Business Meetings 411: Building Better Breakouts

Breakouts are one of the most powerful vehicles for engaging participants at business meetings and conferences. A common pitfall is turn them into mini-keynotes and miss out on the opportunity to provide targeted and truly interactive attendee content.

Today, we’ll explore strategies for designing effective and interactive breakouts.

Two popular formats are:

  • Breakout Sessions: Generally used for conferences and sales rallies, participants have an opportunity to delve deep and explore a topic of interest.
  • Breakout Groups: Pairs, trios or small groups of 4 – 12 participants work together to brainstorm, complete a business exercise, analyze a specific business issue, or work on a case together. Breakouts groups are also used for skill practice during training and development programs and projects during team building sessions.

The following strategies will work for either format.

  1. Crowdsource the content.
    Experts have different opinions about whether crowdsourcing is best before or at the start of meetings, conferences, or breakout sessions.  (My bias is that it is best to crowdsource ahead of time so that content can be adequately researched and prepared. Adrian Segar of Conferences That Work prefers on the spot crowdsourcing to ensure that content reflects issues that are most relevant to attendees on the day of the meeting or conference.)
    Use the approach that is the best fit for your audience and meeting.
  2. Kick off with a session starter.
    Give participants an opportunity to identify specific questions, issues and challenges. Session starters will ensure that you begin on time and immediately reassure participants that the content will be relevant and targeted.
  3. Begin with a briefing to set the context, communicate data and convey information that is relevant to the topic.
    Often, mini-keynotes or presentations are the default but we have previously discussed a variety of presentation formats. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Try interactive panels, game show formats, board games and mini-simulations. Take them outdoors if appropriate.
  4. Provide instructions for exercises or activities for breakout groups.
    For meetings, assign specific issues to each group and allow enough time to generate solutions.To keep breakout groups on track:
  • Appoint a group leader to guide the group through the task or exercise and  keep the discussion on topic, a timekeeper and a spokesperson to report back with results.
  • Give the groups time to review instructions and group leaders an opportunity to ask questions to clarify anything that is confusing or unclear.
  • Identify the timeframe that has been allocated.
  • Ask the timekeepers to give the group a 10- and a 5-minute signal when time is running out and check in with the facilitator at the 5-minute mark to request more time if required.
  • Debrief the experience.
  1. Provide an opportunity for questions.
  2. Use an upbeat and interactive activity for review or re-cap. (Optional)
  3. Re-group into session starter pairs, trios or groups. Give participants a chance to re-visit the issues identified during the session starter and apply key insights from the breakout session to generate solutions. (Trading identified issues between groups also works effectively.)
  4. Summarize highlights and identify next steps.
    The most effective approach is to get participants to create the summaries and identify how they intend to apply what they have learned or use the solutions generated when they return to work.

Experiment with a variety of venues, breakout formats and approaches to debriefs. Your content will be more engaging and participants will benefit from a more interactive approach.


Written by Anne Thornley-Brown.