#441  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 12          December 1999

Meeting Room Power
by Stephen C. Rafe

Mr. Rafe is President of Rapport Communications of Warrenton, VA, a spokesperson-counseling firm (tel/fax 540-349-1039;. E-mail steve-rafe@erols.com; starfire.safsoft.net).  He is the author of three HarperBusiness books, including How to Be Prepared to Think on Your Feet (1991). He is also the principal author of The Executive's Guide to Successful Presentations (Communication Briefings).

We all want our meetings to go well. As hosts we tend to focus on the agenda and the participants. We want to add structure to the process and we want the right people there for the right reasons. As presenters at meetings, we tend to concentrate primarily on our presentations. So we fine-tune our key points, and tweak our visuals.

Yet, if you are in charge of a meeting, control of the outcome should be paramount in your mind. The concept of control has been denigrated over the years, but it still has as much validity as it ever did. In fact, control may be even more important in our society with its fast-paced communications and constantly changing environment. Consider it as a responsibility to your participants. Act on it as a duty to ensure that they receive the maximum possible benefit from attending.

You can accomplish much of this merely by focusing on the key elements of the room itself. Here are some specific tips that will help.   

Room Layout

With experience, it is possible to size up a room and "read" the power dynamics that will most likely take place within it. You can determine much of this just by knowing the unwritten "rules" for who sits where in any given room setup. Start by looking at the table configuration. Most rooms use one of these four basic layouts: 1) long table, 2) closed square, 3) horseshoe or “U”, and 4) round.

Where Leaders Sit

The "power" positions of each one depend, in part, on how the following are placed: Doors, windows, presentation boards, key lighting, and telephone. Usually, the highest-ranking person will occupy the chair that makes each of these most convenient to him or her. Spacing is another consideration. Generally, the lower ranking people sit in the chairs that are placed closest together. There will often be more table space allocated to the power person. This is often done subtly by the person who sets out the briefing books, pads, pens, or water glasses. If you have ever moved your items closer to another participant's -- only to notice him or her subtly (sometimes) ease them back out into your "space," --  you know what this is all about. The research on "zones" has much to say about this.

*  The power person will sit -- or should sit -- at one end of a long table.  Which end will depend upon all the other factors.

*  In a closed-square arrangement, he or she will sit on the side that affords the most convenience.

* He or she will almost always sit at the middle of the closed end of the horseshoe or "U" configuration.

* The round-table setup also affords a power position, despite the legends about King Arthur's knights. Again, the power person will consistently sit where he or she finds things to be the most convenient.

The key in controlling the power or using it to your advantage is this: Arrive early and check out everything in the room. Do everything you can to tip the balances in your favor without being overly obvious. Leave nothing to chance.

This is the approach I take when I go into a client's facilities to conduct a seminar in a meeting room. Most often, the client allows me to set everything to my con­venience. However, I can sometimes expect that certain changes will not have survived by the time the participants walk through the door. Quite often it's the result of the organization's housekeeping staffers trying to make certain everything is "right." So, if you can, be sure to involve them in your plan.

Controlling the Controls

Once you are in the room, locate the light switches and dimmers. Do they allow you to keep light on the audience while you darken the area where your visuals will appear on screen? Is there enough light for videotaping if that is included in the plans? If there is a spotlight, or if overhead lighting casts a glare, make sure it won't be shining in your eyes.

Sunlight can also become a distraction. A room that was fine while the sky was cloudy can suddenly become glaringly bright when the clouds part. Sunlight can also overheat a room.

Locate the thermostat if the room has one. Is the temperature set right? Generally between 68 and 72 °F is comfortable for most presentations. Any temperatures outside that range may distract your audience from your message. Set on the low side, people tend to think clearly and move matters along. Set on the high side, they tend to provide less input and become sluggish in their involvement.

