Event breakout sessions are valuable tools in the conference planner’s belt, so long as they’re focused and purposeful. Without a clear objective, they’re time-wasters at best, and sources of frustration at worst—for the participants and you.
Explore this comprehensive guide to design breakout sessions your attendees appreciate and enjoy. You’ll find strategies and ideas for planning and facilitating a breakout session, and workshop ideas to suit any event theme.
What is a breakout session?
An event breakout session or breakout meeting is a workshop-style group activity designed for problem-solving, generally (but not always!) focused around the conference or event theme. These sessions are shorter than other items on the event agenda. Often, breakout participants rejoin the full group to present or discuss the results of the workshop.
Event breakout sessions provide opportunities to:
- Learn, polish, or share skills
- Discuss common issues
- Brainstorm solutions
- Explore ideas in a less structured format
- Break up the overall event schedule
- Regain attendees’ attention
The benefits of event breakout workshops:
- Improved attendee engagement
- Time and space for deeper dives into relevant topics
- Targeted content that’s of interest to some, but not all attendees
- Targeted content across experience and skill levels (i.e., beginner and advanced)
What makes a good event breakout session?
Useful and enjoyable event breakout sessions are often related to the event theme. This way, the subject matter is relevant to attendees. The best event breakout sessions include a participatory element that builds engagement and distinguishes the breakout from more passive conference moments, such as the keynote and panel discussions. They also have facilitators who know how to lead sessions and draw participants out, without being overbearing.
How to plan engaging breakout sessions
No one breakout session arrangement stands out as better than the rest. The beauty of the breakout is your ability to tailor it to the needs of your event and audience. There are workshop opportunities for groups of all sizes, whether you’re hosting a large convention or smaller seminar. Follow these tips to design the best breakout options for your event:
1. Get input from attendees with pre-event surveys
Poll attendees ahead of time to see what experiences they’re looking for, then design the event’s breakout options to fit that wishlist. After you gauge interest, find speakers, leaders, and facilitators to meet those needs. Use the attendee data you collect to create your breakout programs. Sessions can be track-specific, theme-specific, or unrelated to any specific theme. What matters is that your attendees feel the sessions add value to the event.
2. Pick the right breakout format
First, determine what an effective session means in terms of the specific event. Is your goal to increase engagement? An interactive breakout workshop may be the best format. Sharing case studies, trends, and statistics may be better suited for a presentation-style session. If the aim is to provide time to unwind, look for participatory sessions that get attendees moving, relaxing, or creating.
3. Ask guests to register for breakout sessions early
Pre-registration ensures you’ve got adequate materials, space, and staff necessary to host the workshops. It can even reveal less-popular options that may need to be adjusted, promoted, or cut from the schedule.
Even with a pre-registration requirement, people may be looking for an opportunity to join a session on the day of the event. Have a plan for unregistered attendees—prepare for an influx of last-minute attendees with extra seats and materials, and consider day-of registration to fill empty seats. Keep in mind:
- There are drawbacks to breakout session pre-registration. Attendees may change their mind about sessions they’ve registered for, leaving empty seats and a smaller audience. Allow people to sign up on a standby list so empty seats aren’t left that way.
- Drop-in activities have value, too. Including drop-in sessions—a morning networking cafe, mid-day mindfulness exercise, or afternoon free-write activity—can break up an agenda, giving guests an energy boost for better focus during subsequent sessions. A mixture of registration-required and open-door options can provide the balance attendees seek.
4. Time your breakouts strategically
Timing is about more than staying on schedule, though that’s important as well. If your breakout sessions are scheduled too late in the day, attendees may be more focused on going home and engagement may suffer. Scheduling breakout groups too early may earn fewer registrants.
Don’t overdo it, either: Too many sessions can leave you with burnt-out attendees. Consider whether networking opportunities or an additional break is the better option, and recognize when a session isn’t ideal for a breakout-style format.
5. Design seating to complement the breakout format
Certain seating arrangements leave specific impressions. Use floor plan software to design event seating layouts for each session. Tailor each room layout to the session style.
Collaborative seating—square or U-shaped table arrangements, semi-circle seating, cafe tables, or hybrid layouts foster communication and action. Theater-style and lecture seating are better for less interactive sessions.
For on-the-move sessions, skip tables altogether. Instead, include unexpected seating options like bean bag chairs, or incorporate motion and creative thinking with BOSU Balls instead of chairs.
