Next time you’re setting up for an education program, reconsider the traditional classroom or theatre layout in favour of a more interactive seating plan.
Even with larger audiences, there are lots of reasons to make it easier for participants to connect with each other: 1) one of the main reasons lawyers go to live programs is to network; setting the room up in a way that promotes interaction will give attendees a chance to get better acquainted; 2) communication is more two way – the audience is more likely to engage with the presenters in interactive layouts; and, 3) arranging tables to promote interaction sends a message that this program is something different – maybe even special.
The best seating plans for encouraging discussion are horseshoe/u-shaped, clusters (pods or rounds), and boardroom. Here is a quick description of each with pros and cons:
Pros – Good presenter visibility in open part of the U, allows for lots of eye contact with presenter and between participants, good for pair work, good for large-group discussions, fosters a sense of contribution
Cons – Requires a larger room, not ideal for larger group work (for example, fours or sixes), best suited for sessions where rank/power is not an issue (ie. no-one perceived to be “at head” of table)
Pros – Fairly compact, promotes easy group formation, encourages discussion within groups, creates a sense of equality which contributes to group problem solving, fosters a sense of contribution
Cons – communication between groups is not ideal, engagement with presenter can be tricky – especially if some participants have their backs to presenter or have to turn their chairs
Pros – good for learning by doing sessions, and group problem solving, encourages discussion within group
Cons – chairs at the short end of tables are often seen as leadership positions so consider reserving these for the presenter, not ideal for groups larger than about 12
In the end, there is no “one seating plan fits all” solution. If your goal is to get them talking, your arrangement will be well received so long as it supports the presenter, and encourages networking and participation among attendees.