The sight of empty rows of seats when you are giving a speech is a serious drain on your energy, and a constant distraction. It will also take your audience members think: “Why didn’t everyone else turn up?” Perhaps the problem arose due to overly enthusiastic organisers wanting to ensure enough seats, putting out far too many chairs and providing an overly large room.
That’s why you need to arrive early, and ask the organiser how many people are expected. Then count the chairs (yes, do it yourself). If there are obviously too many chairs, request that some are removed. Point out the disadvantages of a half-full room, and the fact that chairs can easily be added at the last minute. You may be able to switch to a smaller room, or increase the spacing between the chairs so that people have more elbow room. This will make the room appear fuller. Other alternatives are to change the layout from theatre-style to cabaret-style (circular tables with about ten chairs around each) or classroom-style (rectangular tables set lengthwise with chairs facing the front).
You might also wish to change the layout to remove a central aisle (highly recommended). Most importantly, you should take charge of the room, so that you and your audience feel comfortable, and have no distractions while you are speaking.
If a few people are left standing at the back, you can always add a few chairs. This shows how popular your talk is, which will reflect well on the organiser.
If you can’t make any changes, have people escorted to their seats at the front. If you end up with a tiny audience, ask them to re-arrange their chairs in a half-circle in front of you. Never, ever make an excuse like: “I don’t know why so few people turned up.” Simply present your speech as though the audience is exactly what you expected.
Paul recalls a lesson well learned in a 120-seater auditorium with fixed seats and an audience of 55. As they sauntered in, half of them late, they arranged themselves along the aisles leaving a huge gap in the middle. He would have done much better if he had stopped once it seemed everyone was in, asked them to stand and shift toward the middle. Usually some people will immediately stand up and move as requested, and some will not. Your next move is to move towards those that have ignored your first request, look them directly in the eye and ask them to please move towards the middle. Usually, they will comply.
If some people still remain put, you are fully within your rights to give your attention to the audience members who are seated in the area you asked them to be in.
– Paul du Toit, CSP.