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!

Please don’t call them virtual meetings

I’ve been noticing a strange trend, ever since COVID-19 caused just about all bread and butter meetings to vanish. Suddenly, people are calling the meetings we’re holding these days virtual meetings.

In the immortal words of Bob Newhart.

Stop it!

Virtual

I’m sorry, but when I think of a virtual meeting, this comes to mind…

virtual meetings

…together with content like this…

virtual meetings

Now, before I get a storm of protests from dedicated Second Life fans, let me be clear that I’ve nothing against anyone who enjoys time in virtual worlds.

And if your meeting is using holographic telepresence to bring in a presenter or two, perhaps virtual is the right term.

Otherwise, I think there’s a better word to use. But let’s explore using virtual for a moment.

The two relevant definitions of “virtual” in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED account required] are:

“Not physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so.”

“That may be so called for practical purposes, although not according to strict definition; very near, almost absolute.”

I can’t really quibble with the application of the first definition, but the second reminds us that virtual also means “almost”, with the unsaid connotation that “virtual” isn’t so good.

Why the rise of the phrase “virtual” meetings?

I think meeting industry people are using “virtual” to describe Zoom/Teams/BlueJeans/WebEx meetings these days because we are upset that our traditional meetings, together with our livelihoods and useful expertise, have largely disappeared overnight.

We were and are proud of the meetings we created and ran. “These internet-enabled meetings just aren’t the same!” (And we’re right, they’re not.) And we’re feeling a mixture of grief and anger that they’re gone right now.

As a result, it’s tempting and understandable to use a term like “virtual” to describe what’s taken their place. We feel a little better, because “virtual” meetings aren’t really quite as good as the face-to-face events we’ve been holding for years.

What’s in a name?

Various event industry folks have discussed this terminology, like Dennis Shiao, who puts those early days of “virtual events” in a historical context …

‘I wish we came up with a better name. The dictionary definition of “virtual” refers to something “simulated or extended by computer software,” while I associate the word with “that which is not real.” The “virtual” in “virtual events” makes the category seem mysterious. When something is mysterious, it’s easy to put it aside or pay less attention.’
—Dennis Shiao

… and a recent thread on MECO with Mike Taubleb, Rohit Talwar, me, Sue Walton, Naomi Romanchok, Michelle Taunton, MaryAnne Bobrow, and Gloria Nelson.

The term I think we should use

First choice: Online

Let’s (continue) to call them Online meetings! I say “continue”, because currently, online is the most popular adjective used on the internet (~1.5 billion Google hits). Everyone knows what online means: Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans or ON24 or …

Second choice: Digital

Digital is pretty descriptive (and is the second most popular adjective used: ~1.4 billion results), but to me it feels a little ambiguous. Digital could stand for Zoom or a Slack channel or Second Life or …

Not my favorites

I’d like people to stop using virtual, for the reasons shared above. (It is also less popular than the two previous terms: ~1.1 billion hits.)

Also, let’s avoid livestream for meetings that involve any interaction. I think to most people, livestream means one-way communication (think streaming a movie or music), not something that’s interactive. If you’re hosting an interactive online event, “livestreaming” seems misleading. If, however, you’re broadcasting a meeting without any interaction from the online participants, livestreaming is an appropriate description.

And what should we use for traditional meetings?

If you’re actually meeting in a room with people (let’s hope we get to experience that soon!) I prefer in person, in-person, or face-to-face. What’s the difference between the first two? “In person” is an adverb, and “in-person” is an adjective. So we hold in-person events in person. Get it?

Oh, and let’s not forget hybrid

Finally, hybrid is a useful and specific descriptor for meetings that have both in-person and online components. We’ve had hybrid meetings for years, and I predict their popularity post-pandemic will only increase.

Conclusion

The grammar police don’t always win! My opinion may make no difference — but at least I’ve shared it. What do you think? Share your favorite meeting adjectives in the comments! 

Virtual photo and description attribution: Flickr user Lilith

Two tools for online conference socials: Gatherly versus YoTribe review

Gatherly versus YoTribe review If you can’t hang out with people in person, how can you best meet up with your tribe online? That’s the selling proposition for a host of new platforms that have sprung up over the last few months: creating a compelling online incarnation of the traditional conference socials we all know and love (or hate). Last week I got to try out a couple of these new platforms, so I thought I’d write a Gatherly versus YoTribe review.

