How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 5

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom
Part 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom, and Part 2 explained how to prepare for The Three Questions. Part 3 describes how to run them using Zoom breakout rooms, and Part 4 covers how to create an optimum conference program. Read them before diving into this post!

This post, Part 5, the last in this series, explains how to run your peer conference using Zoom breakout rooms.


Once you have developed and distributed your conference program, as described in Parts 1 – 4 of this series, it’s time to run it!

You’ll use the same procedure for every conference time slot. First create breakout rooms for the peer sessions scheduled in the time slot, and then name each room with a number and session topic.

Currently, Zoom has no easy mechanism for participants to move from one session to another. So it’s best to share the conference program with participants in advance, and, for each time slot, ask them to pick the session they want to attend. I’ll describe the simplest (and most common) way to do this below.

Right before each session time slot, participants are assigned to the Zoom breakout room associated with their chosen session. Once this is done, the breakout rooms are opened and the sessions commence.

At the end of each session, participants return to the main Zoom meeting, and indicate their choice for the next set of sessions. After renaming breakout rooms with the next set of session topics, the cycle repeats.

Moving between breakout rooms

At in-person conferences, participants are normally free to leave a breakout session and move to another one.

At an online conference using the Zoom platform, once participants are in a specific breakout room/session, they can only leave the room and return to the main Zoom meeting. They cannot move themselves to another breakout room unless they have been given co-host status in Zoom.

Although one could give all participants co-host status so they could move themselves to different sessions, I don’t recommend it. Co-hosts have a lot of power in a Zoom meeting, and one malicious or careless participant could really mess up your meeting.

One big advantage of peer conferences is that opening with The Three Questions leads to conference programs that are much more likely to reflect participants’ genuine wants and needs. As a result, moving between simultaneous breakouts is relatively rare at in-person events.

Nevertheless, people will occasionally want to move to a different session during a time slot. (The most common reason, in my experience, is that they chose or were assigned to the wrong breakout room by mistake.) As a result, while you’re running sets of peer sessions, you’ll need to keep a staff member stationed in the main Zoom room. This person should have co-host status, so they can reassign participants who return to the main meeting from a breakout room and ask to join a different session.

Preparing participants to choose their desired session

Before each set of sessions begin, one of your staff (a Zoom host or co-host) creates a set of breakout rooms that match the peer sessions about to be held. Since you’re going to assign participants to specific rooms, pick the Manual option when creating the rooms.

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

While creating breakout rooms, provide participants with a numbered list of the breakout sessions for the time slot (see below). If you’re using Miro, add session room numbers and export or screenshot the relevant portion of the conference program.

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

To keep everyone in Zoom, I suggest having a host or co-host display the list, using screen sharing in the main Zoom meeting.

Now it’s time for participants to pick the peer session they want to attend. While they’re all present, display the current session choices and explain that to assign them to the correct  session they’ll edit their display name to add the breakout room number in front of their name. Give them an example: e.g., “If I want to attend the Data Security session next, I need to change my name from Adrian Segar to 2 Adrian Segar.”

This is a common technique these days, and many people who are familiar with Zoom know how to change their Zoom meeting name while in the meeting. However, since some participants won’t know how to do this, provide instructions like these:

How to change your screen name on a PC during a Zoom meeting

1: Click on Participants in the Zoom toolbar at the bottom of your screen.

2: Hover the mouse pointer above your name until you see the option to select More.

3: Once you see it, click on it and select Rename.

4: Enter your desired name in the text field and click Rename to confirm your selection.

How to change your screen name on a mobile device during a Zoom meeting

1: If the toolbar isn’t visible, tap on the screen to display it. Tap Participants to bring up the list of meeting participants.

2: Find your name on the list and tap on it.

3: Tap Rename, enter your desired new name, and tap Done.

Have participants choose their peer session breakout rooms

Once participants understand how to change their Zoom name to indicate the breakout session they want, have a staff member monitor the name changes on the Zoom Participants list, and assign them to the correct room. Make sure that session leaders are present and assigned to the correct room before proceeding. Sometimes there are a few people who don’t add their room number to their name. Have another staffer contact them by text chat or directly in the Zoom meeting, to check whether they need help. If there’s anyone who can’t figure out how to change their name, ask them which session they want to join. Pass the participant’s name and desired session to the breakout room assigner.

Explain to participants that if they wish to leave the session they’re in, they should click Leave Room. This will bring them back to the main room meeting, where a staffer can move them into another peer session.

Start a set of peer sessions

Before opening the Zoom breakout rooms, check the Breakout Room Options, which should look like this. (You can change the countdown timer setting if desired.)

You’re ready to start the set of peer sessions! Tell participants they are about to be moved to their desired session, and click Open All Rooms.

Ending a set of peer sessions

Five or ten minutes before the sessions are scheduled to end, let everyone know how much time is left in the session. Do this by clicking Breakout Rooms in the Zoom toolbar. Then click Broadcast a message to all, enter your message and click Broadcast.

A minute before the sessions are over, click Breakout Rooms and then click Close All Rooms. In a minute or less, everyone will be back in the main Zoom meeting.

Do it again!

Repeat the above process for each set of peer sessions until all sessions have been run.

To create a fresh set of breakout rooms, click Recreate and then Recreate All Rooms in the Breakout Rooms window.


