The Room that Eats Speakers

April 21, 2008 at 10:00 am 8 comments

Here’s a Catch-22 that affects all of us, we learn best from failure, but the last thing we want to discuss are our failures. In the spirit of sharing, I’m going to discuss some personal professional ‘failures’.

Some background, not as any sort of self promotion, but in an effort to position the context of this article. I’m a keynote speaker. I’ve spoken for more than a quarter of a century and have a reputation sufficient to take me to 37 countries and have me invited to speak at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In short, I know what I’m doing, I do it well, I’m a bona fide professional.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t failed to deliver from time to time. Not often. Three times to be exact, in more than 25 years.

The first time it happened I wrote it off as ‘the fault of the audience’ … what can I say? It was early in my career and didn’t realize that it’s never the fault of the audience.

The second time? It was a presentation I was giving for the first time… I wrote that failure off to not having the timing down, and suspected that the flow of my talk wasn’t perfect. Better than my first excuse, but as we shall see, not the real reason.

The third time? I knew it wasn’t the audience. I’d grown out of blaming others for the quality of my work. Nor was it a new talk, it was one I’d given hundreds of times, and I’d presented it as I always had, but despite my knowledge of the topic, my passion and delivery – the presentation fell flat, and I died on stage for the third time. If it wasn’t the audience, and if it wasn’t ‘me’ – then why did I fail? As a speaker – that’s an important question. The answer is an important one for any meeting planner.

Each time I failed, I had the same sense of never once connecting with the audience. With that as the only thing in common that I could easily remember – I sat down, took pen and paper and wrote down everything I could reconstruct from my memory about those painful experiences. The result is this little bit of sharing.

Cavernous rooms – Exhibit halls are not the best rooms to speak in. The 50ft ceilings swallow all but the best sound systems. They place a great distance between the speaker and the listeners.

Elevated podiums – When the podium is 3ft or more off the ground? Then you’re guaranteed to be far away from the audience, not only with respect to distance, but psychologically as well. Here’s a made up formulae to consider, the difficulty of creating rapport with your audience, increases as the square of the distance between you and the listener. I’ve nothing but my experiential data to back that up.

Open space in front of podium – A tall podium usually causes the first row of seats to be 20-30 ft from the podium… They have to be that far back or they’ll get a crick in their neck looking up to you! This adds more space between the speaker and the audience. At one of my failures, there was literally enough space for a pipe band between myself and the audience. I remember them well as they marched out and I marched up to my guillotine.

A wide centre aisle – if the room is large, the temptation is for a wide central aisle – meaning that if the speaker stands in the centre of the podium, then he/she is speaking to blank space all the way to the back of the room!

Wide rooms vs. deep rooms – some rooms are wider than they’re deep. This means that listeners to the left and right of the speaker are further away than those all the way at the back of the room. For a speaker to make eye contact with those on the left, requires that we turn our back to those to the right. AND if we’re wearing a lavalier microphone? Then you MUST turn your shoulders in the direction you’re speaking OR the mic won’t pick up your voice.

Rounds vs. Rows – If a room is filled with round tables rather than rows of seats, then 300 people or more are scattered over a few acres… being spoken to by a tiny speaker far away in the distance? Eye contact? You’re lucky if you can see the speaker… sooo… the meeting planner solves the ‘problem’ by…

Cameras and large screens – and in doing so they deliver the final death blow to the valiant speaker. In order that the audience can see the speaker, they’ll bring on the camera… which requires lighting… which ensures the speaker will never even see the auidience through the glare of the lights.

Now, I’m well aware that large audiences forces some of the above onto the meeting, but when they ALL converge at a single meeting then the risk of failure is high. As I thought back to each of my three failures? All of the above were in play, I was doomed from the start.

As I’ve grown older, and spoken more, I’ve grown wiser. This week I was presented with the room that eats speakers. But! I now recognized the beast. I was able to make some changes – both in the room layout (minor changes) and in my presentation (more minor changes)… I’m told the meeting was a roaring success. I’d beaten the monster. It didn’t eat me this time.

The key? Know that certain rooms pose more of a challenge. If possible? Change the room, if not? Then be aware of the room, know the threats, embrace them and respond to them. (But change something in the room… the room layout is not fixed in stone.)


Entry filed under: Communicating, Customer Service, Leadership, People Sklls, Presentations, Problem Solving, Soft Skills, Speaking.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ann Macfarlane  |  April 22, 2008 at 2:01 am

    Peter, in my experience also the size and setup of the room make a huge difference in the experience created. Dr. Paul Radde has done some very interesting articles on this very question and has posted them at I found them illuminating. Thanks for offering these thoughts. Ann

  • 2. technobility  |  April 22, 2008 at 7:30 am

    Hi Ann,
    Dr. Paul is absolutely correct, the ideal room setup is amphitheater style – curved rows, in a cone shape, extending back and up from the speaker. Sadly, this is uncommon in hotels. It’s one of the reasons I like speaking at universities. Done right? You can speaker to 200-300 people without a microphone – the perfect speaking environment.


  • […] The Sisyphus Chronicles: The Room that Eats Speakers — Looks at ways that a room’s layout can inhibit the speaker’s ability to connect with an audience. […]

  • […] the stink of failure. Speaking of any personal “failure” is incredibly difficult. Look at “The Room that Eats Speakers” posted a few days ago in this blog. Admitting, as a professional speaker, that I have ‘messed’ […]

  • 5. kcowan  |  June 16, 2008 at 11:47 am

    This also applies in less formal settings such as making an executive update to a group of employees. I always walk among them to solicit feedback from the ones hiding at the back of the room.

    But the usual hotel conference room cavern can only be corrected with added TV monitors, added speakers, and helpers with mikes to solicit interaction. Not as good as a good amphitheater but the most common venue.

    Also offer a free giveaway to anyone presenting you a business card immediately to establish some networking and feedback.

  • 6. Cheryl Stinski  |  June 19, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks, Peter, for bringing your article to the attention of the Northeast Wisconsin ASTD chapter. I will be far more aware of the impact of the room both when speaking and as part of a conference committee that arranges for speakers. This would also be a good article to share with hotels and conference centers since they do the room set up with some suggestions for the minor changes that could make a big difference. Cheryl

  • 7. Hillary Johnson  |  April 11, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Interesting! When we ran the open space at the Orlando Scrum Gathering for 200+ people, we were dismayed that the chairs were arranged in rows (we wanted a giant circle). So we asked the participants to pick up their chairs and form a circle. It ended up enhancing the entire experience, as the very act of rearranging themselves engaged the audience, and it became a first “exercise” that demonstrated how Open Space is self-directed and self-organized.

  • 8. technobility  |  April 11, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Hillary – getting the audience to create their OWN space nearly ALWAYS works… subtle and nuanced and almost worth ‘setting’ a room in such a manner that the audience demands that they change it.


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