There’s more to seating arrangements than just the seats. You need the right location and meeting space, too. Breakout spaces need to inspire and engage, not overwhelm. When choosing the breakout rooms, consider these factors. Does the room allow:
- The appropriate A/V equipment
- Plenty of space to move and interact
- Minimal distractions. (i.e., echoes, clunky heating units, traffic noises, or hallway chatter)
- Environmental comfort (i.e., not too hot, cold, bright, dark, or stuffy)
6. Use tech to boost breakout session success
Encourage participation and make it easier to share ideas with tech-based tools:
- A live polling app like Glisser or sli.do can gather and display audience responses in real-time. Use it to engage with participants, gauge experience levels through polls, determine what they’re most interested in learning, or collect data for future use.
- Test coordination and get attendees moving with a throwable microphone.
- Use a digital whiteboard app to display workshop group notes on a big screen for full-group discussion, and reference during the final presentation. Stormboard is one option that can connect to Slack and Trello for easy sharing and reference after the event. Collaboration doesn’t need to stop at the end of the conference: Shared notes can become a living document that attendees revisit after the conference.
7. Choose breakout session facilitators who guide without controlling
Facilitators should provide support relevant to the topic at hand and drive activities, all without disrupting the process. While the session facilitator is in a leadership role, the purpose is to encourage independent problem-solving and idea generation. Rather than telling participants what to think, the facilitator should encourage them to think.
Facilitating breakout sessions involves:
- Engaging participants
- Maintaining pace and adjusting as necessary
- Monitoring breakout activities, without injecting expertise into a team discussion
- Overseeing post-workshop discussions and offering answers when asked, rather than acting as a gatekeeper
- Recording results and leading a closing group discussion
The facilitator can’t do it all alone. Provide session moderators for each breakout group. The moderator can introduce the breakout speaker, keep an eye on the clock, hand out necessary materials, and monitor the process.
8. Build buzz to improve breakout session participation
Interactive games and activities help improve attendance and engagement during event breakout sessions. Some possibilities to consider:
- Hand out raffle tickets in exchange for attendance, and offer additional tickets for participation.
- Gamify the experience by sorting participants into teams and awarding points for participation.
- Reward attendees for reaching goals with stickers, branded pens, app download codes, gift cards, or carnival-style prizes.
- Create ‘secret,’ invite-only workshops to encourage participation. Allow participants to unlock invitations by visiting a specific number of booths, finishing a scavenger hunt, or attending a pre-set session schedule.
9. Ensure breakout workshops cater to a variety of learning styles
Learning is an individual process without a one-size-fits-all solution. Still, there are three main learning styles to target. Each person often has a prominent style that works best for them, whether they know it or not. Incorporating tools to increase comprehension and focus attention can improve the participants’ experiences, no matter their style.
Kinesthetic learners learn by doing. Keep kinesthetic learners focused with pipe cleaners, Legos, or Plus-Plus blocks—tactile tools to improve memory and focus. Asking kinesthetic learners to handle note taking can increase participation and help them retain the information, as well. Kinesthetics will likely outnumber visual or auditory individuals in participatory or active sessions—it’s where they shine.
Visual learners thrive with visual aids. Visual learners are fond of text and learn best by watching demonstrations before trying something on their own. The front row will likely include more visual learners than kinesthetic or auditory learners. Slides, images, graphs, and handouts are perfect for visual learners—just avoid clutter; cramming too much on one page can overwhelm the senses. Physical note taking can improve comprehension and retention for visual learners, so include space on handouts for jotted notes.
Auditory learners are verbal and conversational. Incorporate questions, dialogue, and discussion to increase participation and improve retention in auditory learners. Auditory learners are often the first to speak up and value discussion. For this learning style, spoken directions and verbal explanations are easier to understand, but too much noise can be a distraction, so limit non-essential background noise to improve concentration.
Go beyond lectures with these breakout session ideas
Interactive event breakout sessions
1. Use the Human Spectrogram technique to uncover common industry struggles—then collaborate in small groups to find ways to solve these challenges.
2. Create a Think Tank-style session to bring experts across the industry together to discuss creative solutions to specific concerns.
3. Create a Wants/Needs Exchange board to connect people who wish to swap expertise or collaborate on a shared issue. Provide space for conversation after connections are made.
4. Create opportunities for networking, but match participants with AI.
5. Provide instruction on how to create a Mind Map and encourage attendees to capture their thoughts using this structured format.
Fun, play-based breakout sessions
6. Host a Lego® Serious Play® program to encourage building and ideas-sharing through play.
7. Challenge attendees to let loose with Mario Kart battles; up the ante with a bracket-style competition for the duration of the event.