In the five posts of this series, I’ve:

A final point. As you know, peer conferences use the conference arc design, which includes closing process that’s tailored to the wants and needs of the meeting stakeholders (here’s an example). I haven’t covered this important conference phase in this series, but you should spend time thinking about and designing appropriate closings for your online event. Perhaps I’ll write more about what this might look like, and how it can be implemented online in a future post.

If you’ve been planning to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom, I hope this series has been helpful. As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, and suggestions in the comments below.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 4

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom
Part 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Part 2 explains how to prepare for The Three Questions, and Part 3 explains how to run them using Zoom breakout rooms. Read them before diving into this post!

In this post (Part 4) I’ll cover Step #2 — how to process the participant information uncovered in Step #1 to create an optimum conference program. Part 5, the last in this series explains how to run your peer conference using Zoom breakout rooms.

Creating and convening your conference program group

By the end of The Three Questions (see Part 3), your scribed Google document contains a rich list of your participants’ desired and needed topics, issues, and current challenges. Now it’s time for a small conference program group of conference leaders and subject matter experts to use participants’ answers to the Second Question to create an optimum conference program. (Part 1 lays out options for your participants while this is going on.)

Make sure your small group contains someone from each Three Questions breakout group. These people can identify participants in their group who have expertise, experience, or interest in leading or facilitating the sessions you choose.

The conference program group can meet in a variety of ways. Perhaps participants are listening to a presentation while your small group meets in a Zoom breakout room. If attendees are taking a meal break, you can use the current Zoom meeting, and restrict attendance to the conference program group. Or you can simply set up a separate Zoom meeting for the small group to hash out the upcoming conference program.

Building your optimum conference program

The small conference program group needs a tool to review and organize the topics that participants have requested and suggested.

Tools for in-person meetings

At in-person meetings I use the process Post It! for Programs, described in Chapter 22 of my book Event Crowdsourcing. Read Chapter 22 to understand the detailed process I summarize in this post. (You may find Chapter 21, Peer Session Selection and Sign-up useful too.)

The small group starts with a wall of participants’ topics, written on large sticky notes. We clean up, cluster, and consolidate the topics, moving notes around and rewriting them as needed. The small group reviews and rates the results, and chooses the most relevant topics. Finally we find leaders and/or facilitators for these peer sessions, and then schedule them into an optimum conference program.

Tools for online meetings

Two tools that provide the above functions for online meetings are Miro and Mural. You can read a useful comparison of their features and user interface here. Miro has a free limited version, and Mural offers a free limited-time introductory plan. It’s worth upgrading to a paid plan for either of these products if you expect to use them regularly.

In this post, I’ll outline how to use Miro to collaborate remotely with your small group. I don’t know Mural as well, but you should be able to use it in a similar fashion. Even though the basic concepts can be quickly grasped, both Miro and Mural provide a rich variety of functionality. So you and your small group members should practice using them. Before the conference, give small group members a link to a “playground” Miro board where they can freely explore Miro’s frames, sticky notes, and tools.

Importing participant topics into Miro

Miro has a simple, though slightly obscure, way to import the topics from your Google doc into separate sticky notes. If you try the obvious approach —bulk copy all the topics and paste them directly into Miro — they’ll end up in a single block of text. Instead, open any spreadsheet program (e.g. Excel, Numbers, or Google Sheets) and paste the topics into the top left-hand cell. They will fill the left-most column, one topic per row. Now copy all these cells and paste them into Miro. Each topic will be added to a new sticky note, nicely laid out in a grid.

Here’s an example: the topic list shown in Part 3…

…turned into a set of Miro sticky notes via the above copy-paste-copy-paste process.

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

Cleaning up and clustering topics

Once you’ve created a board of imported topics, copy it to a new board for the small group to work on. (In Miro, click on the name of the board in the top left-hand corner and click “Duplicate”.) This keeps the original topics available for reference, if needed.

The next task is to review the topics and check that they’re clearly (or clearly enough) expressed. If a topic is unclear, rewrite the note or discard it. As you review the notes, notice themes and create a Miro frame for each one, plus a Miscellaneous frame for isolated ideas. Cluster topics by dragging sticky notes out of the original grid into the appropriate frames, as shown below.

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

The small group should have agreed conventions for working on the topic board and identifying and collecting sticky notes that eventually become peer session topics.  There are many ways to do this. For example, you can:

  • Use a specific sticky note color to indicate a potential or definite peer session topic. (You can change the color of an existing note from its context menu.)
  • Create a separate frame for topics that will become peer sessions.
  • Create frames or a space on the board for topics and frames that have been reviewed and are not going to be incorporated into the conference program.

Determining the peer conference program

Use the process described in Chapter 22 of my book Event Crowdsourcing to determine the peer sessions you will offer, pick leaders and/or facilitators for each session, and schedule sessions into your conference program time slots. As you decide on each session, drag its sticky note into a “Peer Sessions” frame, as shown below.

participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

In Miro, you can switch the type of a sticky note to a card. I recommend doing this for your chosen peer session sticky notes, since Miro cards provide you with a structured way to add data, like the names of session leaders, a long description, etc.

Distributing your peer conference schedule

As soon as you’ve created your peer conference schedule, distribute it appropriately to all participants. You could publish the schedule on your conference website, email it as a Google Doc, or supply it as a link in Zoom chat.  Remember to also inform session leaders when their sessions will be held, and be available to answer any questions they might have. I also recommend distributing a version of the introductory handouts for peer sessions that are included in two of my books (Appendices 4 & 5 in Conferences That Work, or Appendix 6 in Event Crowdsourcing).

