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FILWP Presenting Tip #004: Empty seats suck eggs – avoid them


If you’re like most presenters, you might be tempted to ignore FILWP Presenting Tip #004.  

You might think that it does not matter, or that it’s too much of a hassle.  

I wish I could say this more politely: you’d be wrong on both counts.


The simple and very obvious fact is that empty seats are, of course, caused by there being more chairs than people.  

It is also true that many people have the tendency to either sit at the back, or sit ANYWHERE but next to someone else (especially the introverts!  Ask me, I’m one).  Some people will literally go to the trouble of shuffling past others who are already seated to grab the one remaining seat without neighbours.

That does not make them bad, or stupid, nor are they trying to make your life difficult.  They are simply, like most of us, preferring their comfort zones.

That’s why you need to make it easy for them to cozy up to others.


There are numerous downsides to presenting to empty chairs, as it…

  • divides your focus to have to connect with a pocket of people here, a group there, a handful here and a few rows there
  • makes it very hard to connect with the group as a unit, which is what great presenters do, especially when an audience is so large that it’s impossible to connect with every individual
  • fragments the energy in the room, or can even suck energy from it
  • makes for lousy pictures (read #FILWP Tip 2 and Tip 3)
  • makes it harder to truly engage the audience (more about this in future tips)

Perhaps the most obvious problem is that it just looks and feels bad.  50 people scattered throughout a 500-seater looks bad, and it feels bad. You can almost hear newcomers thinking “Hmmmm, not sure about this … looks kinda boring already and we haven’t even started … perhaps I’ll mosey my way out now before anyone notices me … yes now that I think about it, that overfull coffee shop that I passed on the way in looks waaaaayyy more interesting than this!”


Pretty much the opposite of the ‘What’s the problem’ section above!

In a nutshell, having all the chairs are filled makes it easier for you and the audience to co-create a well-connected and energising presentation for all.


Here are the simply ways to ensure that you have a packed audience:

  • if you know how many people are coming, only put out so many chairs. (simple, I know, yet many speakers don’t – check it out!)
  • if you’re not sure how many people are coming (e.g. it’s a public event) then only put out the minimum number of chairs, with the rest on standby at the back of the room; add more chairs as required.  This is a GOOD problem to have!


If despite your best efforts you still end up with empty seats, you have a few choices.


Make a very apologetic, unsure, insecure, over polite and vague request to no-one in particular to ‘move up please’.  

Effectiveness:  somewhere between minus 5 and zero, on a good day.  As Al Pacino said, forget about it.  Most people will naturally assume you’re talking to someone else or, if you’re talking to them, you certainly don’t actually mean it.  They’ll either stare right back at you, or pretend to have developed a sudden coughing fit or need to look at their phone.  

That, ladies and gentleman, at best puts you in the ‘weak’ category before you’ve even started your presentation.  (at worst, in the ‘loser’ box.)


Make an UNapologetic, confident and very specific request to specific people to move to a specific place:  “Those 3 ladies at the back, please move over to these 3 empty seats right here, thank you” (pointing to them and their new seats respectively.   

Effectiveness:  somewhere between a zero and a 5, depending on the day of the week, the weather, and whether some or other planet is in some or other ‘grade’.  As Al Pacino didn’t say, ‘consider it at your peril’.  Although most reasonable people will oblige, some might simple feel too ‘put on the spot’, embarrassed or ashamed to move.  

Since I don’t recommend a shouting match, once again you’ve lost power before you even got started; the audience will know it, you’ll know it, the audience will know that you know it and that you know that they know that you know … you get the picture.

Just as well we have a third option.


You’ll inevitably get your desired result (seats filled up from the front, closest to you) if you or preferably someone in your team of helpers, (if you have some)

  • walk over to the offending ‘backseaters’ casually
  • smile
  • kneel down by their side so that you are connecting eye to eye without staring them down (especially when you’re 6ft 5!)
  • gently touch their arm or, if that’s not appropriate for whatever reason, their chair
  • say something like “I’d like to move this chair sir, please stand up and sit over THERE” (pointing to exactly where you’d like him to sit.) or ‘I’d like to move this chair, please come with me” and leading them where you’d like them to be, and then actually physically pointing to their new seats 
  • avoid any long waffly explanations blah-blah-blah, just get it done in the kindest, most confident and shortest way you can
  • as soon as they move, remove the empty chair(s)

When done firmly and kindly, most people will agree.


If someone point blank refuses, you have a choice:

  • pick a fight (bad move)
  • get them back later (just kidding)
  • gracefully accept that they likely got triggered by your request (perhaps you remind them of their grade 4 teacher who scared them to death), respectfully leave them be and get on with the job of presenting, promising yourself to do what you need to do next time to prevent this from happening at all (refer to the ‘What’s the solution’ section above.)