When I was in the 5th grade, the room was arranged with an aisle down the middle and rows of three desks clustered on either side of the aisle. I was in the last row seated with two friends, Bryon and Tammy.
As an adult in a classroom setting, I like to sit in the 2nd row next to a wall. But as a 5th grader, I was assigned to sit in the back.
We snickered over 5th grade antics. Tammy and I would pretend Bryon had no brain and we’d talk “through” his head as he sat between us. It was hilarious. (We were 11.)
When we giggled uncontrollably, Mr. Parks would calm us down with a comment or a cold stare. He’d cast his gaze in our direction, and the rest of the class would turn to glare as well. Soon, 27 pairs of eyes were all turned to the back of the room, shooting us disparaging looks.
We decided to be clever and play along. Next time Mr. Parks gave us “the look,” we three would use our comedic timing to simultaneously turn around and stare at the wall directly behind us.
Sure enough, it was side-splitting funny– for a few seconds. Mr. Parks didn’t find it as humorous.
Why do I share this story?
People will experience a benefit auction (and a 5th grade class) differently based on where they are seated.
As mentioned, I pay more attention when I’m near the front of a classroom. As an adult, I position myself in that 2nd row so I can concentrate. I get more out of the class and am able to ignore whatever is happening behind me.
When I do find myself sitting near the back of a classroom (usually because I arrive too late to get my preferred spot), I pay less attention to the speaker. Instead, I watch other students, observing all the activity taking place at tables between me and the instructor.
Similarly, when a prospective client visits a benefit auction to observe me or the gala, their perspective of the evening is skewed by their location in the room.
Tips for getting the most out of auditing a benefit auction.
Rookie Mistake #1: Not watching a similar type of benefit auction.
Last year a prospective client popped into a ballroom to observe a typical large, rowdy Catholic school auction. My client was over the moon with the results. The prospective client — who runs a small nonprofit gala — couldn’t believe how “rude” the crowd was. Her opinion about the success of the evening was completely different than that of my client!
Fast fix: Make an effort to observe an auction similar to your own. If you’re running a ladies luncheon, go watch one of those. If you’re running a private high school gala, try to see one that mimics your own event.
Rookie Mistake #2: Not noticing the sound system.
Prospective client “Jane” drifts into the ballroom as the live auction is getting underway. In an attempt to be unobtrusive, she positions herself in the very back of the room — and can’t hear.
Often the A/V company puts speakers at the front of the room only. Sometimes they will position speakers halfway back, but tucked along the wall.
Fast Fix: Stand in the back long enough to notice how the sound system is built. Look for a speaker on a stand and position yourself in front or next to it. Being able to clearly hear makes an enormous difference to your onsite experience.
Rookie Mistake #3: Not understanding the seating chart
If the Gala Chair put some thought into her seating arrangements, the guests seated at the back of the room are typically not expected to be active participants. The biggest stakeholders are located closer to the stage.
Some schools, for instance, will put non-paying guests (such as teachers) at the back of the space. These can be some of the rowdiest tables in the room (which means, those folks ain’t paying attention).
Fast Fix: If you stand at the front of the room just off to the side of the stage, you’ll see what the auctioneer sees — and get a better sense of what the Gala Chair was trying to create when she developed her seating chart.
In conclusion, perhaps one of the best ways to gauge an event you observe is to talk to the Gala Chair / Auction Planner herself. She’ll be able to share insights about her audience and event that a casual observer will never understand.
Rick Gallo says
Sherry, As always, you are spot on. I just spent over an hour on the phone yesterday with a client discussing the seating plan. I had him send me a diagram of the table positions in the room as well as the guest chart and we filled that “golden triangle” (also called “triangle of influence”) with the what he and I felt were the best bidders. The only hitch was that the presenting sponsor wanted a table front and center and sometimes that’s a crap shoot as to whether they will fill it with guests that will spend.
Thanks for all your insight!
Sherry Truhlar says
Yes, “triangle of influence,” “big bidder box” — everyone seems to have a clever name for it, don’t they?
I think it’s great that you know the audience dynamics of that event well enough to help in that task, Rick! I’m sure it was helpful to him. That task can be a chore.
Betti Adams says
Sherry, sometimes I think you are reading my mind! I have been meaning to ask a question about seating at our gala brunch. We do have a live auction component, although that’s not my only concern. We have guests who are members of our synagogue and others from the community who come mainly because they love the speaker that we have been getting for the past 5 years. Even the non-members seem to support our silent and sometimes the live auction.
We have individual sponsorships as well. I do the seating, which is a challenge. We usually have about 200 guests! After the event I invariably get one or two complaints about why their table was at the back of the room. My response is honest, I apologize but I tell them I sponsors should get the front tables. This year I made notes of who complained so I can make sure they get at least middle of the room next year. But as we all know, there are only so many front and middle tables. Someone has to sit in the back! BTW I always sit in the back near the kitchen, along with other committee chairs. Any advice on how to choose who gets front of the room, plus what to say to those who complain later? I have realized that seating is never just putting people with their requested seat-mates, it is fraught with politics!
One extra note: This year’s live auction was the most fun we’ve ever had! In addition to real merchandise, we auctioned dinner with a popular board member who happens to be a single man in his 80’s who drives at night and is just a sweet guy! It really engaged the crowd, much more than just throwing merchandise out there. And I think the other items did better because we got their attention! I’m hoping we can throw something like this in every year!
Sherry Truhlar says
Oh, those “seating meetings” can be contentious, can’t they?
A couple of ideas for your situation:
1. I don’t know who coined the term, but in the benefit auction world we talk about the “golden triangle.” Draw an imaginary 45″ angle from each corner of the stage into the crowd. Within that golden triangle, place your best supporters / bidders (not necessarily sponsors, but good supporters / bidders). Just outside the triangle you would place your sponsors. Beyond that, all others. This strategy will also support the excitement of the live auction, because as people look towards the stage, they will see lots of activity.
2. If you can, I’d opt for an “in the round” set-up. You’d have to see if your speaker is comfortable with it, but it doubles the number of tables next to the stage. It’s a much more intimate vibe! Your speaker will need to get comfortable speaking with guests seated all around him, of course. Someone will always see his face; someone will always see his backside. However, if you are projecting the speaker onto a screen/s around the room, guests will turn their attention back and forth — from speaker to screen — as is comfortable for them and not necessarily just see the back of his head. (Auctioneers can work in the round without an issue, so I’d be less concerned about the auctioneer’s approval and moreso about the speaker’s approval.)