How to run a breakout session – tips and ideas for successful breakouts at events
Breakout sessions provide attendees a great opportunity to test their own knowledge, learn something new and meet other people. But these sessions need to be well thought out to ensure they’re valuable for both you and attendees.
Without careful planning, breakouts may feel unproductive for those involved and attendees may struggle to recall what they’ve learned. Read our guide for ideas and planning tips that will make your breakout room sessions a success.
What are breakout sessions?
Breakout sessions are essentially an activity or discussion that takes place as part of a larger event, meeting or conference. Often held in a workshop format, an event breakout session involves attendees separating themselves into smaller groups to exchange ideas. Once the sessions are completed, attendees return to the main event and share their thoughts.
Breakout sessions have a few different names, such as breakout rooms, breakout groups or breakout meetings. Either way, the purpose of each session is to encourage collaboration and engagement throughout your event, increasing the value for attendees.
They can be run in between talks or as a concurrent session, and can be utilised in both in-person and virtual events.
In-person breakout sessions
While team breakout sessions became popular during the pandemic, they are also a valued part of in-person events. During these sessions, attendees are sent to physical breakout rooms – usually different areas of the event venue – for a period of time.
Like virtual events, breakout sessions add variety to the day. With in-person events, attendees get to move about and enjoy a different setting rather than feeling like they’re stuck in one place for a long time. They provide networking opportunities, allowing attendees to work closely with people they haven’t spent much time with before now.
Virtual breakout sessions
Breakouts are considered to be an important part of virtual events as it provides the human element needed to keep attendees engaged – they get to participate in the talk rather than simply staring at a screen, minimising that feeling of disconnect.
Virtual event software often has breakout functions which allows you to segment attendees into groups as part of your event. Virtual event platforms with breakout rooms include:
You can read more about event software in our virtual event guide.
The benefits of breakout sessions
Group breakout sessions bring many benefits to your event, such as:
- Adding variety to long days and encouraging attendee engagement – breakout rooms act as a refresher in between talks and gives attendees a chance to refocus for the next presentation.
- Helps attendees retain information from your session – taking part in discussions or activities gives attendees a chance to put into practice what they’ve learned while also hearing a range of ideas.
- It’s a chance to hear different opinions on the topic and encourage open discussions – people with varying levels of experience and share their opinions, which others can learn from, especially if someone is new to the subject. As well as this, talking in smaller groups may make it easier for some attendees to share their thoughts as it’s a more ‘private’ setting.
- Providing networking opportunities – especially during virtual events.
- Increasing productivity – attendees have a chance to think about the topic and come up with their own solutions or takeaways, reducing passive listening.
Breakout sessions ideas
There are many different breakout session activities that you can do, making it easier to cater your sessions to the type of event you’re hosting.
Engaging breakout sessions for in-person events
Breakout session ideas for in person events include:
- Brainstorming sessions or roundtables – set a timer and have each group discuss a specific topic.
- Ask me anything – a Q&A format that focuses on different speakers, or encourages attendees to ask each other questions as a form of networking.
- Topic deep dives – if your talk is on a broad subject, breakouts allow attendees to explore certain topics in more depth, honing in on what interests them the most.
- Interactive polls – to encourage discussions while also allowing attendees to participate anonymously, if they’d prefer. You can also use it as a way for them to take part in activities, too. As an example, at an event Chef Ottolenghi held for his book launch, he cooked recipes while using interactive polls to let the audience choose the ingredients he used.
- Speed networking – similar to speed dating, speed networking allows for quick 5-minute chats with experts with varying levels of experience to get to know each other, opening up opportunities later down the line.
- Games, such as Jenga, Lego and quizzes
- Walking tours/discussions – a great way to get attendees moving around and experience fresh air, or at least a change of scenery.
Virtual breakout room ideas
Many of the group breakout session ideas listed above can be adapted for virtual events. For brainstorming sessions, you could use tools like Miro (this TikTok tells you how!) and Google Jamboard, or whiteboards if already using Google Meet. Ask Me Anything and speed networking are also great breakout session formats that can be easily adapted for virtual use.
Other virtual breakout room ideas include:
- Virtual games such as escape rooms or quizzes – can use companies such as We Are Wild Goose.
- If the goal of your event is to educate attendees, use breakout sessions as an opportunity for attendees to test their knowledge. LeedsBID, for example, recently hosted a BSL event where attendees practised sign language in breakout rooms.
- Similar to walk and talks, you can host virtual coffee sessions where attendees can spend some time catching up and taking a break.
- 5-minute business or product pitches – everyone takes turns to pitch their ideas for quick feedback (this can be used at in-person events, too!).
Tips for running a breakout session
Once you’ve chosen your breakout activity and have an understanding of what you want to achieve, it’s time to start planning your sessions. Here are a few tips to help you create successful breakouts for your event.
