5 Ways to Wake Up Your Breakout Groups

What is a breakout group?

Breakout groups are a common fixture at conferences and business events. But what are they?

Breakout groups are small-group sessions organized within larger conferences around topics determined by conference attendees or  organizers.

These groups adjourn to smaller conference rooms, explore challenges and solutions related to their topics, and then return to the larger conference audience to report their findings.

A well-planned and well-paced breakout group provides much-needed human interactivity to an otherwise static lecture program, and adds to the value of your conference by generating real-world ideas for conference attendees.

So why do many conference participants approach the breakout group with such dread or ambivalence?

A boring breakout group (especially one scheduled before lunch) can suck the energy from an exciting conference, and can induce attendees to slink towards the exits.

On the other hand, there’s no substitute for a successful breakout group and the electricity it can generate among your conference audience.

How can you keep your groups lively and boost the engagement of your conference attendees?

Here are 5 ways to wake up the breakout groups at your next conference.

1. Don’t make your groups too big — or too small.

While there’s no magic number of group members needed to tackle a conference topic or problem, there is a threshold where the group is too small to facilitate meaningful discussion — or too large to have everyone’s voice heard (or avoid the session degenerating into chaos).

In general, groups of 4 or fewer are likely to be too small to represent a variety of viewpoints, or to give the group enough structure to create a meaningful presentation.

Conversely, more than 10-12 members on a panel is probably too many. Keep a careful count of conference attendees, and build breakout groups of appropriate sizes based on the number of people at the event.

2. Spend as little time as possible organizing the group.

Organization is the key to an efficient discussion. But don’t bog your group down at the beginning!

Every group needs a moderator and a recorder to take detailed notes of the meeting — but if you’re managing a group of 5-9 people, you probably don’t need much more organization than that. Take five minutes at the beginning of the session, pick your people and move on.

3. Have someone watch the clock (so everyone else doesn’t have to).

Your breakout group won’t be effective if everyone is checking the time instead of concentrating on the issues at hand. Make sure someone (at least the moderator) is keeping track of the time, and speeding people along if they’re monopolizing the discussion.

As the closing bell approaches, the timekeeper should wrap things up, and make sure there’s enough time to create a presentation.

4. Create a realistic agenda and stick to it.

Don’t try and take on too much. Most conference breakout groups are limited to an hour, which is the minimum time to meaningfully explore a topic, but not too long to cause attention to wander.

With an hour, it’s likely that you’ll only be able to cover a few points in any depth. Any more than three is probably pushing it.

As noted above, you should keep a rough schedule in your mind, and make sure the conversation is moving along with it.

5. Innovate new ways to “de-brief” your breakout groups.

You’ve run a brilliant session and illuminated exciting corners of the topic at hand. Don’t let your work go to waste — create a presentation that engages everyone.

Handouts, whiteboards and multimedia presentations are all effective ways to share information. What and how you present depends on the venue’s PA system and multimedia capabilities, of course, but even with limited means it’s possible to create an engaging presentation.

Consider other ideas like mixing up the breakout groups and having them share information among themselves rather than simply having a train of presenters take the podium. Better yet, have each group compile a short presentation in their conference room and allow everyone in the conference to circulate between rooms.

Say goodbye to boring breakout groups.

A great breakout group session is ultimately about communication and shared ideas. Keep your conference’s breakout groups focused, concise and interactive, and you’ll keep the attention of everyone at the conference.