All that remains is to prepare for and run your online peer conference, which I’ll cover in the final post of this series.


First, a big thank you to the super-creative Liz Lathan of Haute Dokimazo for sharing with me how she collects and processes peer session topics online. Liz figured out how to use Mural to do this — the Miro process I’ve described above mirrors hers.

So far, in the first four posts of this series, I’ve:

The last post (Part 5) will describe how to run your peer conference program using Zoom breakout rooms.

Check back on this blog for future posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss the rest of the series, subscribe.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 3

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomPart 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Part 2 explains how to prepare for The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms. Read them before diving into this post!

In this post (Part 3) I’ll cover how to run The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms.

Preparing staff to run The Three Questions in Zoom

As described in Part 2, each breakout room must be staffed by a facilitator and one or preferably two scribes. Before the breakout sessions of The Three Questions start, the facilitator and scribes need to know what they need to do, and have the necessary tools to do it.

Staff tools

I recommend that facilitators and scribes run Zoom on a personal computer, rather than a mobile device. This will allow them better simultaneous access to both Zoom and additional shared docs — typically a set of directions and a place for scribed participant responses, as described below. (Although less critical, I’d encourage participants to join the meeting on a PC too, if possible.) At the start of the meeting, make the facilitators Zoom co-hosts, so they can manage participants (mainly mute/unmute) in their Three Questions breakout room.

Each facilitator needs a countdown timer with a visual display: usually, a phone timer app — for example, Apple’s Clock. Displaying remaining time on the facilitator’s webcam is a simple way to keep sharing on schedule. (Hopefully, one day, Zoom will provide this functionality in their software.) For participants who join by telephone, the facilitator should give them a verbal “half-time” and “times up” message when needed.

Facilitators also need a way to track the time remaining in their breakout room, so they can check that

Each scribe needs access to a place to scribe the responses to the second of The Three Questions: (the topics, issues, and challenges that participants want and need). Any online shared document can be used for this.

A shared Google Doc is an obvious choice. Here’s a template you can download and adapt for your event. Be sure to make the document sharable and editable! Create a short URL link, using a service like, to make it easy for scribes to copy, and distribute the link to the scribes before The Three Questions starts.

Here’s an example of a topic list created at a technical conference.

Three Questions facilitator training

Ask your facilitators to read Chapter 18 of Event Crowdsourcing or Chapters 31 & 32 of The Power of Participation so they are familiar with running The Three Questions. Decide on the sharing time, typically around 2 minutes, for each participant. Communicate it to the facilitators, so they will all be able to end their session at approximately the same time. Because all Zoom breakout rooms close at the same time, emphasize that time keeping is important, so that all participants get to share and everyone has the same time.

Three Questions scribe training

Explain to the scribes that their job is to record concisely the topics, issues, and challenges that participants share in response to the Second Question only. Introduce each scribe to their session scribing partner, and have them decide who scribes for the first sharer. Give your scribes the link to the shared online document in advance. Ask them to practice entering a few topics before their session starts.

When using a shared Google Doc, editors are assigned arbitrary names, shown in color during editing. It can be helpful for two scribes in the same session to learn each other’s assigned name before the session starts, so they can check on what their partner is writing.

Scribes can be participants too — when there are two scribes per session, one can scribe topics for the other’s sharing. Suggest that scribes alternate scribing for participants: one for the first participant, the other for the second, and so on.

If a topic is mentioned for which one or more participants have expertise and/or experience (the answer to the Third Question) it can be helpful to make a note of their names so they can potentially tapped as leaders or facilitators for the main conference breakout sessions.

It’s likely that some topics will be suggested in more than one of the separate Three Questions breakouts, or by several people in the same session. Since all scribes will be using the same Google Doc, it’s helpful for scribes to keep an eye on all the topics that are appearing during the breakouts. For a repeated topic, scribes can add an “x” at the end of the original topic line each time. Sometimes the topic will be similar but not the same as another topic. In this case it should be entered as a new item.

Running The Three Questions in Zoom Breakout Rooms

Before running The Three Questions, assign facilitators and scribes to specific numbered breakout rooms. Remember that breakout room assignments will be random. The main group facilitator or another designated staffer should, therefore, promptly move facilitators and scribes to the correct number room as soon as the rooms open. (See the section “Preparing breakout rooms” here to learn how to do this.)

At this point you’ll have a set of Zoom Breakout Rooms, each populated by an equal number of participants and a trained facilitator and scribe(s). Have everyone mute their audio except the facilitator and scribes.

Determining who shares next

During seated face-to-face meetings, it’s easy to keep track of who has or hasn’t yet shared by their location in the room. Online, it’s harder to track who hasn’t yet shared without a little help. (Don’t assume that a gallery view of participants will remain unchanged throughout the session; the display changes unpredictably if participants arrive or depart.)

Consequently, the facilitator should choose who shares next. (See this post for more information on “who goes next?” process.) To do this, each Three Questions facilitator must have their participants list visible. They then call on participants in turn, maintaining a written list of those who have shared. If the facilitator has a printer, track people who have shared on a printed screen shot of the attendee list.

Because people may join a session late, the facilitator should always check that everyone has shared.