A maximum of around thirty people were present at any one time at the Gatherly test event, which I set up. I estimate there were around a hundred folks at the YoTribe event, which was organized by Anh Nguyen.

First, some context…

In-person conference socials

Imagine an in-person conference social. <sings>”It isn’t hard to do.”</sings> You enter the room and look around to see who’s there.

Perhaps you see people present whom you know. So you go over to them and say hi, or perhaps join a conversation they’re having with others. Perhaps you don’t recognize anyone. So you have to bravely sidle up to someone or a group and introduce yourself. Or insinuate yourself into a conversation. Perhaps you know there are people present who you’ve met online, but short of sneaking a look at everyone’s badge, there’s no easy way to find them.

During the social, you usually have multiple conversations with different individuals and groups. You move from one conversation to the next, as you and others desire. You may meet folks with whom you want to have a private conversation, so you go somewhere you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

These are the processes we take for granted at an in-person meeting social.

The inadequate networking functionality of most online meeting platforms

These days, we can network online via group messaging/text chat, audio chat, or video chat. (OK, yes, virtual reality has been available for a while too, but it hasn’t really taken off.) Just about all online meeting platforms now include traditional webinar style video conferencing, and many offer Zoom-style main room and breakout room meetings.

Many online meeting platforms tout their “networking” capabilities. When you look at the specifications, however, the majority offer only text chat! Some provide one-to-one networking via private video chat. And some describe their capability to support multiple video breakout rooms as “networking” — but this is disingenuous.

As anyone who’s tried to use Zoom breakouts for networking knows, the big barrier is that once someone’s entered a room, they can leave it to return to the main Zoom meeting but they can’t then move themselves to another breakout room. (Unless you make everyone a co-host, which is not a good idea for a meeting of any size, since a careless or malevolent co-host can cause havoc.)

Even if an online platform allows users to move between multiple breakout sessions, you still won’t experience something close to an in-person social. That’s because breakouts are fixed platform units that have to be set up in advance. There’s no easy way for three people, say, to decide they want to video chat about something amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then spontaneously split up and meet others.

Online conference socials using platforms like Gatherly and YoTribe

Online social platforms like Gatherly and YoTribe provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. They do this using a map interface that shows individuals or groups of people scattered around a room or rooms. Gatherly versus YoTribe review When you join a social on one of these platforms, you find yourself as an name or photo on the map. You move around the map by simply clicking where you want to go.

If you move near another person’s name or picture, you’re automatically connected to them by video chat. If you move into one of the circles on the map — colored in the YoTribe screen shot above, or numbered (so-called “huddles”) in the Gatherly image below, you’ll automatically join a video chat with everyone in the circle/huddle. Gatherly versus YoTribe review Finished chatting? Click on the map to move somewhere else to join someone else or another conversation! Or click on the map away from everyone else so you can answer that phone call you just got.

That’s the basic interface. All such platforms provide this birds eye view of the positions of everyone in the social and the same mechanism to move around and meet others. Of course, each platform does this a little differently, and they include additional functions, like text chat, which I’ll cover below.

Requirements

Setup on both platforms couldn’t be much simpler. Both are browser based, so there’s no app to download or software to install. Attendees are given a link and an (optional) password to join the social room.

Gatherly requires you talk with their sales staff to set up the meeting. This ensures they size your server correctly. They will give you a link to your room that you can distribute to attendees. Gatherly requires you to use the Chrome browser.

YoTribe can be set up without any input from a YoTribe human. Get your own room from the button on their home page! Once you have your room, you can set up a room background (see below), set a room password for attendees. You can also set up an “icebreaker question”, though I’m not a big fan of these.

Meeting size and conversation group size

How many people can be in a single meeting while supporting multiple on-the-fly group conversations? And how many people can be in a single on-the-fly video chat?

These are key questions!

Just eight years ago, public platforms that provided a stable video chat with a mere ten people (think Google Hangouts) were state of the art. Today, we take this kind of technology for granted. But supporting multiple constantly-reconfiguring video chats for hundreds of people is hard, and costs money.

