by By Hunter R. Slaton | May 01, 2009

0509 SC Lead2Every planner is familiar with the problem: Attendees gravitate toward the back and sides of a meeting room, leaving rows of empty seats between them and the speaker. Why is this, and what can be done to discourage it?

Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, says a number of factors are involved. "People in the back typically are less invested and may be looking for an escape route," he notes. Personality also plays a role; introverts tend toward the sides and back, Gifford observes, while extroverts prefer to stake out the front-and-center "action zone."

Cynthia Minor, president and CEO of the Liberty, N.Y.-based event planning company 1 Creative Concept Unlimited, has developed a number of strategies for dealing with back-of-the-class attendees. "I will offer a raffle, with tickets placed only under chairs in the first few rows," Minor says. "I always gear the prize to my audience, which is also a great way to get your sponsors even more involved."

Still, some insist on the periphery. Minor says she'll block off some rows with "reserved seating" cards for "media" or "sponsors," noting that seats reserved for no one in particular can irk attendees. If all else fails, a staff member can guard the back rows until the front fills up.

The final line of defense against unengaged, back-row attendees are the presenters. Notes Gifford, "If a speaker makes an effort to ask a question of people on the periphery, it draws them in and makes them feel like a part of the discussion." This tactic "shrinks the room," he adds, making everyone feel more involved in the proceedings.