Set goals for your breakout session
What do you want your attendees to get out of your breakout sessions? To learn, network or relax? Or maybe something else entirely? Having clear, tangible goals for your breakouts makes it easier to plan and measure the success of your event.
The key here is to avoid choosing a goal that’s broad or unattainable – it has to be more than ‘discuss a topic within the time slot.’ Make the outcome of your breakout sessions to fill in slides, complete a puzzle or learn a new process or skill. Giving attendees something tangible to work towards, leaving less room for confusion. It’ll also help ensure groups are focused, as they’ll be able to track their progress throughout the session and know when they’re falling behind. Make sure to clearly share your goals with attendees at the start of the breakout sessions to keep them on track.
Plan your breakout session ahead of time
While the success of your breakout rooms will depend on attendees, planning ahead can help guide them towards your goal.
You should start by finding out what topics people want to see, making it easier to decide which sessions will be more popular and what they expect from each one. You can then find speakers best suited to leading these sessions, and choose an event venue that’s perfect for each breakout. Send out polls or surveys leading up to the event so attendees can choose well in advance of the day.
It’s also worth keeping in mind the different learning styles you need to accommodate. For many, sitting through presentations isn’t the best way for them to take in new information and workshop breakout sessions are an opportunity to learn in a different way, allowing them to retain information in a way that suits them. Accommodating a variety of learning styles into your sessions means attendees are more likely to get something out of them, and your event is more of a success. Try and plan a variety of sessions throughout the day, or provide a little flexibility in how each breakout completes a task, allowing everyone to work in a way that suits them. Read more about the different learning styles here.
Make sure to promote your breakout meetings before the event, allowing attendees to book to ensure all groups are relatively even. Include the sessions on your event schedule and marketing materials, even if there are breakouts that don’t require booking in advance, such as drop-in meetings or free writing sessions.
Choose the right event venue
Your event venue will need to accommodate your breakout sessions, so it’s important to choose one that has plenty of space.
When choosing a venue for your event, a good size is vital. If everyone is packed together in one room, it’ll be harder to hear each other and get anything done. If a venue has smaller rooms that can be used as breakout spaces then attendees will find it easier to communicate within their groups.
You’ll also need to consider flexibility. The seating style can easily impact how your breakout sessions play out – for example, if you’re hosting breakout sessions to facilitate networking, then a row of tables isn’t going to work as well as circular seating or standing tables. You may also need room to move around, if necessary for your task.
20 Bedford Way has a variety of large conference rooms with flexible layouts, allowing you to host a bespoke experience for your guests. We can tailor our rooms to suit your requirements, allowing you to host multiple breakout sessions that enhance the day for attendees. From smaller seminar rooms to our 910-seater Logan Hall, we have plenty of space for your event.
Facilitating breakout sessions
Facilitating a breakout session involves encouraging participation, keeping the pace and leading opening and closing discussions. You’ll need to have someone within each breakout to lead their group, while you oversee the breakout sessions as a whole.
Without anyone leading a breakout session, attendees are more likely to get distracted, either because they’re not 100% sure on what they need to do or because they seem generally unfocused. To help prevent this from happening, make sure to give clear instructions about what you want each group to achieve within the allotted time. You may also want to type and print out the task to give as handouts, so attendees have a reminder.
Within each group, allocate an attendee to lead the breakout – or let them decide between themselves – and have another group member to take notes. That way, you can see the progress is being made amongst the groups and feel confident that group leaders are keeping everyone on track.
Make sure to check in with each breakout when you’re about halfway through the session, hearing everyone’s ideas and ensuring that each session is a success
Timing your breakout sessions
Time is an important consideration when planning breakout groups. When everyone is engaging in conversation, enjoying an activity and producing the results you want, it can be easy to let time run away with you. However, your breakout sessions need to end in good time – if not, you won’t have time to corroborate ideas before the next talk starts.
The time needed for a breakout session depends on group size and number – ten people in a group will need more time than a group of two. Consider the task you have in mind and how much detail you need attendees to go into. If need be, break down the activity into stages, with each stage to be completed by a set time. With shorter time frames, attendees will work both harder and faster to ensure the task is completed in time.
If you’re hosting a virtual event, then you may need to give attendees more time than you would for an in-person event. With online breakout sessions, there’s more room for disruption, such as poor WI-FI connections, adapting to online tools or those little awkward pauses that often occur during virtual conversations. If you’re planning a hybrid event, with both physical and virtual breakout rooms, then it may be worth giving the online sessions a longer slot.
On a final note, if you’re letting attendees decide between themselves group leaders, give them time to do this before the activity starts – ideally, only a minute or so. This will save you precious time later on.
Breakout session planning with 20 Bedford Way
At 20 Bedford Way, we have the event spaces to facilitate valuable breakout sessions that your guests are sure to remember. While we have our large conference venue Logan Hall, we also have a variety of flexible event venues, all of which are located closely together. We can help plan the ideal layout for your breakout groups, even connecting rooms together so you have the perfect seating plan tailored to your event.