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What is a breakout session?

by | Virtual Events | 0 comments

Have you ever wondered “what is a breakout session” or “what are the elements of an engaging breakout session”. Then you are not alone.

A breakout session is when the participants of a meeting or session are broken up into smaller groups to facilitate discussion and/or collaboration on a given topic.

What is a breakout session for?

Breakout sessions provide the participants with an opportunity to:

  • Contribute – during the main presentation, a participant will watch and listen. The breakout session changes the participation mode from ‘watching’ to ‘contributing’. This is particularly important for virtual events and webinars to avoid ‘zoom fatigue’ from setting in.
  • Share – the breakout session gives participants the opportunity to take the material they just saw in the main presentation and to relate to other breakout participants what their experience is, what their reaction is and what their opinion is – relating to this topic. Small groups of people sharing can be a valuable learning experience.
  • Learn – as mentioned above, when other people share their experience, we learn from peers who tend to relate to problems in a similar way to us – because they have been where we have been and wrestled with what we have to wrestle with. 
  • Connect – one desired outcome of curating participants into small groups is when they relate to each other during the breakout session – and then connect and form a relationship after the event.
Breakout sessions help participants share, learn and connect

Characteristics of effective breakout sessions

Breakout sessions are typically:

Intimate conversions – because members are encouraged to share, participate and debate, they often share personal experience of the topic being discussed. This sharing can be vulnerable in nature (what they have tried and failed with in the past, current struggles, previous disputes etc). This is one of the main reasons why the groups tend to be small in number and we ‘break out’ a larger population into a group of smaller ones.

short in duration – usually 20 minutes to an hour in length. Breakouts should continue the theme of the main presentation, encouraging the participants to take the material presented and discuss how they might apply it, what previous experience they have, what ideas they have, how this might apply to their organization and so on. This opportunity to engage with the material presented is extremely valuable. A short period of reflection is optimal to “get the juices flowing” rather than allowing a long time to comprehensively solve a participants problems in depth.

moderated – due to the intimate nature of conversations, it’s important that a moderator is present to ensure that each participant’s input is respected. Moreover, effective moderation keeps the conversation productive and on-topic, urging the participants down the most effective and productive route of conversation and questioning.

synthesized – after the various points of view are shared during the breakout, the moderator or one of the participants might ‘synthesize’ their output to reflect the various points into a summary. Sometimes a member of the breakout session will present their findings back to the entire audience when the event is a truly participatory one (such as a workshop or training session)

relationship-building – when a small group collaborates and shares their input on a given topic in such an intimate setting, it is common for some members of that breakout group to want to continue the discussion. In a physical event, participants might share business cards to follow up and in a virtual event, they might continue to chat online and arrange a call to follow on. This is an extremely high value-add from the event organizer, who has taken a large group, created intimate small groups from that and moderated these groups in such a way that individual connections were made.

Breakout sessions encourage participants to engage directly & build relationships

Types of Breakout Sessions

One of the best ways to illustrate “what is a breakout session” is to share some examples. If you are thinking of adding breakout sessions to an upcoming event, this might provide you with some inspiration!

Campfire – participants are asked to share their experience on a given topic by reflecting on a given question as a group. Sharing opinions and past stories is the main goal. Peers can learn from each other very effectively in this way.

Challenge – participants are asked to solve a problem or to build a consensus on their best group suggestion to a given problem. When the breakout ends, this solution is submitted to the moderator to read out – or a designated breakout room participant will quickly present the solution to the whole group. Moderation is vital in breakouts like this as the participants will expect to have expert help or answers to certain questions as they progress. 

Split Topics – similar to the Challenge breakout type above, but here each breakout room is given a separate challenge and then each group reports back to the whole group.

Cohort – an existing small group (from a university course, training program or other) who already belong to a small group is assigned a breakout room just for them. This may be a precursor to a longer assignment that will be assigned later to the group.

Networking – small groups are created with the primary interest of getting people to introduce themselves to the other participants in the breakout session. Context is key here – so it’s important to give each participant a way or format of introducing themselves that will open up some interesting subsequent dialogue. Participants should introduce themselves by adding some information that is contextual to the topic of the session.

Unconference – people can suggest a list of topics to talk about, which get voted on. The highest voted topics are then the topics of the breakout session and participants can choose which they attend.

Expert Tables – each breakout session has a different expert as moderator and facilitator. Participants can choose which expert they wish to interact with by choosing the appropriate breakout room. These tend to take an AMA (ask me anything format) and can be perceived as very high value. 

Small groups tackling a challenge can be very effective breakout sessions

Tips for effective breakout sessions

  1. Keep them short – breakout sessions are meant to enhance the understanding of the material presented in the main topic. 
  2. Assign one facilitator per breakout session – it’s common for the main speaker to go from breakout to breakout, checking in on each. However, each breakout should have a capable facilitator in the room at all times, given the intimate nature of the group
  3. Allow everyone a voice – the reason having a facilitator is vital is because some people tend to be vociferous and others can tend to be reserved. You want to allow everyone to have a voice. 
  4. Provide enough time to get to the next session – allow at least 5 minutes to get to the next session, have a toilet break, stretch the legs. If you do not do this, you’ll find participants leaving the next breakout session early.
  5. Incentivize attendance- you can provide raffle tickets, merchandise, small bonuses to those who do attend
  6. Design compelling sessions & descriptions – participants will read the description of the breakout and if it is not a compelling description, they’ll be tempted to take a break, check emails or otherwise step out
  7. Capture feedback – at the end of the breakout session, ask participants for very quick feedback (answering 1-3 questions) so you can figure out if you are doing well or not-so-well and can iterate towards improvement in the future. 


Many people ask “what is a breakout session” without diving deeper into the various examples of breakouts and the success factors in organizing successful breakouts. This advice will help you to organize effective breakout sessions – if you have any thoughts or other examples, leave a comment below.


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