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5 Ways to Make Your Breakout Sessions Better Than Ever

Breakout sessions constitute one of the hottest industry trends of 2020. Here’s why- and how to use them to make your events better than ever.
Breakout sessions constitute one of the hottest industry trends of 2020. Here’s why- and how to use them to make your events better than ever. Image by

It's easy to see why breakout sessions rank high on the list of noteworthy corporate event trends for 2020. Essentially, breakout sessions are smaller, more specialized sessions that revolve around a central theme at an event. For example, if you attended a conference on implementing diversity initiatives, breakout sessions might be focused on various aspects of that, such as research methods and data collections, business design and strategy, and evaluation of progress. Breakout sessions work off the assumption that different attendees will be interested in different aspects of the main topic at a corporate event. Since personalization is the biggest current trend in the industry, it makes sense to cater to the different needs and interests of guests who attend events.

During breakout sessions, guests are broken up into smaller groups where attendees can talk more intimately with people who share their interest, focus more specifically on special areas of interest, and receive one-on-one time with speakers. During breakout sessions, people cannot not only learn more about what they need to specialize in a certain area, but get more direct, detailed answers to questions. This strategy is very inclusive and can work better for introverted attendees, who feel more comfortable communicating in smaller groups and intimate settings. How can you plan the best breakout session for your attendees? Here are our top tips for pulling off killer breakout sessions in 2020.

1. Choose the Right Venue and Event Design

This is first on our list because space can make or break a breakout session. Ideally, the session should occur in a space off of the main area. It should be spacious enough that the maximum number of guests expected can sit and communicate comfortably- without feeling squished together, which tends to make people feel physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Also, consider your equipment. If you've got AV or any other kind of equipment that is to be used in a presentation, there should be enough space for that to fit comfortably, too. Any screens or projectors should be in a space where everyone in the room can see it clearly, without straining. People should also be able to see the presenter clearly and be heard when communicating with this person and each other.

Usually, multiple breakout sessions happen at the same time. This gives people the chance to choose between more than one specialized aspect of the event topic. Thus, you'll have to us signage and perhaps employ ushers to direct people from the main area to various sessions.

2. Give Guests a Sneak Peak

Did you know that the descriptions you create for your breakout sessions can actually make or break your attendance.
Did you know that the descriptions you create for your breakout sessions can actually make or break your attendance. Image by

When attendees sign up for a breakout session, don't just give them the topic. Tease them with a description that gives enough information to intrigue, but doesn't give the entire experience away. The details should be enough for attendees to see its relevance to them. Give a brief description of the content, and include the names of speakers and links to theirs or related websites.

And never underestimate the power of storytelling through visuals to captivate. Introduce the session with a clip that tells a short, engaging story about how and why the content will be useful for attendees. Start by answering these two questions: What is the session about, and what does it do? How will it be of service or satisfy a need for attendees? Then make it stand out from other content on this topic by making a values statement that conveys an important message: Your session meets their needs in a new, original way. Intimate that to find out why, guests have to sign up for the session.

Visuals give attendees more than just information: They give them a feel for what's to come and make a memorable impression. People tend to remember feelings more than information, so emotionally engaging them in your content is important. We'll use our earlier example of a conference on diversity initiatives again. Since diversity is a topic that is close to many people's hearts, appeal to that by illustrating how diversity can be strengthened into an inclusive culture. Do so with infographics and storytelling. It sounds like a lot of effort to put into a description for a breakout session that doesn't even constitute the entire event, but it's important to engage attendees before the session begins. Not only are they more likely to attend, but they'll bring enthusiasm and open-mindedness to the session. Obviously, people are more likely to interact about topics and material that will excite them.

Last but not least, adding a compelling description is a great opportunity to include links to your own website, books, publications, or products.

3. Choose a Compelling Agenda

Although a breakout session can certainly be a discussion and should definitely encourage guests to interact more closely with one another, it should be an organized affair. Most of the time, they last from about thirty to sixty minutes, and include short breaks to refresh and recharge. Think of breakout sessions like mini-events within your event. They should be structured and facilitated in an organized way that engages attendees and guides them through the session.

Remember, this is also an opportunity for attendees to engage in more in-depth discussions about specific aspects of the event topic. It's a natural, built-in networking opportunity that encourages relationship-building outside of the event.

One distinctive advantage of breakout sessions is that they allow attendees to change up their environment. Doing so can stimulate creativity. Breakout sessions also represent an opportunity to interact more intimately with more people. This not only lends attendees new perspectives, but it also gives people the impetus and opportunity to brainstorm together and come up with new ideas.

Still, it's safe to say that a majority of attendees don't want to be thrown into an intimate situation with people they've never met. They want to get to know each other at their own pace, but they need structure and initiative to get started. Sometimes, giving them some control over the agenda helps break the ice and lend focus to the session. Some events allow attendees to choose the breakout session they want to attend at the time of registration, or through email in the weeks prior to the event. This way, they have some time to research the topic, write down or memorize questions, and set goals for the session.

Besides, this selection method has benefits for you, too. It gives you information about how many people to expect in sessions so you can plan more precisely. (If you give attendees the option of choosing which breakout sessions to attend on the day of the event, that's okay, too- just set make sure your space accommodates the maximum number of attendees per session, or have them choose at registration or check-in. Just be sure that the projected size of your breakout sessions is compatible with the goals and agenda of each session.

