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The Art & Science of the General Session Room


General Sessions give you the opportunity to get everyone together in one place and at one time. Everyone gets the same message and shares the same experience. Maybe. Your speakers may be communicating strong messages and content, but your attendees may be suffering from Rumpamortis or Screenopia. So let’s see how the experts handle the art and science of the General Session room. Let’s go to the movies.

Experience vs. Economics

The first movie theater opened in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1905. Every theater since then – all the way up to your neighborhood multiplex today – has had to juggle a delicate balance of experience and economics. The audience comes to be entertained, informed, challenged and made to think. As with any event, their experience is everything. Theater owners can’t do much about the quality of the film, but they control everything else. Bottom line: If people don’t enjoy themselves and feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth – they won’t come back.

That’s the same challenge you face with every conference, event and meeting. You have to do more than fill a room with seats. You have to create the best communications environment to hold and keep your audience.

The Room Size Dilemma

Meeting space is a major expense. Obviously, large ballrooms cost more than smaller ones, so the traditional logic is to book the smallest space possible. The temptation is to see how many people you can get in, even if it means lots of chairs, long rows and little legroom. BUT if the space is so tight that the audience hates the experience … then you have wasted your money.

Your dilemma is, do you put the most possible seats in the room to minimize the event costs, or do you book a larger room to maximize the experience and the event results? The big variables you have to look at for a General Session are:

  • The size of the room
  • The size of the audience
  • How long the session lasts

That last point is the one that usually gets lost in the shuffle. Don’t let it! If your General Session is 30 minutes long, people will accept some slight discomfort. But if you are planning an 8:00am to 5:00pm session, packing them in becomes a huge issue. Ask yourself:

  • Can they see?
  • Can they hear?
  • And are they comfortable?

Your goal is to create a communications environment that allows you to present your content, information, experiences and speakers in the best possible way. Planning out your space in advance will help you keep your audience’s attention and get positive results.

Why “It Depends” is the Answer

At Shepard AV, we like to go on site surveys with clients to actually see the space as early as possible. That’s when we hear the obvious questions:


Can we get 800 people in this room?


It depends.


Can we have a huge wide screen in this room?


It depends.


Can we have a General Session during the day and then change the room over and use it for the Awards Banquet that night?


It depends.

“It depends” is a realistic answer because there are so many variables. Hotels and conference centers offer multi-purpose space. They may have a business event in the ballroom and two days later use it for a banquet or a wedding. That means every single room they offer is a compromise. Their space is designed to be One-Size-Fits-All.


It’s like those t-shirts your grandparents would bring all of you from their trip to Florida. You know, the ones that were labeled “OSFA.” One-Size-Fits-All means it fits everyone and no one equally as well. It’s the same with hotels and conference center space. To transform that multi-purpose space into a customized communications environment that fits your organization … you have to design it. That’s how our team of experts at Shepard AV can change “It depends” to “This is what we can do.” We can make it work for you.

The Best Seat in the House

Here are some insider tips to get your thinking started. In most General Session designs, the biggest decisions are screen size, how wide the seating can be, and how close the audience sits to the stage and screens. Everyone in the audience deserves the best seat in the house. What that means is you don’t want the people in the front row to be so close that they can’t comfortably watch the images … and the people in the back row to be so far away that they can’t see the images. Let’s follow the same design best practices that most movie theaters follow.

Screen Size

The biggest thing that impacts the size of the projection screens isn’t the stage, it’s the ceiling height. You only have the distance between the ceiling and your stage. The bottom of the screen should be about 3 feet above the stage, and the screen can’t go all the way to the top because of the rigging. So if the ceiling height in the room is 18 feet, your screens can’t be much taller than about 11 feet. A ballroom with a 30-foot ceiling offers a lot more flexibility. Bottom line? The screen has to fit the audience and not the space. The larger the audience, the higher the screens have to be.

Sight Lines

Okay, you need to add chairs and people. You could make the rows longer so the seating is wider. That solves one problem but creates another – sight lines. Sight lines are how wide you can place seats on the sides of the room without having people twist their heads and bodies to see the speakers and the screens. The science of sight lines says that people get uncomfortable if they have to turn their heads more than about 45 degrees. Plus, the images on the screen become dark and difficult to see.

If you have to go wide, angle the seats to make things more comfortable, but be realistic. If the people sitting there can only see your speaker’s profile, it doesn’t work. And please don’t expect attendees to turn and look across to the other side of the room to watch a screen. They won’t!

How Close the Audience Sits to the Stage

In some conferences and events, the first row of seats is so close to the stage the attendees can smell the presenter’s aftershave. It’s just not comfortable to have to look up and stretch your neck to see the screen. Movie theaters have developed guidelines to determine how close the front row can be to the stage and screen. They use the 2X8 Rule.

The 2X8 Rule

For maximum readability, the distance to the front row is approximately twice the height of the screen. That means if your screen is 15 feet high, the back row should be about 30 feet away.

The same rule says the distance to the back row should be approximately 8 times the height of the screen. So if the screen is 15 feet high, the back row needs to be about 120 feet away.

How does this work? Rooms and stages may change, but people don’t. When you’re seated, your head is about 4 feet from the floor. That puts your eye level at about 3 foot, six inches. That’s an average. If you are a 7-foot basketball player, your mileage may vary. When you are in the “sweet spot,” you can see the full image without having to look up or tilt your head. That’s what the 2X8 Rule gives you. It makes sure everyone can comfortably see the speakers and the content. You can cheat, but you are gambling. What is a row of upset attendees worth?

One Last Tip

After you have the best screen and staging design, here’s one more quick tip that will make your audience love you. Stagger the seating in the audience rows so that people can see between the seats in front of them. That’s what the movie theater people do to ensure everyone can see.

Forget Rumpamortis

Remember, it’s all about the experience. You want the attendees to focus on your content and the value you offer. You don’t want them squirming, shifting in their seats and suffering the pains of Rumpamortis. And you don’t want them squinting, straining their necks and enduring Screenopia.

That’s where Shepard AV can help. Let us work with you to analyze the space and come up with right-on-target design solutions that make your next conference or event a blockbuster.

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