8. Create a casino on-site—with a twist: All attendees compete to earn donations for charity.
9. Let the attendees show off their random (or business-based) knowledge with a Pub Trivia event. Randomly-drawn teams can encourage networking. There might be a person in each group who wrestles for control, but it may provide a lesson in team dynamics.
10. Create your own version of a Family Feud®-style survey game. Include the full audience with a polling app for live answers, see how well teams can answer industry-specific questions, or poll the audience on a variety of subjects and have the teams guess their answers.
11. Design a Breakthrough Bingo game. Ask attendees to fill out a blank BINGO card with challenges they face, either personally or within the industry. After the cards are full, create small group pairings, either randomly or using common themes. Allow time for a 30-minute group brainstorm session. The goal is to find ways to approach the challenges listed. Participants mark off the challenges they’ve tackled on the card by listing two actionable ideas for each concern. The goal is to get a bingo. This activity builds connections, encourages problem-solving, increases collaboration, promotes active listening, and exercises critical thinking skills.
Easy and short breakout sessions
12. Lightning talks are short presentations in the vein of PechaKucha. Several short, concise presentations, usually under five minutes each, foster thought, conversation, and collaboration.
13. Encourage participants to use the “Yes, and…” technique: Suggestions from others should be met with acceptance (“Yes!), then followed by a communication-extending “…and” to improve communication and reduce judgment.
14. Create space for a goal-setting workshop. Host a discussion, then encourage participants to create a list of top personal or professional goals for the next month, six months, year—and what success looks like. Defining specific objectives improves chances of success versus vague goals.
Teaching and learning event breakout sessions
15. Combine training and competition like SAEM’s SimWars, a simulation-based experiential learning event.
16. An Ask Me Anything (AMA) presentation is a popular Q&A format that encourages attendees to guide the session.
17. Host a Business Book Club discussion: Announce the book ahead of time so attendees have a chance to read and prepare. The facilitator can lead the discussion—or invite the author to act as the host. Include a book synopsis and relevant notes for attendees who didn’t read the book, but still want to participate.
18. One-on-one mentoring sessions, scheduled in fifteen-minute or half-hour blocks with relevant experts. Pre-registration is a must for scheduling purposes.
19. Allow attendees to explore leadership training and styles and learn their personal approach.
Outdoors-based event breakout activities
20. Send teams on a scavenger hunt outdoors or around the block. This popular activity also provides an opportunity to collaborate with businesses along the route as an incentive for future sponsorship.
21. Stage an outdoor relay race to get the blood flowing after the lunch break.
22. Build space within nature for attendees to disconnect from their tech. Use outdoor yoga, a guided walking tour, or team-building exercises to encourage participants to put down the phone and unwind.
Collaborative event workshop ideas
23. Encourage group cooperation with a trip planning exercise. Create a challenge—visit every state park in Colorado or taste-test at the top 25 maple producers in Vermont—and task teams with mapping out the best route to meet the challenge. The catch? Except for finding business locations on a custom map, Google isn’t allowed for directions or times. Participants present their route and reasoning (plus challenges) to the full group.
24. Invite virtual attendees to join the in-person conversation, too.
25. Host a paper airplane making and flying competition, challenge teams to an egg drop contest, or facilitate a marshmallow challenge. Hand out awards—from “Longest Flight” to “Biggest Crash”—to the winners. The benefits of these activities include collaboration, problem-solving, and getting people up and moving. They’re fun and easy, but encourage networking and the sharing of ideas in a fresh way.
Opportunities for sharing
26. Host an Open Mic event for The Moth-style storytelling or model an event after the TED Talks format.
27. Riff on the reality show with a Start-Up Shark Tank-style session: Invite makers, creators, inventors, and more to promote their ideas during a pitch session to earn prizes, investors, or mentoring.
28. Roundtable discussions allow space to participate in discussion or debate in an interactive, equal-footing format.
29. Drop-In Discussions provide a low-pressure format for conversations, networking, and engagement.
Learn something unrelated to the field
30. Storytelling or writing workshops encourage creativity. Make sharing optional.
31. Create a beginners’ Learn to Code for hands-on learning—Google’s kid-centric CS First program is packaged and ready to go for group activities.
32. Spark culinary talents with a cooking class—or challenge confident chefs in friendly competition.
33. An improv workshop provides a chance to unwind, but also teaches interpersonal communication, boosts awareness, and improves focus.
34. Host a Paint and Sip party for the artistically inclined or curious. Try a Brew and Build if your audience prefers a more tactile activity.
Create the best event breakout sessions!
Gauge interest, see where you succeeded, and learn what snags to watch for next time by sending post-event surveys to the participants. Their feedback is how you create a bigger, better breakout schedule at your next event.