Individual sharing

As each person shares, the Three Questions facilitator monitors their progress. If they are spending too much time on the First Question, let them know. It’s helpful to let sharers know when half their time is up, at which point they should be well into their answer to the Second Question.

If many people aren’t using their full time, point this out and encourage participants to say a little more. (But don’t insist that anyone share more than they originally offer.)

It’s a facilitator’s job to prevent people sharing too long, ensuring that everyone gets an equal amount of time to contribute.

When sharing in a Three Questions breakout is complete

When everyone in a Three Questions breakout has shared, there should be some free time left in the session. If desired, the session facilitator can solicit additional short expressions of interest in the uncovered topics, and perhaps suggestions of additional topics sparked by what has been heard in the group.

Each Three Questions facilitator should let the meeting facilitator know (typically by private message in Zoom’s text chat) when their session is over. The meeting facilitator can then close the breakout rooms once all breakouts are complete.

That concludes step #1, as outlined in the first post of this series!

At this point:

  • Participants will have met a useful number of other participants and learned useful information about each other, namely, details of their association with the meeting topic, their wants and needs for the meeting, and their relevant expertise and experience.
  • Conference organizers will have a comprehensive list of topics, issues, and challenges that are top-of-mind for attendees, plus identified participants who can facilitate/lead/present on them.


So far, in the first three posts of this series, I’ve:

  • provided a brief recap of the benefits of peer conferences;
  • given a big picture overview of how you can hold one online;
  • explained how to prepare to run The Three Questions online in Zoom; and
  • covered how to run The Three Questions online in Zoom.

The next post (Part 4) will describe in detail how to carry out step #2 — creating an optimum conference program from the information uncovered in step #1— using Zoom.

Part 1 (an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom) is available here.
Part 2 (preparing for The Three Questions) is available here.

Check back on this blog for future posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss the rest of the series, subscribe.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom — Part 2

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomPart 1 of this series of posts gave an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. Read it before diving into this post!

In this post (Part 2) I’ll cover most of Step #1 of the previous post: preparing for The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms.

If necessary, get familiar with Zoom, including breakout room functions, before proceeding. I’ve included links to the relevant Zoom tutorials and reference articles, when appropriate, in the following instructions.

What is The Three Questions, and why use it?

I developed The Three Questions in 1995 as a fundamental opening process for peer conferences. It’s described and explained in all three of my books. You can find the most detailed implementation in Chapter 18 of my 2019 book, Event Crowdsourcing.

The Three Questions is the most effective way I know to assist a group of people to get to know each other usefully, safely, and authentically. It’s quite different from the common but often artificial and awkward icebreaker approaches used in “team-building” and “getting-to-know-you” activities because it focuses on core information we want to know about the people we’re currently with: why they’re present, what they want to do/learn about/discuss, and what useful resources they possess.

Besides connecting people around their fundamental interests, The Three Questions is one of the best formats for discovering important topics, issues, and questions that were previously unknown to event organizers and a majority of the participants, as well as associated levels of interest.

Zoom’s key tool for effective active learning and connection — Breakout Rooms

Frequent and well-designed small group work is the key to creating active learning and connection at any meeting. Zoom’s tool for small group work is Breakout Rooms.

Zoom allows facilitators to speedily split a meeting into up to 50 separate sessions. Participants can be allocated to these separate sessions automatically or manually.

If you’re not familiar with breakout rooms, take time to review Zoom’s tutorials. Practice using them at small group meetings before employing them for a significant event!

Preparing for The Three Questions in Zoom

Learn about The Three Questions

First, read the detailed instructions on how to run The Three Questions which you’ll find in my books:

  • Event Crowdsourcing [2019] (Chapter 18) [recommended: most comprehensive and recent information]
  • The Power of Participation [2015] (Chapters 31 & 32)
  • Conferences That Work [2009] (Chapter 25, pages 260-265)

If you don’t possess one of these, you can buy an ebook for $11US.

Decide on the number and size of your Three Questions breakout groups

Next, decide the number and size of your breakout groups. This will depend on:

  • the number of attendees;
  • the duration and scheduling of your conference; and
  • the time you plan to devote to The Three Questions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, these days, most meetings are small meetings (less than 100 attendees) and that’s a good thing! So the following barebones examples offer suggestions for online conferences with up to 100 attendees. They don’t include a closing session, which I recommend — I’ll make suggestions for appropriate formats in a later post.

With care, more staffing, and a beefier Zoom license, The Three Questions can definitely be run successfully at larger online events.

Example 1: 60 attendees, ~4½ hour event (includes ~75 minutes of breaks), two one-hour breakouts with three simultaneous sessions per slot (six peer sessions)

Suggested schedule:

  1. Five minutes for welcome.
  2. Fifteen minutes to explain The Three Questions, for attendees to write their answers, and divide attendees into three breakout rooms with 20 people in each.
  3. One hour for each (simultaneous) Breakout Room for The Three Questions; two minutes sharing per person, with a five-minute break after 30 minutes.
  4. Fifty minutes for conference organizers to build the nine-session conference program and set up Breakout Rooms for the resulting sessions. See the Part 1 post for attendee options during this time.
  5. Ten minutes for attendees to review the program and decide which session to attend.
  6. One hour for the first set of peer sessions.
  7. Ten minute break.
  8. One hour for the second set of peer sessions.
  9. (Optional, but recommended) Closing session; for example some form of Plus/Delta.
Example 2: 100 attendees, ~6½ hour event (includes ~140 minutes of breaks), three one-hour breakouts with four simultaneous sessions per slot (twelve peer sessions)

