September 15, 2010

Make a big space more intimate

"In the boom, in the 80s, of comedy clubs, all these entrepreneurs were putting together these rooms with these high ceilings and 'Hey, look at this great comedy room!' It's like, 'You dummy -- it's supposed to be a little box, like this, with a low ceiling. The laughs don't go up in the air. It's supposed to be a low, low ceiling.'"

~ Actor/Comedian/Producer/Writer Carol Leifer

"Comedy rooms are very hard to figure out. It’s all vibes. There are certain givens, like having a low ceiling because laughs need to hover. If you ever go into a comedy club, the good ones have low ceilings. If you have to do comedy outdoors, as I’ve done sometimes, it’s hard because the laughs just go into the air and dissipate. The laughter needs to hover, because it’s contagious."

~ Actor/Comedian Susie Essman

"Any gig outdoors during the day is crap. Light and the elements are bad for laughs...

Best gig? Anywhere that has the audience in tight, low ceiling and dirty...most Edinburgh venues."

~ Comedy Magician Pete Firman

I recently wrote about speaking in a venue that was way too big for the audience. The organizers had attempted to keep everyone together in a small area of the giant room, but the high ceiling and large space negated any intimacy that was achieved in moving the tables together.

A couple of commenters on that post talked about bad conference rooms they had spoken in, including this comment from Rowan Manahan:

"...Not one thread of soft furnishing in the entire room, a high ceiling and a glass-topped table in a large boardroom. I sounded like someone had turned the Treble up to 11 and the Bass down to 0 on an amplifier!

I had people scurrying around looking for anything that could soak up some sound. We ended up using three Flipcharts with large towels draped over them to act as baffles in the back of the room and some large potted plants up at the front."

Through conversations with other speakers, I think it's been established that meeting rooms are frequently inhospitable places for presentations. So what do you do when the room is too big for your audience? Create intimacy however you can. It's always better to have too many people in a room than too few. How can you create a feeling of closeness in an airplane-hangar-sized room?

1. Tighten up the group

Don't let the audience disperse themselves around a large venue. Part of what a speaker is trying to achieve is a group experience, and when audience members are separated, that feeling of connection and camaraderie dissipates. And as every comedian knows, you want your audience packed tight so their laughter and emotional responses are concentrated.

Have everyone come to the front and sit in the first few rows. If you know the room is too big for the numbers who are expected, go ahead and just put away the chairs in the back rows before people arrive. You might even consider arranging the chairs or tables into a U or circle shape. Reduce the options for people to sit far away from you and from each other.

2. Manage the sound

Your distance from the audience, open doors and windows, carpeting, wall hangings and height of the ceiling will all have an impact on sound. Hard surfaces bounce sound while soft surfaces absorb. You don't want too much of either; a good balance cuts down echo but still allows your voice to resonate.

Keep windows and doors closed, so your voice doesn't fly out the window and, if there are curtains, try closing them for better sound absorption. If the room is big and there's a lot of echo, try Rowan's suggestions from above to capture sound and keep it in a small space. Stand close to your audience and try to remove barriers such as tables or a lectern that creates more distance between you.

3. Use a microphone if necessary

Don't shy away from using a microphone if it will improve the sound in a large venue. If you have more than 30 or 40 people in a large room, it will also benefit you to have a mic to take questions, so the audience can be heard as well.

Check out these acoustically friendly and unfriendly spaces at Voice Academy for ideas.

What have you done to make a big room more intimate for your presentation? Share in the comments!

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4 comments. Please add yours! :

Unknown said...

Every time I see a chandelier in a hotel conference room, I know I'm in trouble.

(I think Scott Berkun said something like that in his "Confessions of a Public Speaker" book. It's exactly how I feel, anyhow.)

The cheesy chandelier is there to impress 20-something brides, so that they'll pick the hotel for their wedding. The chandelier, placed on its high ceiling, is a screaming, red-hot signal that the conference center does NOT cater to business presenters.

Or comedians.

When you're booking a speech, ask if your room has a chandelier. It's a good test of what you'll be up against.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Great tip, Laura! Never thought about that one before.

TJ Walker said...

Great tips on room size and shape. Most people never give enough thought to the room and the dynamics of how many people are seated and how closely. Every element must be scrutinized when you have a highly specific desired outcome, whether it's a laugh or a sale.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, TJ!

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