How to Perform When the Room Doesn’t Work

Posted 08.18.2010

Kissarmy Not to get all prophetic or Inception on you, but today’s post is inspired by a dream I had last night. (Don’t worry, it’s nothing really weird or creepy.) So, I’m downtown somewhere and Kiss is supposed to be doing a concert (yes, I was a big fan in junior high). Turns out, though, that they’re playing in a department store window and the audience is out on the sidewalk watching through the glass. And it’s not the whole band, it’s just Gene Simmons singing a couple of songs by himself and his makeup doesn’t even look right. The crowd booed him off the stage (or out of the window) after two songs.

I have no idea why I had that dream (all of you Jungian analysts out there, I’d love to hear your theories). When I woke up, though, it reminded me of the many times when I’ve been booked as a speaker or presenter and shown up at the venue to find a room set up that was not at all optimal.  The situation has never been as bad as me being on one side of the window with the audience on the other (if you don’t include video conferences that is), but I have had some set-ups that have been close to that bad.

If you’ve spent very much time at all as a leader or presenter, you know how important the sense of connection between the speaker and the audience is to the success of the event. These days, audiences want to be engaged and interact with each other, the content and the speaker. The way the room is set up makes a big difference. My favorite is a nice, big space with round tables with the audience members sitting around the halves of the table facing the front of the room. I’ll have a nice size table up front for the projector, my notes and a bottle of water and a clip-on microphone that enables me to wander the room. 

Unfortunately, I rarely get everything I’d like in a room set up and you probably won’t either when you present. So what do you do to keep the connection going when the room doesn’t help? Here are five ideas that have worked for me over the years that I hope will work for you:

Have a Clear Picture: Before you even get to the room, have a clear picture in your mind of how you’d like the presentation to go. Be as specific as you can be with yourself about the optimal levels of energy and engagement in the room. That picture represents your goals for the event. If you’re clear on the goals, you’ll be able to be more creative and flexible about the different ways to reach them.

Get There Early:  I can’t count the number of times where I thought there was agreement between the meeting organizers and myself about how the room would be set only to find upon arrival that the reality did not meet the agreement. You don’t want to be walking in 5 or 10 minutes before you’re scheduled to start speaking and find that nothing you had planned around room setup is going to work. For major presentations, try to get there at least 30 minutes ahead of time so you can see and process what you have to work with.

Negotiate and Move If You Can:  Back in the days when I did a lot of group facilitation, we had a joke that the first thing you learn as a facilitator is how to move furniture. Often, when the room is not set in the way that you’d like, it can be improved with some relatively simple furniture moving. Don’t move without asking permission of the host. Take a moment to explain what you’re trying to do in the presentation and how the room set up can support that. My experience is about 80% of the time they’ll be willing to help you out.

Focus on the Audience Experience:  OK, so the worst case scenario is you get a crummy room and can’t make any changes. Suck it up, let it go and shift your focus to the audience experience. What outcomes are you trying to create for them? How do you need to show up and interact to make that outcome likely even in a crummy room?

Own the Energy:  Don’t let your pre-meeting fire drill shift your energy. Years ago, I got some great feedback from a client who had seen me speak several times in her organization. Her observation was that my energy was high when the audience’s energy was high and lower when theirs was lower. Her point was that her expectation was that my energy level would lead the audience not the other way around. That was a huge shift for me as a presenter. When you get out there to speak, there are going to be all kinds of things – including the room set-up – that could distract your energy. Don’t let them. Own the energy.

What about you? What have been your best and worst experiences as a presenter? What tips do you have on room set up or anything else that strengthens the connection with the audience?