Guide on the Side – Room Setups for Presentations & Training – One Size Does NOT Fit All

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various nonprofit and civic activities.

Seating along with related physical arrangements create the foundation for meetings, programs and training. Often called room setups, they encompass comfort, access and safety for the attendees, and when selected appropriately, extend a presenter’s influence in the room, broadcast intention and eliminate distractions.

Novice presenters, trainers and program planners sometimes ignore physical arrangements and take whatever room setup is immediately available. Experienced presenters understand that a functional setup is essential and arranging for it is not difficult nor expensive. It is a matter of planning and knowing the options.

Arrangement personnel at hotels and conference centers are knowledgeable and routinely ask about the room setup requirements. Convention and visitor bureaus also can provide generic information about aisle widths and square feet per person. My experience is that it is more difficult getting the arrangements you require in your affiliate organization because business organizations are not in the conference business and do not have the resources to provide extensive arrangement services

Seating setups fall into two broad categories: large groups (generally over 40) and small groups (usually under 40).

Large Group Setups

The most commonly used, but not always the most appropriate, style of seating for large groups is Theater style. Other options are Classroom and Chevron styles. Presentations accompanied by meals have one choice–Banquet style (large round tables). Banquet has drawbacks but audiences are accustomed to turning their chairs and heads to see the speaker, crowded tables and noise from the food service.

Theater style supports “Sage on the Stage” presentations where speakers give forth with their wisdom, knowledge or wit intending that it be absorbed individually and passively by members of the audience without any reinforcement activity such as practice sessions, role playing, or brainstorming. If the presentation involves note taking or reference to handout material, Classroom style is a better choice as it provides a writing surface.

Chevron style is an excellent choice for audience interactivity.It is very flexible, good for either large or small groups and fosters a sense of audience involvement as the audience can see others and get feedback from them. Chevron can be adapted into Cluster seating for group exercises by audience members turning their seats around to face the table behind. Both Classroom and Theater can be altered to a Modified Chevron by angling the outside sections.

Theater Style

Accommodates the most people per area.
About 10-13 square feet per person.
Appropriate for lectures and keynoters.
Note taking cumbersome for audience.

Classroom Style

Same as Theater Style but with tables.
About 17-20 square feet per person.
Supports note taking and use of handout materials.

Chevron Style

Provides place for beverages and elbows.
Most interactive of large group setups.
Promotes a sense of participation.
About 20-23 square feet per person.
Can be setup with or without tables .

Modified Chevron

Can be setup with or without tables .
Improves visibility of speaker and visuals from side sections. More interactive than Theater or Classroom.

Small Groups Setups

All the small group setups (Perpendicular, U-Shape, Semi-Circle, Hollow Square or Rectangle, Boardroom, Cluster and Chevron) provide for and encourage the audience to take an active role in the presentation/meeting and to communicate with their peers.

Large group setups, such as Theater or Classroom, are sometimes used for small group presentations without realizing they create a formal, impersonal atmosphere that may work against the learning goals and objectives of the program and can present serious problems in learning environments requiring audience-to-audience interaction such as discussions, problem solving, or honest feedback. When an audience is able to make eye contact with other members, as in Chevron style, the audience builds a sense of community and group learning occurs. Small group setups are ideal for planning/strategy meetings, focus groups, information sharing, status reports and introduction of new ideas.

Hollow square or rectangle

For meetings where hierarchy is not an issue.
Excellent for facilitator led meetings.
Encourages audience participation.
Awkward to use any visuals.


Very good for groups between 6 and 15 .
Suggests formality and hierarchy.
Over 15, people at the far end table may feel left out and form a separate group.

Perpendicular Style

Seats can be on either outside or inside of tables.
Instructor can survey students’ work.
Easy exchange between presenter and audience.
Center usable for exhibits or demos .

Encourages collaboration.
Center area usable for simulations and role plays . Can be used with or without speaker table .

Semi-circle or Circle

Can be setup with or without tables.
Presenter’s role is minimal.
Excellent for emotional sessions such as sharing grief.
Encourages a sense of group and bonding .

Cluster style

Good for presentations with breakout groups.Clusters easily return to being a single group. Quick and easy to follow with a meal.
Tables can be either round or small rectangles.

Arrangements Checklist

  • Select a seating arrangement to support the event and presenter’s goals.
  • Provide comfortable chairs.
  • Arrange for adjustable chairs for day-long training.
  • Provide surface for writing, using manuals, laptops, and placing beverages.
  • Accommodate people with special hearing, seeing or mobility needs.
  • Plan sufficient space for each person to avoid feeling cramped.
  • Provide for easy access to seating with adequate number and width of aisles.
  • Select space proportionate to the number of people attending.
  • Ten people will feel lost in a room set up for 300, surmise the meeting is poorly attended even though everyone is there and tend to disperse to near the exits. If you must use a large room for a small group, cordon off the unused area with plastic emergency tape.
  • Check for adequate air and comfortable air temperature.
  • Avoid noxious odors or enticing aromas.
  • Check room for exterior noise.
  • Tape door latches to prevent them from making noise when people have to leave or arrive late.
  • Arrange for adequate acoustics and acoustical support so people can hear (May require a variety of microphones).
  • Arrange for adequate lighting for presenter, audience and activities planned
  • Find out who to contact when problems occur.
  • Raise the speaker with a podium or platform so those in back can see.
  • Consider whether to use a lectern, it covers about 75% of the body and restricts the speaker’s movement.
  • Locate screens, projectors and related visual equipment so audience can see
  • Determine which wall will be the front of the room.
  • Place entrance at rear of room to minimize coming and going distractions.
  • Check flip chart use and wall space for the display of filled pages.
  • Find out if there is time and staff to change the setup in a room for subsequent speakers.
  • Provide water, coffee, or other refreshments.
  • Test equipment for working order (video, projectors, monitors, greaseboards).
  • Provide vanity curtain for speaker’s table to hide their stuff.
  • Note proximity to rest rooms and coat storage.
  • See that exit doors are clearly marked.
  • Provide signs on outside door(s) and inside identifying the event and time.
  • Provide name tags and/or name tents for attendees and presenters.
  • Arrange for intuitive registration and program material distribution.

Computer training presents unique problems as the wiring and cabling for student computers are usually not readily changed. Some training rooms are setup in classroom style with the instructor at the front of the room facing the students. The instructor can see the student but not what is on the student’s monitor–extremely important feedback. Students can fail to execute a command through error, ignorance or because they are exploring on their own. The Perpendicular (with chairs on the inside), Semicircle or U-Shape setups with the students sitting with their backs to the instructor let the instructor see the monitor but students have to turn to see instructor and any large screen at the front of the room.

If you (the presenter/trainer) arrive at the designated room and find a setup that does not support your needs, change it, or request that it be changed, immediately. With small groups, it is very often easy to change the setup. If the chairs are fastened to the floor in Theater style and your presentation requires audience interaction, get another room. Don’t compromise your presentation content and delivery with an inappropriate setup. One setup does not fit all.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Meetings, Presentation Skills, Program Planning