A four-hour-long session of a single person presenting at you. Sounds good, right?
Didn’t think so.
That’s why building breakout sessions into your conference and meeting agendas is important. As the name suggests, they provide a time for your participants (and you!) to break out and explore a subject further.
What is a breakout session?
Breakout sessions are smaller sections of larger meetings or conferences. They allow participants time to move, possibly to a different room, and take part in a different, shorter session.
Some people take in information best by listening to a lecture. Others need to sit and discuss the material with a peer, or to write down ideas to work through them. Breakout sessions can cater to these different styles, and provide breathing space. They’re a chance to talk through what’s already been discussed, or simply stretch those legs. Meetings can get tiring, after all!
Do they still work in virtual settings?
While virtual conferences and meetings have many benefits, they also pose challenges. ‘Virtual meeting fatigue’, the awkwardness of those little headshots, connection issues – the list goes on. It’s therefore equally important to build breakout sessions for virtual settings.
The chart below shows some of the most popular ways of keeping participants engaged online.
A few basic principles
You’re putting your agenda together, and you know you need to include some breakout sessions. But what should they be like? Here are a few basic principles:
Make it fun!
Probably the most important one (it’s in this article’s title, after all). Having fun can be a great motivator, energizer, and reduces stress – all good things!
However, to avoid your participants feeling as though they’re wasting time, make sure you communicate the purpose of a session. If they know something is meant to be just a chance to unwind, they’re more likely to embrace it.
Mix it up
If your main session is a talk, you might not want to ask your participants to head to another talk, even if it’s with a different person. Offer something different to keep it fresh.
And, since not everyone enjoys the same kind of activity, you could provide a choice of sessions alongside each other, with different formats. An introvert may not want to be forced to play team games, for instance.
Involve your participants
Getting participants working with you and each other will bring out additional innovation and ways of working. For example, a whiteboarding session can get the creativity flowing, and provides a way of documenting all the wonderful ideas they come up with as you go along.
You can even go further than just involving participants during the sessions. Before the date, let them choose which breakout sessions they’d like to see, either from a ‘menu’ you provide or by asking for general topics. They’ll feel more connected to the event, and you’ll automatically be catering to their needs
Stay on time
When you plan your agenda, make sure you allow enough time for transitions to and from your breakout sessions – and start on time! It’s not fair to make punctual participants wait for late-comers.
Make time beforehand to familiarize yourself with the conference room technology. It might not be what you’re used to, so check you know how it all works first, and avoid those awkward delays due to ‘technical issues’.
Ideas for engaging breakout sessions
Looking at those basics, you might have already started to come up with fantastic ideas for activities. But, in case you need a bit more of a helping hand, here are a few suggestions, along with some of the settings in which they work best:
Works well at conferences and training days.
Okay, so not ‘dating’ as such. But offering opportunities for professional networking is a great idea. It allows your participants to get something else from your conference, rather than just the content you are providing.
Get participants into pairs to talk about how something might apply to them, what their interests are, and what they have in common. This only needs to be for a few minutes. Then, they move on to the next person, connecting with others and building their networks.
Games or outdoor activities
Great for any setting.
These could be geared towards building skills, such as challenges to solve as a team. Things like building the tallest tower, or getting across a river (metaphorically or literally, if you happen to be near a river!), can be fun ways to improve team-working skills.
But remember: your breakout sessions don’t all have to be learning or work-focused. Perhaps set up board games or a simple video game to put the ‘break’ into ‘breakout’.
If your conference is virtual, you can use online games. Anything more enjoyable than sitting on a chair staring at a Guess Who? style screen of faces…again.
Work well at training days and conferences and some types of internal meetings.
Allow an opportunity for participants to bring their specific issues to an expert (namely, you! Or one of your fellow facilitators).
If there is something they’re particularly struggling with (related to your topic, of course!), then having the opportunity to talk one-to-one with you could be invaluable.
Or, if you’ve just announced some internal changes or a new project, you could offer a breakout session to briefly raise issues with you. You’d then hear about challenges you might not have foreseen.
Great at conferences and full-day sessions.
Offering ‘down-time’ during your meeting or conference helps participants recharge. A guided meditation session allows time to reflect on and absorb what they’ve already heard.
And, meditation and mindfulness are great employee wellness strategies for people to build into their daily work routines after the event.
Works well in training sessions.
Getting participants together to work through ideas enables them to learn from each other, and allows networking opportunities.
Practical sessions in small groups are one option. For example, if you’re dealing with HR topics, participants could roleplay a disciplinary meeting, or try drafting a paternity leave letter template.
Think about what might work for your topic, and set it up.
Over to you!
Now it’s time for you to get creative when planning your next event.
By applying some of these ideas and including engaging breakout sessions, your agendas will be better for your participants. And you’ll probably have more fun creating and running them too.