Clever Carly: The Science of Seating

Refine your attendee seating strategy down to a science

Hello there, my most excellent Meeting Planners! Clever Carly here.

You might wanna sit down for this. Today I’m tabling the food offerings and tech. I want to address perhaps the most fundamental, physical way we organize our meetings (often without even realizing it): how we sit and whom we face. According to a recent study by an international panel of architects, seating arrangements speak volumes about who can do the talking, and how. From semicircle and circular setups to modern café-style seating and classroom rows, the architecture of your meeting can shape its culture and outcome. After spending years surveying every U.N. country’s parliament layout (that’s 193, to be exact), the panel found five common setups. Keep these in mind when considering what kind of outcome you want for your next event.

1. Semicircle

Used by both the Senate and the House in Washington, D.C., the semicircle is the most common seating arrangement. Why? It naturally promotes a feeling of consensus. By having several members visible to one another while maintaining a focal point in the middle, attendees get the sense—literally and figuratively—that they are gathered around a common something. With a balance of audience inclusiveness and an area of focus, this is a great option for voting and coming to conclusions with the opportunity for input.

2. Opposing benches

Opposing benches can oftentimes invite a war zone—it’s easy to see how positioning people on opposing sides can evoke a sense of “us versus them.” But it doesn’t have to be all bad: The silver lining is spirited debate—great if, say, you have important agenda items that need intense scrutiny before decision time.

3. Horseshoe

The horseshoe is an obvious choice if you’re after a semicircle but you have a lot of attendees or an oblong venue. The shape will also invite elements of the opposing-bench layout, and the little kumbaya semicircle at the far end of the room will be out of sight for many. So if you don’t want the implicit shouting match of opposing benches, but you aren’t afraid of healthy disagreement, try your luck with a game of horseshoe.

4. Circle

Ever been a part of a truly roundtable discussion? Then you know that in this configuration, egalitarian ethos rules the day. Because you’re angled to see everyone’s face equally, there is inherently no single focal point—meaning no one has a special advantage. This is a great option if brainstorming or feedback is your priority. But if you’ve got an agenda to deliver, the circle might not square: All parties will be empowered to speak their minds. 

5. Classroom

If there’s an antithesis to the circle, it’s the classroom. And it’s just as you’re imagining it: rows of chairs all facing forward toward a speaker stage. Interestingly, the panel found that this setup is common among countries that aren’t exactly known for their democratic ideals. Quite simply, it’s a format in which to be lectured to and receive information. So if feedback and participation are not your event’s M.O.—but rather, simply delivering information—this is your pony.

Check back in two weeks for more helpful tips. You can find me on meetingsimagined.com, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Until then, happy planning! 

Always your guide, 

Clever Carly