Most platforms today use open source WebRTC technology, the availability of which allows small companies like Gatherly (a handful of computer science students in Atlanta, Georgia) and YoTribe (a few techies in Berlin, Germany) to create a pretty impressive fluid video chat infrastructure.

In my opinion, the one-to-one private video chat provided in several other online meeting platforms is not sufficient to offer an intimate and fluid social experience. This is a key differentiator for platforms like Gatherly and YoTribe.

Gatherly size issues

Gatherly asks meeting owners to provide the maximum number of people who will be in the room and the largest group video chat size desired. They then host your meeting on a server that can handle the required load. In a test meeting last week, Gatherly comfortably handled spontaneous video chats with ~15 people. This seems more than enough capability to me.

YoTribe size issues

Currently, YoTribe has a different approach. One of the YoTribe founders, Leonard Witteler, explains: “As thousands of participants join a room, we split the room into many areas and serve the smaller areas from a properly load-balanced backend.” In our test last week, YoTribe ran into problems with groups larger than about ten people. Since there’s no limit that can be set on a conversation group’s size, this could cause a problem any time a large number of people try to video chat with each other.

YoTribe’s effort to create a platform that automatically scales to handle varying loads is impressive. The automatic addition of “areas” — each restricted to a maximum of 36 participants in our test last week — as the number of participants grows is an ingenious approach to mitigating the increased demand on the video chat servers they employ. However, such a system needs to fail gracefully when its limits are met. Given that we were able to stress YoTribe with about 100 participants in our test event, currently I’d prefer a platform like Gatherly with known, preset limits that will handle a predetermined load for a production event.

Gatherly versus YoTribe features

There is one minor nomenclature difference between Gatherly and YoTribe. Gatherly calls video chat groups “huddles”, while YoTribe calls them “circles”. Both platforms allow attendees to mute their microphones and turn off their cameras as needed.

Neither platform has much in the way of documentation. That’s probably because the developers are constantly adding new features. Luckily, both interfaces are simple enough that it’s not hard to figure out how they work, though it took me a few minutes, which could disorient and discourage some first-time users. Adding a short, skippable tutorial for attendees to view before entering the room would be a nice addition.

Interface

There are numerous small but sometimes significant differences between the interfaces of the two products. I will concentrate on what I noticed that’s important to me.

Map interface

Gatherly shows individual attendees on the map by name. It displays current huddles as circles with numbers inside, the number representing the count of people in that video chat. Moving your cursor over a huddle shows a list of the names of everyone in it. This is an intuitive interface that makes it quite easy to find specific people in the room: they are either shown by name outside the huddles or one can “search” the huddles by moving your cursor over them.

YoTribe shows individual attendees as pictures, selfies that are taken by the attendee’s webcam before they enter the room. This is great if you recognize most of the people present. If you don’t — my experience at most events — you’ll need to hover your cursor over each image to see their name. This is time consuming if there are many people present. In addition, I didn’t find any way to discover who was in a circle other than joining it and scanning through the participants.

I found Gatherly far easier to use to find specific people, or browse who’s present, than YoTribe.

YoTribe does have one extremely useful feature. The room host can upload an image that replaces the blank room map (see example below).

By creating an appropriate image, you could designate portions of the room as numbered or named breakout rooms, exhibit booths, etc. Gatherly provides this functionality as a service on request. In my opinion, Gatherly should follow YoTribe’s lead and make map customization completely under host control.

Video chat

Gatherly has a Zoom-gallery-style video chat display. As the number of people in the huddle increases, the video windows get smaller, keeping everyone visible. This worked well during our test event.

In addition, Gatherly has what I’d argue is an essential feature that YoTribe lacks: the ability to lock a video chat at any time so no one else can enter. This allows two or more people to have a private conversation. Private conversations like this are impossible in YoTribe, which allows anyone to suddenly join a video chat circle at any time

YoTribe shows circle chatters in a strip at the top of the screen, like Zoom’s webinar view. In practice this means that circles with more than five people can’t display everyone on screen simultaneously. As a result it’s hard to tell who’s speaking in a large circle, and because people can arrive and depart at any time, you’re never quite sure who’s present.

YoTribe does offer an option to share your screen with others in your current circle, which could be useful though there doesn’t seem to be a way to zoom the image to full screen.

