How can we create great online breakout sessions?
Does this sound familiar?
You attend a conference session on a topic that interests you. Perhaps you’re a novice, or an expert, or someone in between. Or perhaps you want a general introduction. Perhaps you have a few specific aspects you want to hear about, or questions to which you’d love to get answers.
The presenter begins, and you quickly realize the session is not going to meet your needs. (Or, even worse, you sit through the whole thing, expecting your specific interests to be addressed — but they never are.)
How many other attendees are having the same experience? How many attendees are getting their wants and needs met by this session?
We will probably never know.
At traditional sessions, you might get a hint of how well the presenter met wants and needs at the end, when “there’s time for a few questions”. Whatever you discover at that point, it’s too late.
How to create great breakout sessions
There’s a better approach.
Whether a breakout session is in-person or online, the way for a leader or presenter to make it great is to:
- quickly uncover audience interests at the start of the session; and
- use the expressed wants and needs to create a session that covers the desired content at the required level.
Why does this approach create great sessions?
This approach works because it makes a transparent effort to provide an optimal session for the participants: what they actually want and need. Participants appreciate this! You might end up with a plan like this one:
“It looks like about a third of you are relatively new to [the session topic] and you’re mainly interested in an introduction. The rest of you seem most interested in spending time learning about X & Y. A couple of you have specific questions that I can answer quite quickly.
I can provide an introduction to [the session topic]. Ayesha has expertise in X, and Cyrus and I know about Y. I propose I start with an introduction to [the session topic] for ten to fifteen minutes. Then let’s turn the session over to Ayesha for fifteen minutes on X, followed by Cyrus & I for around fifteen minutes on Y. During the remainder of the session I’ll answer the two specific questions, and we’ll use any remaining time to answer final questions.
How does that sound to everyone?”
The transparency of this process is really important, because, of course, it’s impossible to create a session that’s perfect for everyone. Suppose, for example, that you have a specific need that might take up most of the session to be fulfilled…and you’re the only person who asks for this. OK, so you’re not going to get your needs met, but at least you understand why. Furthermore, a smart presenter may still be able to offer an opportunity to respond to your need: e.g., “John, we don’t have time in this session to talk about Z, but email me and I’ll send you some articles that should be helpful.”
How to create great in-person breakout sessions
At in-person events, it’s easy to uncover audience interests using the Post It! For Sessions technique described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. The presenter supplies a pen and sticky note to each attendee and asks them to write down one topic they would like explored, or question they would like answered during the session. The notes are collected and categorized into broad themes, and the presenter designs a responsive session, like the one above, on the spot. (Check out the book for more details.)
How to create great online breakout sessions
With a little ingenuity, it’s simple to modify Post It! For Sessions for an online breakout session.
To start, ask everyone to come up with their answer to this question:
“What one thing do I want to get from this session?”
Tell them that their response can be specific or general; they get to choose what they most desire. Give them a minute to think about their answer, and ask them to post it in the online platform’s text chat.
In the example above (a breakout session held in Zoom for store owners) there is interest from more than one participant in: selling to millennials, store signage, ecommerce, and employee development.
Now, you and your participants have a much better idea of the wants and needs in the “room”.
Quickly review the requests, and ask submitters to clarify any that are unclear or vague.
Then create a brief plan for the session, based on the expressed wants and needs. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics you won’t be able to cover in the time available. Ask if there are subject matter experts in the room that can address some of the topics raised, and incorporate that information into your plan. Ask for feedback and adjust the plan if necessary.
Then do it!
It isn’t hard and it doesn’t take long
You can create great online breakout sessions in about five minutes. Taking the time to discover what participants want and need and creating a session that meets the group’s desires as closely as possible will pay rich dividends. Try it and see!