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Building Better Breakouts

If breakout sessions get a bad rap, it’s often because attendees often don’t understand what purpose breakouts serve.

“If people are questioning why they should be there, you’ve already lost a little bit,” said Gordon Eby, solution designer for Collective Next, a Boston-based company that designs and produces “creative interventions” for businesses.

Breakout sessions need to clearly link to the bigger picture of the conference and “contribute to the larger event,” said Rachel Ruggieri, customer success director for Bizzabo and a former corporate event planner.

To make your breakout sessions more useful and popular, implement some of these expert strategies.

Provide Valuable Content

Planners can sometimes get too wrapped up in icebreakers, decor and tech and overlook the most important aspect of breakout sessions: content. To get people excited about — and going to — breakout sessions, planners must make sure they’re providing valuable, relevant content.

“I think what makes or breaks breakout sessions is the content,” said Alison Zimmerman, founder and CEO of the Event Lounge.

Finding the right speaker or moderator is key. Planners can provide attendees an exclusive or rare opportunity to learn from speakers who have an interesting job or are with an exciting company. Sometimes it’s about finding passionate industry experts, sometimes it’s inviting speakers from a totally different industry who can compare and share cross-industry lessons.

Zimmerman often uses a speakers bureau, but she is also seeing a trend where, instead of using paid speakers, planners opt for people who have achieved something exceptional or led a charge on an issue and have them present their challenges, successes and takeaways.

The best breakouts, Eby said, go from introduction to sharing content to teams working together. If a facilitator leaves having spoken for more than 30 percent of the time, “I don’t think you’ve succeeded.”

Set the Stage

From outrageous decor to going outdoors, planners can get outside the typical meeting space to set their sessions apart. At one of Zimmerman’s recent events at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, groups held fireside chats around fire pits and did Vitamin D sessions, where attendees talked while lounging on branded towels and lawn chairs on the lawn.

During a “walking meeting,” a facilitator or speaker leads the session while leading attendees on a walk, either indoors or outside. During an in-house “roadshow,” a group may walk from station to station during a session.

Though those get people up and about — and out of a room — they aren’t conducive to doing the specific, focused work that is often the goal of breakout sessions, Ruggieri said.

Also, not every event will be able to hold sessions around fire pits or lounging on lawn chairs. All things being equal and assuming that sessions will be held in a convention center or an event hall, it’s important to work with what you’ve got.

Room setup is key to how the group will interact, and function should take precedence over form.

“The environment should always be there to make the work easier for the people,” Eby said. “But I love when you can make something cool and functional.”

He likes to divide rooms so half is set up for receiving information during a presentation and the other half is set up for sharing information while working together. If attendees are going to be working in small teams, don’t use theater or classroom setups; use seating around small tables or in arcs of chairs.

Planners can take away tables altogether to create a more intimate, circle-chat feel. Using couches and armchairs or other soft seating, like beanbags, creates a more relaxed vibe and can help people connect. Hotels and convention centers usually own soft furniture and can often provide it for sessions.

Decoration can really spice up the space. Niagara Business Events sponsored a room at a recent conference, and its audiovisual company used gobos and graphics to make it look like Niagara Falls. Mixed seating included picnic tables, glass tables and Lucite chairs.

“Pop-up” breakout spaces, though interesting, aren’t always that functional. For example, stretching fabric to create separate spaces in a ballroom can create issues with noise and add distractions. Themed mobile or “rolling” rooms may be interesting, but the gimmick should always support the message.

“Sometimes people think too much about making it cool and not making it cool for a reason,” Eby said.

Get Engaged

Mobile meeting apps with live polling and surveying capabilities have changed the game. Speakers can use presession polling to ask attendees what they want to discuss, which allows speakers to hone their presentations. Moderators can also use apps for live Q&A during a session, “which gives you that instant pulse-check in the room,” Eby said, or use it after a session to get feedback for future events.

Apps also allow a different kind of engagement: networking. Networking before, during and after a session “makes that content and experience live on for a much longer lifecycle than just during the event,” Ruggieri said.

Icebreakers and incentives can get people involved, but they can also backfire, coming across as hokey or turning people off. Getting attendees involved for a reason is a better route. Pair people off so they can chat peer to peer. Give them written assignments or starter questions related to the topic.

When weighing in on ideas, ask the group to walk around the room using dot stickers to vote, or have them “vote with their feet” during a human planogram. Facilitators can also use music to move people, for instance, turning on a song to wrap up the presentation and transition to team exercises.

Tech can be helpful in getting people to engage, but it can also be hurtful. Using a “catch box,” a throwable foam cube that contains a microphone, is a great way to get people to pay attention, have fun and contribute to the conversation. The “silent disco” idea is popular but not conducive to breakouts because having everyone siloed in headphones is the antithesis of collaboration.

MPI’s Dallas-Fort Worth chapter pioneered the Rockin’ Roundtable concept. People suggest topics or ask questions ahead of time. Then, during the event, separate tables each have a facilitator or an executive, and “people come to that table, and we just have an open dialogue,” Zimmerman said.