Suggested schedule:

  1. Five minutes for welcome.
  2. Fifteen minutes to explain The Three Questions, for attendees to write their answers, and divide attendees into five breakout rooms with 20 people in each.
  3. One hour for each (simultaneous) Breakout Room for The Three Questions; two minutes sharing per person, with a five-minute break after 30 minutes.
  4. Ninety minutes for conference organizers to build the twelve-session conference program and set up Breakout Rooms for the resulting sessions. See the Part 1 post for attendee options during this time.
  5. Fifteen minutes for attendees to review the program and decide which session to attend.
  6. One hour for the first set of peer sessions.
  7. Fifteen minute break.
  8. One hour for the second set of peer sessions.
  9. Fifteen minute break.
  10. One hour for the second set of peer sessions.
  11. (Optional, but recommended) Closing session; for example some form of Plus/Delta.

Both of the above examples allow each participant ~2 – 2½ minutes to share their answers to The Three Questions with their groups. As described in my books, when calculating sharing duration add at least ten seconds per participant for the inevitable pauses between shares.

If you want to adjust the time allocated to The Three Questions, you can adjust the size of the breakout groups and/or the sharing time for each participant. But don’t stray too far from the suggested parameters of the above examples. And don’t forget to include breaks!

If at the start of the event, the number of participants turns out to be significantly different from what was expected, facilitators should be ready to collectively adjust sharing time so that the total sharing still fits comfortably into the scheduled Three Questions session length . Each Three Questions breakout should use the same sharing time per participant, so all breakouts can close at the same time.

Staffing an online Zoom peer conference

An experienced practitioner who’s familiar with Zoom can often handle the facilitation and technical support for very small meetings. Online Zoom peer conferences, however, require multiple staffers, who need to be identified and prepared in advance. Typically they will be set up as Zoom co-hosts. I recommend the following staffing:

  • At least one staffer handling technical issues: user support, muting/unmuting participants appropriately, assigning facilitators to their Three Questions rooms, and pre-assigning attendees to breakouts in Step #2.
  • A meeting facilitator, who introduces  The Three Questions to the entire group. (This person can also be a facilitator for one of the The Three Questions Breakout Rooms.)
  • A facilitator for each Three Questions Breakout Room, who keeps track of sharing time, and ensures the sharing runs smoothly.
  • One or two scribes for each Three Questions Breakout Room. (Two scribes will have a much easier task than one.) Ideally, scribes should have some conference topic experience so they can summarize attendee responses accurately and concisely. During each Three Questions session, scribes summarize answers to the second question, usually in a shared Google Doc.
  • A small group of subject matter experts who will review the topics, issues, and challenges uncovered in Step #1, build a responsive peer session program, find leaders for each peer session breakout, and publish the resulting program.
  • Each peer session will need one or more participants who lead and/or share useful experience or expertise and/or facilitate the session.

As for any conference, adequate preparation and, if needed, training, for meeting staffers is crucial for a smoothly run event. Until everyone involved is experienced in supporting online meetings, a pre-meeting mock run through on Zoom is strongly recommended!

Preparing attendees for a peer conference

At in person meetings, facilitation via verbal directions works well. Because online participants can be more easily distracted or late, I recommend distributing a short preparatory online document for participants to read before the meeting.

Be sure to communicate in advance the importance of being present at the start of The Three Questions. The document should contain a short explanation of the value and format of a peer conference, and a schedule. You don’t need to provide detailed information about The Three Questions. You can see some examples here and here.

The facilitator can share this document on-screen while introducing The Three Questions.

Introducing attendees to The Three Questions

One of the advantages of creating a peer conference online with Zoom is that participants don’t need to physically move to separate break out rooms. At in person events this takes time. Consequently, it’s simplest to introduce The Three Questions to attendees when they are all together in the main Zoom meeting room. Once the explanations are over, and participants have been given a few minutes to answer The Three Questions in writing, it’s easy to allocate them to their separate breakouts.

At the start of the peer conference, welcome attendees and then cover any housekeeping issues. Ask all attendees to turn on Zoom text chat, which supplies a useful way for facilitators, scribes, and participants to ask questions, and assist with format and technical issues.  Also share links via screen share and/or text chat to the conference introductory document, and the online document that will contain participants’ responses to the second of The Three Questions: (the topics, issues, and challenges that participants want and need), as described in Part 3 of this series of posts.

The facilitator who introduces The Three Questions can use the same guidance and scripts provided in my books, with the following minor variation. At the start of the introduction, ask attendees to have paper and pen available. Instead of passing out printed cards, the facilitator shares their screen, displaying a copy of The Three Questions card, and then introduces the exercise.

Allocating attendees to Zoom Breakout Rooms for The Three Questions

Once The Three Questions has been introduced, give attendees a few minutes of silent time to write down their answers. (As always, emphasize the importance of writing their answers.)

Once you’ve checked that attendees are ready to continue, it’s time to assign them to breakout rooms.

When running an online session of The Three Questions in Zoom, it’s easiest to assign people to Breakout Rooms automatically, i.e. at random. Pre-assigning people to specific rooms is possible in Zoom, but somewhat clunky — as you’ll see when implementing Step #2!

