Gone are the days of visitors passively attending online events. To keep attendees engaged, breakout sessions are now a staple feature of virtual events. These smaller focused sessions offer participants the chance to dig deeper into specific topics, engage in discussions, or network with like-minded people.
But not all breakout sessions are created equal. Without proper planning, they can become a time-wasting, snooze-inducing distraction.
In this post, we’ll share tips and best practices so you can create breakout sessions that leave your audience buzzing long after your event.
What is a breakout session?
A breakout session is a workshop or small meeting where participants can discuss and brainstorm a live or in-person event’s theme.
Breakouts are usually shorter than other sessions and occur mid-way or towards the end of an event, when attendees already have some knowledge and context of the main topic.
They’re a chance for audience members to engage with other like-minded event attendees, discuss opinions, learn new skills, participate in competitions, and take a breather from the main event.
How do you know you need a breakout session?
Maintaining attendee engagement throughout live and hybrid events can be challenging for organizers. Some attendees may struggle to maintain concentration for the full duration of the event and leave. One analysis of 1,000 virtual events found that 29% of online session attendees watch only 20% of a session.
The best breakout sessions usually include interactive elements that encourage attendees to speak to each other, distinguishing themselves from the otherwise more passive live event sessions like keynote speeches or panel discussions.
Breakouts are also a chance to segment participants based on their interests and experience level.
6 ways to run a good breakout session during your virtual event
Breakout sessions can boost audience engagement. To get the most out of these virtual meetings, follow these six best practices.
1. Give them a clear purpose
Consider what you want participants to achieve during the session, and set clear objectives for your virtual breakout session.
Whether you want to encourage attendees to discuss different topics from the keynote speech or do speed networking, clearly communicate these goals to participants at the beginning of the session to provide context and direction.
It’s also a good idea to share written guidance so participants can refer to your answers throughout the session instead of being confused about what they should be doing. Consider writing answers to several FAQs and posting them on your live event’s help center or sending them via the live chat.
2. Assign hosts to breakout sessions
Consider assigning a host to each session who acts as a moderator, note-taker, and timekeeper in each session.
Neeha Curtis, VP of Global Corporate Communications of Jugo, agrees that facilitators help breakout meetings run smoothly. “Assign a facilitator to each breakout session to keep the discussion focused and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate. The facilitator can also take notes and summarize the key takeaways from the discussion.”
Sometimes attendees may need to warm up before sharing their ideas with other group members. A host can share an icebreaker to get people interacting. It doesn’t need to be anything complex––simply sharing their name, where they work, and why they attended the event is usually enough to get people talking.
Alex Birkett, a Co-Founder of Omniscient Digital, explains that breakout sessions with a facilitator helps keep conversations flowing.
“When we do interactive breakout sessions, we make sure to have prompt questions plus a group facilitator.”
Alex Birkett, a Co-Founder of Omniscient Digital
3. Keep your breakout groups small
Large breakout group sizes may make it harder for attendees to share their thoughts. One study found 8 to 10 people is the “ideal audience size” for online small chats and round tables. But you may find that smaller groups help people feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts.
Neeha Curtis of Jugo agrees that smaller groups encourage participation. “Breakout sessions are most effective when they involve small groups. Limit the number of participants to three to four people to ensure everyone has a chance to participate and contribute,” she says.
4. Check in on different groups
If you don’t have separate hosts for each breakout group, ask your principal host to jump from one virtual room to another.
Joe Kevens, Founder of B2B SaaS Reviews, says that asking hosts to check in helps groups stay on topic. “During the breakout, it’s helpful for the host or hosts (if there are many breakout groups) to check in to make sure that each group is on track and answer any questions that may have arisen.”
5. Take a break
To maintain focus, keep track of time and schedule short breaks after 20 or 30 minutes of activity. When the scheduled alarm sounds, encourage participants to turn off their cameras and take a stretch break, grab a snack, and drink some water.
Daniel Anderson, the Founder and Editor of The Money Maniac, adds that it’s important to let participants choose the activities they take part in. Some event attendees may prefer a restful breakout session to an educational one.
“Not all participants want to be in intense breakout sessions, so I always give them options to relax and choose activities unrelated to the subject. From my experience, wellness programs, mental health advice, and productivity tips have many attendees.”
Following the breakout session, encourage participants to share insights with each other. Joe Kevens of B2B SaaS Reviews recommends a brief follow-up session so everyone in the event is privy to different discussions.
“After the breakout, one person from each group should summarize their breakout for the larger audience so everyone attending can learn from the different findings from each group.”
Post-event, share follow-up materials or resources with participants like summary notes, handouts, or further reading. This will help reinforce the session’s content and provide attendees with a reference for future use.
How to structure your breakout sessions
Breakout sessions require clear structure but also need some flexibility so that conversations and activities flow.
Choose a format that encourages engagement
Breakout sessions are often the only moment during a virtual conference when participants have a chance to engage with each other. They also may be the only time attendees get to choose the activity they participate in.
Grant Polachek, Head of Marketing and Operations at Squadhelp, suggests using attendee feedback to identify participants’ preferences. “Before the event starts, I include a pre-event survey form to determine what breakout format the participants want,” he explains. He continues:
Depending on your event goals and audience preferences, here are some breakout session ideas to consider:
- Speed networking. Give participants two minutes to get to know each other.
- Brainstorming. Ask attendees to solve a problem or come up with new ideas based on the parent topic.
- Live polling. Participants vote on the correct answer or share their opinions.
- Small group Q&A. Close to 80% of people who attend online events say that Q&As work well for engaging them. Create a short questionnaire of four to 10 questions quizzing people on the topics of the live event.
- Interactive games. Include a competitive element and get people to say the correct answer in the shortest time possible.
Lean into tools to aid collaboration
Depending on the activities you select for your breakout rooms, a few well-chosen interactive tools can help boost real-time collaboration among participants.
Use a digital whiteboard like Figjam or Miro to let participants brainstorm ideas and display group notes on a large screen during the final group feedback session.
Apps like Kahoot and Slido let you run live polls, quizzes, and Q&As within your event. They also integrate with virtual event platforms like Zoom and Hopin, meaning participants don’t need to rely on a second screen.
FAQs about building breakout sessions
- How do you start a breakout session?
It’s best to start a breakout session midway through your event when attendees already have some knowledge of your subject. To get started, share some breakout session guidelines, divide attendees into small groups, introduce the hosts, and begin the icebreaker activity.
- What are some suggestions for breakout sessions?
Here are a few activity ideas for engaging breakout sessions:
- Icebreaker activities
- Polls and surveys
- Small group discussions
- Q&A trivia
- Speed networking
The wrap up
Breakout sessions can help you turn a passive audience into engaged participants. They’re a way to energize and refresh attendees during what may be a long schedule of sessions. The key to a successful breakout session is to set clear objectives and tap into your audience’s preferences whenever possible. Keep these tips and best practices in mind to help your attendees get more out of your next event. Ready to level up your live event engagement?