November 8th, 2008

Matt Yglesias laughs at the Obama press staff releasing this seating plan:


Let’s hand the mike over to Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban, Lord Chancellor of England, counsellor to two monarchs, advocate for the scientific revolution, and all-round smartest guy in the room:

A long table and a square table, or seats about the walls, seem things of form, but are things of substance; for at a long table a few at the upper end, in effect, sway all the business; but in the other form, there is more use of the counsellors’ opinions, that sit lower.

In an earlier life I organised a lot of international meetings, small and large. You soon learn that the room layout, seating plan, sight lines for interpreters and the like are critical to success. Bacon was right – and he was a much more successful politician than Macchiavelli, in a similarly harsh Renaissance milieu.

What can we learn from Obama’s layout? By chairing from the centre not the end, he is, as Bacon says, declaring a democratic intention to make “more use of the counsellors’ opinions, that sit lower.” This is worth knowing.

The layout shown corresponds to formal French dinner-party practice, rather than English in which the host and hostess sit at the ends. The disadvantage is that the chair can’t easily see the people sitting to his or her side. The ideal is I think an oval (i.e. elliptical, not racetrack-shaped) table, chaired from the centre of one side on the short axis.

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