All distractions cost you power points. Can you control the temperature, or must you ask someone else to adjust it for you? If there are no controls, be prepared to request fans for hot rooms and heaters for cold ones. It may take time to locate such equipment. This is another reason you should check your meeting room at least an hour before you need to use it. If you can't get what you need, request another room. Find out whether there will be any audible distractions such as sound coming from an adjacent room. Leave nothing to chance.

Will your audience be subjected to visual distractions such as columns and pillars? If so, rearrange the room, or move your presentation.

Aroma Power

You can also gain power in a room by the way you use odor. Smells can heavily influence the receptivity and demeanor of the people in any environment. For starters, if the room smells stale, or musty, spray it with a product that will eliminate odors, not just mask them.

For an even-greater impact, you can also inject aromas that can influence the brain. Tyler Lorig, a Yale researcher in psychophysiology, offered this unique tip in Prevention magazine (May, 1988): The aroma of certain foods, such as apple pies, can cause brainwave changes that are similar to the patterns asso­ciated with the calmness produced by traditional stress-reduction techniques. While you may not be able to provide pies, before participants arrive you could spray an air freshener that contains this fra­g­rance, or one that smells of cinnamon and another smells like apples. You can also enhance people's reaction to your meeting by providing fresh coffee. Its aroma can "perk" up your participants.

How Is the View?

Does the room cause the meeting's participants to focus on you? Or will the view outside the windows compete for their attention? If so, close the drapes. No drapes? Turn the chairs so the audience members' backs are to the windows. If the meeting is important enough, block the windows with folding screens.

Consider doorways as potential distractions, as well. Close the doors if you can. Passersby create unpredictable distractions. If the doors have window glass in them, tape construction paper over them. It is difficult to compete with the face at the window. If you can't close the doors, reposition the chairs so they face away from them.

Check Your Equipment

You lose "power" quickly when your equipment doesn't work. So, check every piece of a/v equipment you plan to use. Are all the parts there? Do you have electricity power? Can you put the equipment where you want it? Will the extension cords reach? Do you have extension cords? Always have a three-pronged adapter and a three-outlet coupler handy. Tape down your wires so that no one trips over them and disconnects you, knocks over your equipment, or injures himself or herself. Make sure you have spare projector bulbs. Pre-set your slide trays, overheads, videotapes or other visuals where you can reach them. Do a test run.

Check the lectern. Does the light work? Is it set at the right height? If you use a side table for handouts, do you have them placed where you can find them quickly? Check your microphone. Does it work? If it is not cordless, can you move it to where you need it?

Check the chairs and tables. Remove any that are broken or damaged. On adjustable chairs, make sure all the seat elevations are the same (unless you want to raise yours and put your worst critic's much lower.) Make sure the spacing between rows and aisles will provide comfortable passage for handicapped and other participants. Have soiled tables cleaned and torn or soiled table covers replaced. Add to this list everything you might need before, during, or immediately following your presentation.

Traffic Control

The way you control the flow of people into or out of your room is another way to gain or lose power. Usually it is the meeting participants, themselves, or their messengers who are the culprits.

We've all experienced the tactics of those who like the visibility and sense of importance they gain when others interrupt the flow of the proceedings to bring them messages. Invariably, the messenger uses the appropriate non-verbals to show he or she did not intend to intrude. However, the other partici­pants generally treat the intrusion with silent indignation -- unless they are the boss and they're the ones receiv­ing the message, or someone else is receiving the message and they want to put a stop to the process

If you feel you can exercise some control, you might try posting signs outside the doors. For diplomacy and tact, the signs might read: "As a courtesy to our meeting participants, please enter only when this door is open."  In addition, you might post a note that advises participants, for the same reason, to turn off their pagers before entering.

Also, if you have sufficient authority, you might notify everyone beforehand that to avoid interruptions and improve the efficiency of the meeting, a message board will be posted outside the door and may be checked during the breaks. As for telephone calls, you might unplug or shut off the phone in the meeting room and route all calls through a receptionist.

One can't always control everything. However, to the extent that you can carry out any of these suggestions, you can increase your meeting-room power.  

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