What Is a Breakout Session? [+ How To Plan Your Own]
Having gone to many meetings, I can definitely say that I sometimes get overwhelmed. While I enjoy the content being discussed, I can feel tired and wish for a break to decompress before throwing my mind back into absorbing the information.
I’m sure I’m not alone in these feelings, that many of us want to absorb all we can while still having the opportunity to temporarily disconnect and let our minds wander.
What we’re looking for is a breakout session, where meeting hosts understand and accommodate for the need to take a break and specifically carve out time for them. This post will explain what a breakout session is, explain how to plan for a successful one, and present ideas that you can incorporate into your next meeting.
These sessions are less structured than general meeting sessions, and typically allow attendees to participate instead of simply sitting in the audience and listening. While these sessions can be related to the overall meeting content, they can also focus on unrelated topics.
Breakout sessions can happen during both in-person and virtual meetings. The former typically send attendees to different areas of a conference venue, and the latter use breakout room functions native to virtual conferencing tools. These sessions are especially important during virtual meetings, where there is already an element of built-in disconnection as attendees are in their own respective locations.
Below we’ll go over some ideas that you can use to incorporate engaging breakout sessions into your upcoming meetings.
Breakout Session Ideas
There are various breakout sessions you can plan for, like those directly related to meeting content and others that are entertainment-focused and involve attendees playing games with each other.
Lightning talks are a great way to break up meeting sessions. They’re short so people can attend more than one, and a facilitator takes a set amount of time to give brief talks on a subject of their choice related to overall meeting content.
However, lightning talks can also be adapted to allow facilitators to present on any topic they’re passionate about, helping attendees get to know more about each other and let their minds drift elsewhere before re-focusing on meetings.
Speed networking breakout sessions allow attendees to meet each other and establish professional connections. You can divide people up, set expectations, and instruct participants to spend a set amount of time talking to one person and moving on to another once the time is up.
Games can help participants let loose and de-stress, especially when they’re interactive and encourage engagement with others. These sessions are different from the other ideas on this list as they can be less related to meeting content than others.
During in-person sessions, you can organize bingo games, team people up to solve puzzles, or even play charades. Virtual games are possible as well.
Goal-setting sessions are great as they can encourage participants to think in-depth about meeting content in a relaxed setting where they can have conversations with others and express their thoughts. You can assign a facilitator to each breakout room, and they can initiate a conversation about general meeting content and encourage participants to relate the content to their desires.
For example, suppose your larger meeting is focused on introducing a new business-wide workflow. In that case, attendees in these sessions can set goals surrounding what they want to accomplish with the new strategy over the next year.
Ask Me Anything (AMA) Sessions
AMA sessions are an excellent breakout idea, especially if you don’t have the chance to answer everyone’s questions.
Participants can be separated into different rooms and groups and ask questions or express their thoughts about what has happened during the meeting, and an experienced facilitator can be there to answer them.
Outdoor activities are best suited for in-person meetings where groups of participants can go outside together. They can be less content-focused and involve something like a scavenger hunt, but general breakout sessions can also be held outdoors to give participants a change of scenery.
However, making use of an outdoor session during a virtual meeting can involve encouraging participants to log off for a few minutes, go outside, and come back and tell the group about something they saw while they were out there, or to share a photo of an item you asked them to find and identify outside.
Open Mic Session
Open mics are always exciting, and they can be great for encouraging engagement and giving attendees a moment to have fun and learn about their peers. Open mics can center around meeting content, like having service representatives share customer stories, or unrelated and attendees stand up and share a hidden talent.
Drop-in discussions are a great idea as you can schedule multiple different sessions for attendees to choose from. They’re also a low-pressure format for engaging in conversation and networking. People can navigate to a room where the content is related to their interest, and even pop-in to multiple sessions if they can’t decide.
While this is not an exhaustive list of ideas, they can certainly be used to create and design engaging breakout sessions for your next meeting.
Breakout Session Examples
Below we’ll go over some real-life examples of breakout sessions that can serve as additional inspiration for your planning.
Nonprofit Leadership Center
The Nonprofit Leadership Center is an organization that supports other nonprofits. It hosts a yearly leadership conference that includes multiple breakout sessions led by industry leaders that attendees can choose from.
A Breakout session from their 2020 conference, Courageous Conversations: Understanding & Confronting Unconscious Bias with Margarita Sarmiento, discussed how to create work environments that were inclusive and positive for all to be part of. The breakout session related to the overarching theme of the conference, which focused on leading courageously.
Building On Our Momentum (BOOM)
Mount Holyoke College hosts an annual diversity conference called Building On Our Momentum, where community members are encouraged to attend events and learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion in live talks and recorded content.
The 2021 BOOM conference incorporates various breakout sessions to help attendees engage with content in smaller groups and decompress from hard-hitting topics that they may be learning about.
One of the sessions, Tuesday Crafternoon: Zines, encourages attendees to get creative and create a zine while simultaneously learning about their history and use in marginalized communities.
INBOUND is HubSpot’s annual marketing conference that features a wide variety of opportunities, including breakout sessions. During these sessions, attendees can decompress, further engage with content, and connect with other participants.
Meetup: Black at INBOUND, an INBOUND 2020 breakout session, created a safe space for Black attendees to meet other professionals, network, and discuss topics of interest.
Breakout Session Template
Given the benefits that they can provide, it’s essential to understand how to plan for, and lead, a successful breakout session. Let’s go over some tips.
1. Set designated time frames.
As breakout sessions are specific periods between main meeting sessions, it’s crucial to set specific time frames in which they will occur. Take note of the session’s activity, how long it will take, and aim to stick to that schedule.
2. Set session goals.
Breakout sessions that are specifically designed for attendees to decompress are great, but, regardless of intention, it’s essential to set goals, so participants know what to expect.
Maybe it’s simply just to network and make conversation, but it could also be to outline personal goals. Letting people know what to expect helps you ensure that these sessions stay focused and attendees can accomplish everything within the desired time frame.
3. Design seating to complement the breakout format.
This tip is more related to in-person sessions, but essential nonetheless. It’s important to create seating arrangements and set up meeting spaces that complement and facilitate the session intent.
For example, a room filled with round tables wouldn’t be conducive to a speed networking session where two people are in discussion with each other. Understand what you want participants to accomplish during the decision, and design a meeting space accordingly.
4. Use the correct equipment.
Using the right equipment is relevant to both in-person and virtual breakout sessions, as you’ll want to ensure you have everything you need ahead of time. For example, suppose you’re leading a breakout session game. In that case, you want to make sure that you have all the necessary materials to run the session smoothly, like enough pieces for all participants and printable instructions to refer to during the game.
Having the right equipment is also important because these sessions are meant to help people decompress, so you don’t want to leave people waiting or stressed about what is about to happen, especially during virtual events.
All in all, breakout sessions are valuable aspects of meetings, both virtual and in-person. They give attendees a chance to connect with other participants, think deeply about meeting content, and generally have fun and engaging conversations.
Leverage the tips on this list when planning for your next meeting, and you’ll likely receive feedback from attendees that the sessions were engaging, exciting, and have inspired them to attend your next event.