by Brenna Adkins , , November 02nd, 2023

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We’ve all spent time in long meetings. Because we have, we recognize the feeling of losing focus and becoming disengaged – looking at our watches, checking devices, thinking about lunch, and just generally giving our brains the break they’re asking for.

The less engaged we are, the more the meeting or session falters. We’re not participating in driving new ideas or retaining the information. If the session contains vital material that needs to be passed along to benefit the company, obviously, the meeting will fail to achieve its goals. Thankfully, creative and thoughtful breakout sessions can help save attendees from growing too fatigued and ensure your meeting achieves your objectives.
Woman collects ideas during breakout session
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What Is a Breakout Session?

Breakout sessions are designed to allow participants to dive deeper into specific topics, collaborate with colleagues, and engage in interactive activities. They can take various formats, such as panels, workshops, roundtable discussions, or hands-on training sessions. The format is chosen based on the meeting’s objectives and the most effective way to engage participants. If considered thoughtfully, these mini meetings offer a great opportunity for focused discussions, specialized speakers, and customized learning. Because attendees are given choices, those within a specific session are usually more invested in the topic. When you add in creative delivery, fun activities, and impactful speakers, these breakouts can re-energize your attendees.

Why Breakout Sessions Matter

Ever been to an extremely long meeting without breaks? At a certain point, it becomes hard to stay focused, even if we want to get everything we can out of it. It’s called meeting fatigue, and it can significantly impact how much we retain, as well as how engaged we are with the content and other attendees.

Whether a primary or secondary goal, corporate events often have an informational or educational component, so ensuring attendees retain what’s being shared is an essential component of event success.

This is why breakout sessions are vital in helping your attendees get the most out of your event. While the temptation to maximize your agenda and overschedule is real, it’s not the best idea for your attendees. In fact, research from Microsoft shows that breaks and breakout sessions (especially those scheduled with choices for attendees) are needed to help your brain reset, so it’s ready to absorb more and engage. As the research demonstrates, long meetings on one topic make it difficult to focus and actively participate.

Similarly, when long meetings are scheduled back to back, that same research reveals that stress levels during meeting transitions remain high. While allotting 5-10 minutes for attendees to use the restroom, grab water/coffee, or chat with a colleague is a good start, breakout sessions – with a shakeup of the format, discussion, speakers, and setting – can open up new doors.

If you plan these sessions well, you can get additional benefits from them, such as spiking creativity, reinvigorating conversations, building stronger teams and relationships, and more.

How Breakout Sessions Can Help You Meet Event Goals

Corporate events and meetings often have multiple goals. While the primary goal may be to celebrate, educate, reward, or recognize, important secondary goals often include team building, boosting creativity, collaboration, and networking.

It’s pretty simple. Whether your corporate event occurs over a single day or multiple days, scheduling too many sessions back to back won’t allow attendees to engage in organic ways that boost the potential for event success. Consider that many goals can be met simultaneously with the right activities. Team building and networking occur naturally when you change formats and group dynamics. Breakout sessions can provide that opportunity.

For example, imagine sitting in a session led by a member of the C-suite with a large number of participants. After some brief introductory remarks, the floor is open for comments and questions. Given the pressure of the moment and the sizable audience, participants could quite possibly remain silent. If you instead shrink the audience and group participants with colleagues at similar levels in the company, those changes can help create a safe space for discussion, idea generation, and collaboration. That’s what breakout sessions are all about.

Team brainstorms during breakout sessionSeven Breakout Session Ideas for Your Next Corporate Event

One of the best parts about breakout sessions is that each of your guests will likely attend one they enjoy, where the goals of the larger session may become clearer. Further, if you’ve collected data about your attendees prior to your event through an event app, you may have some additional insights on how to personalize these sessions toward interests, strengths, and the roles of your attendees. When you create valuable breakout sessions, they are energizing to guests. It’s what sends them back to their daily lives motivated and excited about work. So what kind of breakout sessions fit that mold?