Text chat/messaging

Gatherly includes a simple text chat interface that allows you to see the names of everyone present, message another person, or message everyone in your current huddle.
YoTribe text chat includes the above functions, plus a broadcast chat mode that allows attendees to send a message to everyone. Gatherly needs to implement this! Message notifications in YoTribe are easily overlooked though; the only indication is a small yellow circle in the chat window and chat icon.

Pricing

Currently YoTribe is free! (I suspect this won’t last, so enjoy it while you can.)

Gatherly is currently using a $x/head pricing model, where x depends on the size of the event. Right now, I suspect they might be flexible. They were kind enough to offer me a free test event last week.

Quick comparison with Remo

Remo is another platform that offers multi-person, map-based video chat (and a lot more besides). I’ve only seen a brief demo of the product so I don’t feel qualified to provide a review here. The map is much prettier than Gatherly’s and YoTribe’s, and uses a set of various table sizes as a metaphor for conversations. It’s noteworthy that the pricing for Remo is based on the maximum number of attendees, meeting duration, and seats available at a table (currently 4 {$50 – $150/month} or 6 {$400 or $900/month}). This highlights the significant costs for providing the kind of server power needed to support fluid on-the-fly video conferencing.

Security

Gatherly says they use Amazon Web Services servers and end-to end encryption. They do not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access. They offer password protection of rooms, and can include a waiting room (I did not see this) for you to vet attendees before they join. Finally, they provide “Kick and Ban features to ensure troublemakers stay out of your event”, which I didn’t see either.

YoTribe also allows a room password. Only guests who are in your circle can participate in your conversation; no one in the room can be invisible to you. Like Gatherly, YoTribe says it does not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access.

Conclusions

On balance, I prefer the Gatherly experience to YoTribe, though both platforms are useful and solid enough for small events. YoTribe has a more party-like feel, which could be a good fit for a group that mostly knows each other. Gatherly does a better job, in my opinion, of creating an experience closer to that of a friendly conference social.

However, your needs are likely different from mine, so I’ve summarized what I see as the advantages of each platform below.

Gatherly advantages

  • Being able to lock a Gatherly huddle, so you can be sure of a private conversation is a big plus.
  • Gatherly’s Zoom-like video gallery view inside a huddle works well, allowing you to see everyone present. YoTribe’s scrolling strip of video windows only shows a fraction of the people in a large circle, and it’s difficult to figure out who’s there and who’s speaking.
  • Given YoTribe’s unpredictable loss of video chat functionality, I prefer to have Gatherly’s predetermined limits on event and chat size, allowing the platform to provide adequate power to reliably support the meeting.
  • I prefer Gatherly’s map interface to that of YoTribe. YoTribe’s attendee photo icons are great if you recognize most people. But seeing names moving around the map is more helpful in general. In addition, Gatherly’s ability to show you the names of the people in a huddle just by hovering your cursor over it is much more informative.

YoTribe’s advantages

  • For now YoTribe is free, and Gatherly costs $!
  • A YoTribe room can be set up and used without any communication with YoTribe, while Gatherly requires you talk to their sales staff first.
  • YoTribe has broadcast text chat, which Gatherly did not, though I’m told it will be added any day now.
  • YoTribe creates new rooms automatically when the number of attendees in any room exceeds 36. Gatherly says they will soon have a fixed room feature too, with “elevators” that allow you to move to a different floor (see the image below). I think this will likely provide an easier to navigate social meeting than YoTribe’s extra-room-on-the-fly approach.
  • Unlike Gatherly, YoTribe allows the host to upload an image file to replace the blank map where attendees roam. This is a very useful feature. I hope that Gatherly implements it soon.

Final words…

I hope you’ve found this Gatherly versus YoTribe review useful. I know that Gatherly is being constantly updated. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that YoTribe developers are hard at work as well. So reviews like this are a moving target. Please share your experience with these platforms, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!

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.

Overview

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

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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 bit.ly, 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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

Best picture of me in a suit ever

MeetingsNet suit

I’m honored to be included in MeetingsNet’s eleven most influential online personalities in meetings and travel. And as a bonus, they took the best picture of me in a suit ever (thank you Jason Grow!)

