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Event experience | 28 January 2016

Breakout Sessions: How To Create Memorable Experiences

Kathleen Smith

Most sizeable conferences provide opportunities for breakout sessions – that’s when participants are broken up into smaller groups after a main stage presentation for the purpose of discussing a specific topic.

Yet unless carefully considered and planned, they’re not always the most effective use of time. Back in 2012, Andrew McAfee wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the results of break-out groups actually used for anything.” Nonetheless, they remain standard operating procedure for conferences, sales rallies and almost any kind of large event.

In a jam-packed conference setting full of programming options, breakouts need to add real value in order to compete with face-to-face networking and a myriad of other conference activities.  

Here are a few tips for creating memorable breakout sessions for the delegates at your next conference or event.

Don’t plan a breakout when what’s really needed is a break:

While breakout sessions may seem to be an efficient way to break up a long conference, event organizers should avoid using these sessions as a way to bring relief to attendees. Remember, break out sessions are supposed to provide attendees with an opportunity to talk out problems, network and innovate. If attendees aren’t feeling energized, these sessions won’t be successful.

Shorter time periods may be better used for actual breaks, opportunities for refreshment or housekeeping advisories. Adding more breaks, might make other breakout sessions more productive for event attendees.

Establish clear and realistic objectives ahead of time:

If the objectives of the breakout session are unclear, the discussion may be aimless and be a waste of time for all involved.

What type of session are you planning? Brainstorming requires a very different approach than one in which something is taught, explained or applied.

At the very beginning of the session, an introduction that includes clarifying, or setting one or two main objectives for the session, can useful. Just a few interesting or provocative and well-formulated questions can propel the session from there.

Crowdsource breakout session objectives:

As an alternative to setting the objective from the start, more adventurous organizers might wish to allow attendees to set session objectives. In the first few minutes of the session, consider using a live-polling tool, and see what your audience wants to accomplish.

Crowdsourcing objectives is best done early in the day, when attendees have the most energy and are excited about gaining value from the event or conference.

Crowdsourcing may also be a good idea for events that host seasoned professionals. However, those who are new to a subject may be looking for sessions that are more educational and less discussion-oriented.

Choose the right location and space:

You don’t want to lose people in a complicated transition. You do want people to be able to speak and hear each other easily. So consider the logistics of transferring attendees from a larger space to a smaller area with acoustics that will allow for easy communication. Some event planners are utilizing event planning tools apps such as Decibl to monitor noise levels.

While you’re in the planning stage, think about the design of the event venue. Be sure to select a space that is suitable for large keynote presentations, while also being able to support intimate sessions conducive to thoughtful collaboration.

Choose the right facilitator or group leader:

A facilitator can be charged with presenting the topic or question to be discussed, and with guiding the discussion. It’s a hard job to get right, so be sure to carefully select a qualified event speaker or group leader.

If breaking into smaller groups, appoint team members to note down the group’s ideas. The information gathered can be turned into event content shared in front of the larger group, or shared with event attendees in an online community after the event.

Mix up your media:

PowerPoint can be helpful, but it can also be boring. Consider adding video or images and graphic materials to the mix.

What can you do with social media, augmented reality, or drones?

Alternatively, you can hire a designer or artist to create some kind of real-time graphic reference as a great alternative to ubiquitous slideshow bullet points.

Get creative to have fun and encourage sharing:

Good educators know that interactivity creates memorable learning experiences. Game formats such as speed dating, Q & A, puzzles, other icebreakers, or other team-building activities can have a place in breakout mechanics. Just don’t let the fun carry everyone away from the substance of why you’re meeting in the first place.

Use an upbeat and interactive activity for review or re-cap. Summarize highlights and identify next steps.

The most effective approach is to get participants to create the summaries and identify how they intend to apply what they have learned.

Collect Post Session Feedback:

In order to become a better event organizers, it’s important that you learn from each session and build for the future. At the end of a breakout session, send attendees a message using your event networking platform to gather their feedback.

Asking them a single question like “On a scale of 1-10, was this session helpful?” is a great way to ensure people will respond, while also collecting valuable data that will help you plan even better sessions in the future.

In spite of the bad rap they sometimes get, breakout sessions can be incredibly useful for organizing, synthesizing and reviewing information. When carefully organized, they can be used to contextualize narrative information and provide real opportunities to generate and share new ideas and insights.

Breakout session final thoughts:

They can also get attendees more engaged with material and ensure that they retain information once the event is over. And, not inconsiderably, a breakout session can inspire and uplift, rather than bore to tears. What event planner wouldn’t want that? Plan ahead to ensure memorable breakout sessions for your conference attendees. Chances are if they remember the session, they’ll remember the content.

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