After creating the breakout rooms, click Options and make sure the following (and only the following) options are checked:

  • Move all participants into breakout rooms automatically.
  • Allow participants to return to the main session at any time.
  • Countdown after closing breakout rooms.

As soon as people are randomly allocated to their rooms, find your individual room facilitators and scribes on Zoom’s participant list and move them as needed to their correct room. (See the section “Preparing breakout rooms” here to learn how to do this.)

Congratulations! You’ve completed the major portion of Step #1. Part 3 of this series covers how the break out room facilitators run their Three Questions session.


So far, in the first two posts of this series, I’ve:

  • provided a brief recap of the benefits of peer conferences;
  • given a big picture overview of how you can hold one online; and
  • explained how to prepare to run The Three Questions online using Zoom.

The next two posts will describe in detail how to:

  • run The Three Questions online (Part 3); and
  • carry out step #2 — creating an optimum conference program from the information uncovered in step #1— using Zoom (Part 4).

Part 1 (an overview of what’s involved in implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom) is available here.
Part 3 (how to run The Three Questions) is now available here.
Part 4 (how to process participants’ sharing to create an optimum conference program) is now available here.

Check back on this blog for these posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss them, subscribe to this blog.

How to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom

participant-driven breakouts in ZoomWhy implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom?

I’ve been designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich in person meetings — aka peer conferences — for almost thirty years. Why? Because participants love these meetings!

Now the covid-19 pandemic has forced meetings online. Unfortunately, most online events are still using a traditional webinar/broadcast-style approach: presenters speaking for long periods, interspersed with chat-mediated Q&A.

Why Zoom?

Zoom has rapidly become the dominant platform for online meetings. Though there are many features that would make the platform better, it’s popular for good reason. Zoom:

  • has a well-chosen feature set;
  • is relatively easy to use; and
  • has proved very reliable despite the platform’s meteoric growth.

While Zoom is currently missing some functionality that would smooth the process flow, it’s already a viable platform for online peer conferences.

I started using Zoom in 2012, but since the pandemic began I’ve facilitated more Zoom meetings than the last seven years. And I’ve become intrigued with the possibilities of incorporating the peer processes developed for successful face-to-face meetings into online events.

I’ve written three books about why creating participation-rich conferences that deliver effective learning, connection, engagement, and action is so important, and how to do it for in person events. So I won’t repeat myself here; read them for full details!

In person meetings have vanished overnight. It’s time to implement what we’ve learned about great face-to-face meeting design and process into online meetings. Meetings will never be the same. When the pandemic is over, the meeting industry will have much more experience and understanding of what is possible online versus in person.

My mission is to make meetings better for everyone involved. That’s why I’m publishing this series of posts on how to implement participant-driven breakouts in Zoom.

I’ll start with an overview.

The big picture

The core reason why peer conferences work that they become what participants actually want and need. They accomplish this in real-time — during the event — via two essential steps:

  1. At the start of the conference, uncover participants’ wants and needs and the resources in the room.
  2. Develop an optimum conference program that matches the uncovered wants and needs with the resources in the room.

Once the conference program has been developed and scheduled, you’re ready to hold the resulting peer sessions. I’ll explain how to do this in a future post.

Step #1

I’ve been implementing step #1 at in person events for twenty-five years, using a process called The Three Questions, which is described in detail in my book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll explain how to implement The Three Questions using Zoom breakout rooms.

As in face-to-face events, I recommend allocating at least ninety minutes for step #1. If you are running an extended event (see below) with multiple sets of breakout sessions, schedule two hours. Note that these times include short breaks, as described in this post.

At the end of step #1:

  • Participants will have met a useful number of other participants and learned useful information about each other, namely, details of their association with the meeting topic, their wants and needs for the meeting, and their relevant expertise and experience.
  • Conference organizers will have a comprehensive list of topics, issues, and challenges that are top-of-mind for attendees, plus identified participants who can facilitate/lead/present on them.

Step #2

Step #1 generates a large amount of information about attendees’ real-time wants and needs, as well as relevant expertise and experience that can be tapped.

During step #2, conference leaders and subject matter experts use this information to create an optimum conference program. In Part 3 of this post I’ll explain how to do this. What’s important to know is that step #2 takes time!

For a small meeting (e.g., 60 people, two one-hour time slots with three simultaneous sessions per slot ==> 6 peer sessions) creating the program might take 30 – 60 minutes.

For a larger event (e.g., 100 people, three one-hour time slots with five simultaneous sessions per slot ==> 15 peer sessions) choosing a program might take 90 – 150 minutes.

Regardless of the time needed, conference attendees should be otherwise engaged during step #2.

You have (at least) three options at this point.

Allow attendees free time while the conference program is designed

One option is to simply schedule an attendee break that’s long enough to complete step #2. For example, if your attendees are from the same or contiguous time zones, consider scheduling step #1 so it ends around lunchtime for most of them. Your pre-conference schedule could then include an hour or more break for lunch while the program is developed.

Schedule a presentation for attendees during step #2

While conference leaders and subject matter experts are using step #1 information to choose and schedule peer sessions, the other participants attend a pre-scheduled presentation or session of some kind that’s long enough for step #1 to be completed.

Be sure to include at east a short break between the end of step #1 and the start of the presentation.

One minor drawback of this approach is that step #1 often involves checking the availability of participants who have relevant experience or expertise to lead a peer session, as well as their willingness to do so. Doing this (typically by private message in Zoom text chat) while these participants are involved in another session can be a little disruptive.