For the full story, and a fascinating look at the other folks who were chosen (including Virgin’s Richard Branson), I recommend you download the gorgeous MeetingsNet app.

How the rise of online is changing your events

Encyclopaedia Britannica

How I used to find information
When I was living in England in the 1960’s, finding a telephone number was cumbersome. Five huge telephone books, each requiring both hands to lift, sat in a cupboard in our hallway, with millions of alphabetized names and associated numbers in microscopic print. The books quickly became out of date and were updated sporadically. And, if you didn’t know the exact spelling, or had only an address, you were out of luck.

Books were a key way to obtain information. Wealthy families (not mine) purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica and proudly displayed the 24+ volumes on sturdy bookshelves. The local free library was a key resource. For current information, I could watch three TV channels and read several rather good print newspapers. For specialized information, I subscribed to, or read in the library, a bewildering variety of magazines and journals.

And, of course, I talked to people. My parents, my teachers, my friends, and, later, my professional colleagues were all valuable resources. I found my friends from face-to-face social events or through my work. Finally, if I needed to know more about a subject of interest, I would attend a conference and listen to papers delivered by experts in the field.

How I find information today
I don’t remember the last time I consulted a paper telephone directory. Ten years ago I checked eBay to see if an Encyclopedia Britannica that I never consulted any more was worth anything. Reluctantly, I ended up recycling the set, because no one wanted to buy it. Today, apart from a local paper and a few paper magazine subscriptions, online is where I find telephone numbers, email or physical addresses, and information on just about any subject that, in quantity and mostly quality, dwarfs the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

People are still a major resource for me, but the primary way that I first meet new people professionally these days is online, via a variety of social media, rather than an initial face-to-face encounter.

And, of course, these days I am a creator of conferences rather than a passive consumer of them. For me, a good conference is one where I can interact, connect, share, and learn with others, and can influence what happens at the event in a way that is useful and meaningful to me.

How the bountiful availability of online content changes events
Today there is amazing one-way content on the web. The internet is where we go for information about people, places, facts, processes, techniques, and solutions to problems. Our resources have migrated from cumbersome books and broadcast media to browsable indexed data servers in the internet cloud.

For face-to-face attendees, this makes vanilla delivery of content at events far less compelling.

In the future, people are not going to travel to your event to listen to a speaker they could watch streamed live, or as a recording at a time and place of their choosing. Providing a ten-minute opportunity for questions at the end of a presentation isn’t going to cut it either. Viewing one-way content over the internet is cheaper and more convenient for attendees, and if straight content is mostly what you have to offer people will gravitate to obtaining it online; either from you or a competitor.

As a result, traditional events concentrating on the transfer of predetermined content from experts to a local audience are dying. I don’t know how long it will be before rigor mortis sets in. Perhaps some events will remain viable as training opportunities for novices, or as vehicles for CEUs to be awarded or certifications to be maintained. Over time, however, the majority of professionals who care about their profession and best use of their time will stop going to face-to-face events that don’t incorporate significant opportunities for connection, peer-to-peer sharing, and participant-driven sessions. And, no, a lunch and an evening social or two aren’t going to be enough any more. Instead you need to put opportunities for connection front and center of your events, because connection around content is becoming the most important reason that people attend face-to-face events.

Why you should care
In the fifteen months since my book on participant-driven conferences was published I have been amazed and delighted by the flood of interest from meeting professionals, peer communities, and business & association leaders. And I’ve also been disturbed. A common story I hear is of long-running conferences in trouble: conferences where attendance, evaluations, and consequent income are falling. The organizers who are contacting me have realized that the traditional conferences-as-usual models are not working like they used to—attendees are starting to defect, or ask for something different. I’ve heard this story from professionals in many different fields.

In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before the importance of the shift in emphasis away from content towards connection at face-to-face events becomes apparent and generally accepted by the events community. As usual with industry trends, the people who recognize and respond well to them early will be the beneficiaries, while those who continue doing things the old way will lose out. If you’re not currently investigating ways to restructure your events to significantly increase attendee connections and participation, I recommend you start.

Do you see a trend of increased attendee dissatisfaction at traditional events? If so, why do you think it’s happening, and what are you doing about it?