For over 15 years as a motivational speaker, I have observed audiences come early to an event so they can get the best seats in the house- at the back of the room.
Obviously, you learn more, can see better and have more interaction from the front of the room. So why do people insist on sitting at the back?
Many audience members tend to sit as far away as possible from the stage. Likely because they don't want to be picked on by the guest speaker, they may also find it easier to doze off in the back or spend the time on Facebook.
The back of the room is often closer to the doors and a much easier escape if the guest speaker is boring. Thus, people have been conditioned to avoid the front row in any venue. Trouble is, it's tough for a guest speaker to motivate a room with people scattered all over the auditorium and the first few rows vacant.
Over the years I have seen many tricks to get audiences to sit in the front, here are some of my favorites:
Ask them. When people pile into the room, simply usher them to the front row. If you know who the outgoing, extroverted audience members are, encourage them to sit in the front.
Have the Guest Speaker greet people when they walk into the room. This way delegates know that they are human and not monsters.
Get a Good MC. After disarming and warming up the crowd, an MC can encourage people up to the front of the room.
Fill the front with distinguished guests. Many meeting planners will put board members, featured motivational speakers, the CEO or executive director at the front. This makes sense because they are closer to the stage when they are called on to speak. It also makes the front row less daunting to others.
Create a Safe Environment. Make sure speakers don't set out to embarrass audience members, this will serve as a reminder to never sit in the front! Also, make sure that the guest speaker doesn't try to sell or promote too much, this will put the audience on edge. Pressure is on the speaker to perform, not the audience.
Offer Rewards. You shouldn't have to bribe audiences to participate, however, small, simple rewards can be fun and warm people up for interaction.
Be Mindful of Seating Design. Experiment a bit with seat placement. If you place a row of chairs inches from the guest speaker, anyone will be intimidated. I find straight rows affect site lines, while ( especially in the front row) a slight half circle set up is more welcoming and comfortable.