Schedule steps #1 and #2 on different days

A third option is to schedule your entire event over two or more days. This gives ample time for step #1 to be completed. For example, you could run step #1 for a couple of hours on Monday morning or afternoon, then complete step #2 and distribute the resulting conference program, and run the resulting peer sessions on Tuesday.


In this post I’ve provided a brief recap of the benefits of peer conferences, and given a big picture overview of how you can hold one online. Future posts will cover detailed descriptions of how to carry out steps #1 and #2 using Zoom.

Check back on this blog for upcoming posts on implementing participant-driven breakouts in Zoom. To ensure you don’t miss them, subscribe.

How I got here

How I got hereHow I got here?

Schoolboy days

I have little memory of my earliest formal education though I suspect it has informed my entire life.

My mother decided that I should attend London’s Chelsea Froebel School. For a couple of years she valiantly brought me to school via two buses and a train, went to work, and then picked me up to return home via the same interminable route.

The school’s philosophy was developed in the early nineteenth century by Friedrich Fröbel, the remarkable German pedagogue who created the concept of kindergarten and espoused the importance of children’s games, singing, dancing, and self-directed play. I remember singing, writing poetry, and spending hours at water and sand play tables.

At the age of seven, my school environment changed drastically. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Dulwich College, a British “Public” (in actuality private) all-boys school founded in 1619. I say “lucky” because, as a child of working-class parents who were forced to leave school at thirteen due to the outbreak of the Second World War, my options for educational advancement were severely limited. By a twist of fate, the school had recently implemented what eventually became known as the “Dulwich College Experiment”. Local councils paid the fees for the majority of boys selected to attend.Attending a private independent school with experienced teachers and small class sizes greatly increased my likelihood of access to higher education. On graduation, I won a second scholarship to Oxford University.


I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities Dulwich College gave me. But I had no awareness at the time of the poor learning environment it offered.

I sat at ancient wooden desks, complete with inkwell and carved with the initials of generations of earlier schoolboys. I listened to teachers sharing knowledge that the best minds had taken hundreds or thousands of years to figure out. A condensed précis poured unceasingly into my ears. Somehow, I was expected to absorb, understand, regurgitate, and use this information to do well at frequent tests and nerve-wracking national exams that determined my educational and vocational future.

Apart from the tests, I found this torrent of knowledge exhilarating. Apparently, as judged by tests and exams, I was capable of absorbing it better than the majority of my peers. It was only much later that I realized that for most people, immersion in a high-volume flood of information is a terrible way to learn and provides minimal opportunities to connect with others.

It had a cost for me. The school environment emphasized my intellectual side and provided almost no time for personal or social development. I made no close enduring connections at school, becoming a nerd, concentrating on my studies. Luckily, I never completely lost touch with the Froebel-nurtured, playful, and curious child buried inside me.

How I got here

How I got here

After school, I began a thirty-year journey. It wasn’t until my fifties, after careers as a high-energy physics researcher, owner of a solar manufacturing business, college professor teaching computer science, and independent information technology consultant that I reconnected with the six-year-old who loved to sing and dance.

Throughout this period, convening conferences on my current professional interests fascinated me. I organized academic, solar, non-profit, and information technology conferences. In retrospect, it was an advantage to be an amateur. I hated the formal academic conferences I had to attend. Eventually I tried new approaches.

People started asking for my help with conferences on topics I knew little about. I eventually realized how much I loved to bring people together around common interests and needs. I became fascinated with the remarkable improvements that good process can have on the individual and collective experience and satisfaction when people meet. Eventually I decided to make inventing and proselytizing this work my mission.

Today, I’m happy that thousands of people and organizations have realized the value of what I’ve been learning and sharing. Over the last twenty-plus years I’ve worked all over the world, facilitating connection between people face-to-face. The current coronavirus pandemic has temporarily suspended this work. Yet I feel confident the value of well-designed and facilitated face-to-face meetings will only become more apparent during the period we cannot hold them.

The meeting industry coronavirus silver lining

coronavirus silver liningDespite the terrible impacts of the coronavirus on the meeting industry, there’s a silver lining.

Hear me out!

There’s no question times are hard. The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated lives and businesses globally, and we don’t know how much worse things will get. The meeting industry is reeling under a wave of cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty. All my short-term facilitation and on-site training engagements have been cancelled — and I’m lucky in comparison with colleagues who are struggling with the significant financial impact of the loss of work, deposits, and income that a few months ago looked secure.

Consequently, in the short term, the situation looks bleak. In addition, no one knows what “short term” means right now.

In the long term…

Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.

Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.

So what’s the coronavirus silver lining?

I believe there are three silver linings that are long-term positives for the meeting industry.

1—Virtual meetings will replace many broadcast-style meeting sessions

The dramatic cancellation of face-to-face events has led to an immediate focus on replacing them, when possible, with virtual meetings. This focus is welcome, because online technology can and should replace the lecture-centric components of conventional meetings.

2—Virtual meetings process technology will improve

In my opinion, we can significantly improve virtual meetings process technology. The pressure to find a replacement for face-to-face meetings may speed the development of technology process for connection that current platforms lack.

All major online platforms support broadcast-style meetings. In small meetings, any meeting participant can become the broadcaster of the moment by speaking. As in face-to-face large meetings, this speaker-switching mechanism doesn’t work with a large group without central control over who, or how many, can speak at any moment.

