How to create great online breakout sessions

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.
create great online breakout sessionsIn 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!

Three better alternatives to the conference lecture

Ah, the ubiquitous conference one-hour lecture. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Actually I don’t need to do that since Donald Bligh listed them all in his classic book What’s The Use Of Lectures?, first published in 1972!

Rather than reiterate the shortcomings of broadcast-style teaching, I’ll go positive. Here are three superior alternatives to sitting through an expert’s non-stop utterances.

As an example I’ll use a three-day conference I’m currently designing. The participants are four hundred international scientists who only get to meet en masse every few years. It’s important to give them excellent opportunities to discover and connect with cross-disciplinary colleagues and ideas. They also need to share a massive amount of information about their current research in ways that maximize appropriate learning, fruitful connections, and future collaborations.

Here are three session formats we’re using for the middle of the conference arc. In my experience, each of them is far more effective than a traditional conference lecture.

1 — Short bursts of varied content followed by breakouts
Most academic conferences schedule large numbers of simultaneous lectures. Instead, we’ve designed sessions with multiple short serial presentations, aka lightning or speed talks. By “short” I mean four minutes per scientist. After a batch of these talks, each presenter moves to a separate space in the room. Participants are then free to meet in small groups with the presenter(s) they chose for in-depth discussions.

We’ve scheduled 165 lightning talks grouped into 16 thematic sessions.

The four-minute time limitation nudges each presenter to focus on the core aspects of what they want to share and how to communicate them as effectively as possible in the time available. In addition, audience attention remains high because the presenter and their material is changing every five minutes, well within the ten minutes Bligh and John Medina cite as a maximum before listener attention flags.

Each session is assigned a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a staffer who projects a pre-assembled master presentation slide deck for the four-minute presentations.

2 — Poster sessions
Poster sessions are a variant of the above format. Presenters stand in front of a standard size poster they’ve created that summarizes and illustrates their content. (We’re using e-posters, which not only eliminate the need for the presenters to print, pack, and securely transport a large poster to the conference but also make changing posters between sessions quick and efficient.)

One potential drawback of simultaneous sessions is that presenters can’t attend another presentation that’s taking place at the same time. In a thematic poster session, this prevents presenters from engaging with other presenters who are standing next to their own posters. To allow individual presenters the opportunity to engage with some of the other presenters and their content, we’ve divided each poster session into two 45-minute parts.

Each poster session begins with half the presenters giving a one-minute summary of their work/poster to everyone present. Attendees then spend the rest of the 45 minutes browsing content that interests them. The poster creator remains available for explanations, elaborations, and discussions as needed. The process is repeated for the second set of presenters.

The need to create and deliver an effective one-minute presentation concentrates a presenter’s mind wonderfully!

Each session is assigned a facilitator/timekeeper and a staffer who makes the appropriate e-posters available for the presenters.

We’ve scheduled 125 poster sessions grouped into 7 thematic sessions.

3 — In-depth interactive sessions led by one or more experts
In addition this conference includes a small number of longer sessions on key organizational and science issues. The formats for these sessions vary, but they are all designed to incorporate ten-minute or shorter chunks of presented content or provocative questions interspersed with small group active learning activities.

Such sessions provide more effective and appropriate learning than a traditional lecture. They supply learning that is personalized, and that will be remembered longer, in greater detail, and more accurately.

Summary
Given the sheer volume of information available from the assembled scientific minds at this event and the considerable investment of time and money to hold this conference, it’s important to use session formats like these. They maximize rich knowledge transfer and the likelihood of making the kinds of “aha” connections that can lead to significant advances in the conservation work and research these scientists perform.

Image attribution: Marisha Aziz