Smaller groups are generally preferable because they increase opportunities for in-depth discussion about specific content. The smaller the group, the easier it is to engage everyone- you don't want to leave anyone sitting on the sidelines, feeling as if they didn't really belong to the group. Breakout sessions are meant to increase feelings of belonging and contribution. It can be easy to feel lost at sea at corporate events- and the larger the event, the less people get to feel engaged. That's just the way it tends to work.

Come up with hands-on, interactive experiences that give attendees more tangible ways to participate. Role playing gives attendees the opportunity to put themselves in other shoes and problem solve from multiple perspectives. It also encourages better communication skills by prompting attendees to communicate in new ways and new situations. Role-playing leadership skills is especially conducive to professional development and more effective teamwork. You can also add incentives to attract people to breakout sessions. Creating contests in which only breakout session attendees can participate adds excitement and exclusivity to the experience. It's also a great way to leverage product sales.

If you've recently launched a new product, why not introduce it during a breakout session? Make it known in your description that this will be the very first demo or chance to interact with and learn about a new product. You can also include a countdown to the product's reveal at the breakout session in your pre-event email and social media promotions.

Another engaging idea? Support a local or relevant cause by giving breakout sessions the opportunity to enter a raffle. This gives people a feeling of giving back and being a valuable part of the community.

4. Feature Engaging Speakers

Today’s speakers treat presentations less like speeches, and more like unique, interactive experiences with your attendees.
Today’s speakers treat presentations less like speeches, and more like unique, interactive experiences with your attendees. Image by

Keynote speakers can make or break any event, and breakout sessions are no exception. Speakers should have an easy, unique way of engaging attendees that captures their attention. Keeping attendees engaged throughout an entire presentation can be challenging, but truly talented speakers have the ability. Gone are the days when attendees expected to be "spoon-fed" information; effective speakers present content by telling a story that guests can emotionally relate to and get lost in. By doing this, they're essentially taking their audience on a story rather than reading points off boring, traditional slides. They're creating an experience. Effective speakers aren't just conveying information or even telling a story about themselves and their experiences. No, even the most enthusiastic, creative speakers will lose their audience if they don't actively connect with them.

Speakers have to be attuned to the body language, facial expressions, and interactions happening in the audience. For really adept speakers, this becomes instinctual over time. When they notice members of the audience perk up, they know how to stretch out the suspense and then move in toward the climax. They know how to register almost imperceptible changes in body language or facial expressions that indicate boredom- and respond by recapturing attention. Essentially, accomplished speakers don't view their presentations as speeches. They view them as interactive experiences which attendees should feel like a vital part of- not merely outsiders or spectators in an audience.

Flexibility is a quality that many planners overlook when hiring speakers. But being able to "go with the flow" is vital because interactive experiences are constantly changing. Communication and attention ebbs and flows; the mood or tone of the room shifts based on mood and conversation; emphasis shifts from one topic to another, sometimes lingering a while on specific subjects, and sometimes passing them over quickly. An adept speaker has to be able to keep up with those subtle changes and act accordingly. He or she has a leadership role and has to know how to capture attention and redirect. But he or she should also know when to put the conversation in attendees' hands, and give them a certain amount of control over the agenda. You'll also want a speaker who can seamlessly incorporate technology into yor breakout session. Crowdsourcing and live polls make attendees feel like their input about the topics that are most relevant to them matters.

Q & A's are also ideal for breakout sessions. In larger groups, many voices get lost in the crowd during Q & A sessions. But in smaller groups where the subject matter is focused on a specific subcategory, there's a much greater chance that everyone will be heard. That's why breakout sessions are so instrumental in addressing the individual, personalized needs of your attendees.

How can you make sure your speakers have these qualities and attributes? Start by researching their work, watching videos of past presentations, and learning about their audience. It's important that their niche, communication style, and personality resonates with your attendees. Otherwise, they won't make the connection. You can glean a lot of information about your speaker's communication style and personality by interacting with him or her directly. What experience does your potential speaker have engaging audiences at events like yours? Research their reviews, look them up on social media, and get a feel for the way they interact with their following. Their website, related websites, and social media platforms should show videos from past sessions and events. If a potential speaker has experience with breakout sessions, that's a good sign- they'll be familiar with the setup and general event design. They'll have experience interacting with attendees in smaller, intimate settings.

If a speaker can leave attendees with something of value, such as an eBook, useable strategy, or relevant product, that's excellent, too. It gives your attendees something to remember them- and you- by. Research shows that people can forget up to 90% of the information that they learned at a conference- that's a lot! So when your speaker leaves your attendees with something tangible and useful that has value to them, it makes a deeper, more lasting impression.

5. Make Virtual Attendance an Option

In 2020, virtual attendees are getting a higher quality experience with newly mainstreamed technology. Here’s how you can tap into the trend.
In 2020, virtual attendees are getting a higher quality experience with newly mainstreamed technology. Here’s how you can tap into the trend. Image by

If you have the technology- and you're going to need it in 2020- create an option for virtual attendance. This way, people who can't physically make it to your event have the opportunity to attend and interact in breakout sessions. Live streaming your event also makes it accessible to a much greater number of people- and opens it up to remote audiences, even if they don't sign up to participate virtually.



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