1. Brainstorming and Idea Generation
When larger sessions detail obstacles, challenges, or stagnancies the company faces, brainstorming breakouts can provide solutions. Breakout sessions provide a platform for problem-solving. Participants can collaborate to address common challenges, share innovative solutions, and generate new ideas. This collaborative environment can lead to innovative strategies and approaches that will benefit your business. You can go a traditional route where participants brainstorm solutions on a large whiteboard or kick it up a notch and try “Speed Storming.” Borrowing from the concept of speed dating, participants switch tables at regular intervals, discussing and building on ideas from the previous group. This rapid exchange of ideas can lead to unique combinations and innovative solutions. You could also try role reversal, asking participants to brainstorm from the perspective of someone else, such as a customer or competitor. This shift in perspective can lead to fresh insights and creative solutions that might not have been considered otherwise

2. Skill Building
Breakout sessions often focus on practical skills and techniques. Attendees can participate in workshops, simulations, or training exercises designed to enhance their abilities. This hands-on experience equips employees with new tools and approaches that they can apply directly to their daily work. "Workshop stations" are a great breakout option to provide time for hands-on learning of job skills, such as coding, design, or communication expertise. The best part is that you can utilize some of your skilled team members to teach, which provides leadership opportunities while recognizing employees for their advanced skills.

3. Get to the Root of It: Problem Solving
Often, when it comes to problem solving, we solve symptoms – not the problem. In a root cause analysis, small groups analyze a problem your organization is facing and dig deep, challenging each other to find the root cause, rather than the symptoms. These can be facilitated first with a case study to demonstrate the process.

Similarly, case studies (especially if they mimic situations that create challenges in your workplace) can be valuable as well. Finally, if you want to gamify this work, consider an “escape room” style challenge. The goal here is to develop problem-solving skills, to work with others, and to challenge the way we view not just the problem but also potential solutions. It’s a great team-building exercise as well.

4. Role Playing and Simulation
One great way for breakouts to break the mold of “sage on the stage” style sessions is to ask participants to step out of their comfort zones, something that may not occur in larger meetings. Role playing can help attendees understand new or different perspectives and can be an incredibly useful tool for sales teams

Similarly, simulations can help your team prepare for situations they may face. These can be great for crisis management, negotiations, or even if you’re preparing to move to a new region where cultural concerns may take center stage.

5. Take a Deep Dive
Breakout sessions allow participants to delve deeper into specific topics of interest. Unlike broad keynote speeches, these sessions provide detailed insights and actionable knowledge on particular subjects. Attendees gain in-depth understanding and practical skills (often in a hands-on setting), enhancing their expertise in a particular area.

And while these deep dives allow you to explore these aspects of your business thoroughly, they can also be an invaluable way to connect teams. For example, there may be aspects of the industry or even someone’s role within the organization that members of your team (who work in different areas) are never exposed to. A better understanding of what each team is doing can help improve collaboration across your entire organization.

6. Diversity and Inclusion Discussions
The work of understanding diversity and inclusion is usually best suited for smaller groups. Often in larger groups, difficult conversations are harder to moderate and more challenging for the trust required. Small group discussions about diversity and inclusion in the workplace are a great way to tackle the subject in a manner that creates safety for participants. Similarly, small groups are great for bias training initiatives and can be used to build and strengthen teams.

7. Lessons Learned 
Businesses make mistakes. Opportunities, or clients, are lost. Products fail. Strong businesses learn from those mistakes, and one of the best ways to do that is by doing a post-mortem. In small groups, you can look at what happened, why, and the roles teams played in that. Further, it allows your team to take an active role in reviewing potential mistakes and planning for how you’ll meet those challenges moving forward.

One of the biggest benefits of breakout sessions is that smaller groups increase participation, and for your organization, that increases engagement and builds trust among your teams. While bigger sessions are great for general information, breakout sessions are the best way to dig in and do thoughtful, focused work.

While these aren’t your only options, they’re certainly an excellent place to start. As event planners, we’ve seen everything from relay races to virtual reality rooms. All can help provide a break for your attendees, but if you’re looking for options that fit your schedule, budget, and theme, then contact us.

Bishop-McCann has decades of experience in helping plan successful corporate events and meetings that ensure you hit your event goals, and sometimes that means a break (or breakout) along the way. We’re ready to help! Reach out to our team today, and let’s get planning.
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