Wherever lectures happen, regardless of the size of the venue, most of the front row will be empty. Even when the lecture hall is standing room only (should I be so lucky), many of the seats up front will be peopleless. In this photo from a lecture I gave years ago you can see people standing, literally with their backs against the wall, instead of taking a seat in the front.
Now at a rock concert, or sporting event, people would sell their children to get a front row seat. The only time I had front row seats at a basketball game it cost me $300 and I had to watch two sucky teams: for good teams there were no front row seats available. The front row is usually the bees knees: what’s going on?
My theory is the following:
- We like the freedom to be bored. In the front, there’s nowhere to hide. If we want to nap, pick our nose, read e-mail, we can’t without feeling embarassed. If the speaker is bad, we’re stuck, for an hour or more, in living hell.
- We’re taught in school to go for the back. People in the front get called on by teachers. Most of us hated that, so we hide ourselves in the middle rows.
- We have low confidence in public speakers. We’re pretty sure it’s not going to be all that good, and we want the option to leave quickly without embarassing ourselves.
- The front row feels like part of the show. Sitting within a few feet feels like you are on stage yourself, a feeling most people don’t like. Some people also fear being picked as a volunteer which seems more likely in the front.
I suppose it’s a sign of a speaker with a good reputation when people confidently sit in the risky front row.
This diagram below from cartoon phdcomics offers several other theories about where people sit. My favorite part of their analysis is the proximity to lecturer formula, that divides how much you care by how tired you are. Perhaps it would be more accurate to measure how committed you are to the speaker. If you’re 100% convinced you need to listen to the entire lecture, you want the best experience possible. If you’re not sure, or if you’re at an event with multiple tracks, you want the ability to change your mind.
In Confessions of a Public Speaker, in chapter 4 on how to work a tough room. I explain a technique for balancing rooms. I’d never let an audience stay in the formation shown in the picture above. Instead I’d ask everyone to move forward and close the ranks, forming an actual audience.