What virtual meeting technology currently ignores or implements poorly is participant-initiated small group voice or video chat discussions of the kind that happen at face-to-face meetings. Although some platforms implement breakout groups, they are generally limited in number, and platform facilitators initiate them rather than participants on an as-needed basis.

Hopefully, a pressing demand for virtual meetings that can provide the spontaneous interaction and connection possible at face-to-face meetings will spur development of connection-centric online meeting technology features.

3—We will better understand the true value of face-to-face meetings

Right now, the human race is responding to the short-term devastating effects of coronavirus by implementing social distance. We are rapidly curtailing the ways we get together for entertainment, education, and the thousands of other reasons we meet.

But human beings do not thrive long-term on social distance; rather, we want and need social existence. Over time, restricting meetings to online modalities will make us aware of what they lack: personal connection and engagement around pertinent content. Consequently, the meeting industry will better understand the unique possibilities that face-to-face events can provide. And, perhaps, we will become increasingly open to the value of human process technologies that allow meetings to become what participants actually want and need.

Can you think of other long-term silver linings for the meeting industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Share them in the comments below.

Image attribution: Flickr user dewet

Should meetings be efficient?

Should meetings be efficientShould meetings be efficient?

“Yes” say thousands of books on how to improve business meetings. And I agree.

But “No”, when we’re taking about most meeting industry events.

Unfortunately, the meeting industry tends to assume that if business meetings should be efficient, meeting industry events should be too.

Obviously there are aspects of meeting events that should be efficient whenever possible. For example: registration, coffee service, transporting attendees between venues, room set changes, etc.

In addition, a well thought out broadcast style design may be the right choice for some trainings and corporate events that require a top-down approach to achieve their objectives.

But, for meetings where you want participants to:

  • learn effectively;
  • form valuable connections; and
  • generate valuable ideas and approaches

you need to design meetings that are inefficient.

How efficiency can be counterproductive

Sometimes, efficiency can be the enemy of effectiveness. Here are three examples:

“If you have ever watched symphony orchestra you may have noticed how inefficient the musicians are. They are not utilised 100%. Most have below 50% efficiency. Imagine how good the music would turn out if all instruments were playing all the times. Such is the science of efficiency.“
Alidad Hamidi

“The problem is that democracy is by definition slow, messy and cumbersome. Today demands on democracy, driven by modern means of communication, are different. The pace is fast. Decisions have to be made quickly. Time for reflection and compromise is limited.”
@AlexStubb, former Prime Minister of Finland

“My own experience consulting inside some highly successful companies (Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dupont, to name a few) cannot corroborate a relationship between busyness and success. Very successful companies have never struck me as particularly busy; in fact, they are, as a group, rather laid-back.”
Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total EfficiencyTom DeMarco

We are not mind readers

Effectively figuring out what people want and need to learn and giving them the time and space to learn it is inefficient, because learning is messy.

Successfully supporting people in making valuable connections at meetings is also inefficient, because we do not know who might be valuable to meet until we are given opportunities and good process to find out about the people we’re with.

And creating worthwhile ideas and approaches through group process at meetings is inefficient, because we invariably have to generate many ideas that don’t pan out in order to glean the few specks of gold we’re looking for.

So, should meetings be efficient?

As Alex Stubb says, we are living in a fast-paced world where time is valuable. There is continuing pressure to shorten events, in the belief that busy prospective attendees will be more likely to attend a meeting that doesn’t tie up too much of their time and money.

However, the consequent shortening of programs and sessions has a significant impact on the effectiveness of events: their ability to deliver desired learning, connection, and creative outcomes. So be careful not to destroy the effectiveness of your event in the name of efficiency.

Image attribution: mourgfile / CC

Make your entire conference a braindate

entire conference a braindateWhy not make your entire conference a braindate?

One of Skift’s “10 event trends for 2020” is networking. The report predicts:

“Activities such as braindates that deliver more meaningful connections will become mainstream at events.”

The author, Julius Solaris, tweeted:

“…braindates are in our top 10 trends for 2020…Too much of an undervalued tool and approach. Time to end that.”
November 20, 2019 tweet

I like the braindate approach, but it doesn’t have to be something that’s grafted onto a conference. Why? Because good event design is about how a conference works.

Participant-driven and participation-rich meeting designs incorporate a braindate’s purpose — one-to-one or small group connection around relevant content — organically into every session. In addition, the beginning of a peer conference uncovers the topics that people want to talk about, as well as providing plentiful opportunities for participants to discover others who share their challenges and interests.

So there’s no need to add a braindate process to a well-designed meeting. Instead make your entire conference a braindate!

Photo attribution: Flickr user viejozapato

Facilitating change: The power of sharing our experience

sharing our experience

Sharing our experience of others directly with them can be incredibly powerful. Let me tell you a story…

Not long ago, I was working at a multi-day workshop with a 6-person group that included someone I’ll call D. D self-described themself as mentally ill, bipolar, and with psychological issues. They spoke slowly, and described themself as not emotionally available, and often confused about what they said.

D also shared that they:

  • Felt isolated and wanted to get better at connecting with people;
  • Believed that other people couldn’t easily understand them and didn’t like them; and
  • Had a hard time deciding whether to attend the workshop.

D was clearly feeling fragile. Group work can be confrontational at times. So I privately hoped that the other group members would be supportive.

What happened?

Read the rest of this entry »