Tortured by Nights of the Round Table

Do you use round tables (aka “rounds”) at your events? Then read on, prithee!

A medieval fantasy
Sadly, it’s not clear that King Arthur’s famous Round Table ever actually existed, let alone King Arthur himself. But let’s succumb to a romantic fantasy for a moment (or longer if you like) and assume that there really was a Round Table that looked like the picture above, and you were one of these fabulously clothed dudes hanging out on blocks that were de rigueur for luxurious seating in the 5th century.

How would that work for you?

For me, the “chair” would get to be annoying after a while, but what would really exasperate me would be that I’d only be able to talk to the Knights immediately to my left and right.

All those fascinating Knights of the Round Table. What wonderful stories they could tell! But I’m stuck with talking to just two of them for the whole banquet. Bummer!

Using rounds at events
Back to the present day.

What are round tables about and why do we use them? Well, a round table has no head, implying equal status to everyone who sits there. This is an ideal table shape for pick-your-own seating—no jockeying for the high-status “head” of the table—and everyone faces everybody else as much as possible, given the laws of geometry. As a result, round tables are optimum for small group work when tables are needed (see below).

The larger the table, the more people you can seat around it, but the further people are from each other. The right table diameter depends on the number of people in each group. Unfortunately, round tables that are too large are often used at events. In practice, once you’re seated at a table that’s more than 54″ in diameter you need the hearing of a teenager, advanced lip-reading ability, or a working Cone of Silence in order to hear everything that’s going on.

Tables that are larger than needed will reduce the intimacy of the group, so choose the optimum group size and arrange for the correct size rounds in advance, as shown in this table (green is good):

Table diameterOptimum number of seats
36”4
48”6
54”7-8
60”8
66”9
72”10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to make a strong case for large round tables. In my experience, group work that requires a table is less effective with group sizes larger than 8. And, using the industry standard formula, a 72″ table requires at least 12.1 sq. ft. of room space per person; a 48″ table requires 13.5 sq. ft. If you’re cramming people in so tightly that this difference is important, perhaps you’d enjoy a ride on the Tokyo subway.
subway-pushers
As a 60+ year-old starting-to-go-deaf guy, I find that 60″ tables provide a sub-par conversational experience. I strongly recommend not using group discussion tables larger than 60” for multiple table room sets, because they make it difficult for many people to hear those sitting across the table, even if the room has exceptional sound-deadening acoustics and the tables are spaced more widely apart than normal.

Do you even need tables at all?
Seating people at round tables makes sense if they’re going to:

  • Eat formally in the same room and there isn’t the time and money to change the room set.
  • Participate in certain kinds of group process like The Solution Room or World Café where the table—covered with paper—is used as a place to document issues and ideas.

That’s it! Under any other circumstances get rid of the tables! They place an unneeded barrier between attendees, reducing intimacy and connection. And once they’re gone, it’s easy for session participants to quickly reconfigure the room set themselves to switch between, say, curved theatre seating, small group circles, and fishbowl layouts.

This discussion is tabled
Meeting planners; don’t make people suffer through another 1001 tortured Nights of the Round Table. Keep your round tables small, or eliminate them completely and your attendees will benefit.

Now, back to my medieval fantasy. Perhaps I can introduce a partner change between courses