them, and for me.”
– Gary Bradt, Author, The Ring in the Rubble
CLOSER IS BETTER
"Make the room as intimate as possible. The closer the chairs or tables are to the stage, the better. The audience can never be too close. I can't count the number of times the first row is 25 feet back. It's almost impossible to form a bond with a group when there is a moat between the speaker and the audience. Even if the majority of the group is watching it on screens, it's best to have the front as close to the stage as possible.
The next one is a little tricky, but always try and be accurate with the number of seats in the ballroom. As I write this, I am sitting in a ballroom set for 1100. There are probably 700 people -- the room looks half empty, especially since everyone tend to sit towards the back."
-- Bill Herz, Magician and Comedian
SPEAKING IN A TENT IN THE DEAD OF SUMMER - IS IT HOT ENOUGH FOR YOU?
“Recently I arranged a speaker for an event in Houston. It was a September afternoon and the sponsor was trying to decide whether to gather 500 people inside a tent on the company’s property – or go indoors. Afternoon temperatures were expected to be 100 degrees – but inside the tent temperature would rise to 120. Knowing that, I felt certain the choice would be to go indoors. But no – the speaker, one of the great motivational speakers in the industry, called me after the talk to say he had never been hotter or perspired so heavily. The audience was uncomfortable beyond belief but they were kind and attentive to the speaker. Still – they would have gotten so much more out of the talk is they weren’t so hot.”
–Tony D’Amelio, Principal, D’Amelio Network
CAN YOU SEE OK?
“I have spoken in some very attractive restaurants. But in restaurants, the sight lines are often bad. I find myself looking around support beams to make eye contact with my audience, or literally walking around corners to see some others, while turning my back on the rest. In the worst case, I was literally ducking waiter's trays as they served coffee and dessert.”
– Gary Bradt, Author, The Ring in the Rubble
I hope you find this article (and series) a useful reference and worthy of including as part of your event planner checklist. If you have a story, a tip, or a comment you’d like to add, please be sure to contribute to the conversation.
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About Tony D'Amelio
Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Vernice "FlyGirl" Armour, Geoff Colvin, Daryl Davis, Ron Insana, Katty Kay, Beau Lotto, Nicole Malachowski, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.