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What Is a Breakout Session?

A breakout session is generally understood to be a relatively short session where a small group of attendees, drawn from a large conference or convention, discusses specific subjects or aspects of the broad theme of the main gathering. These small group gatherings are sometimes called breakout meetings or workshops. The purpose of these sessions is to take discussions to a more detailed level and to allow for greater participation among attendees.

Some breakout sessions focus on an issue with the intent of raising questions that have not been answered, while others are designed to take frequently asked questions and offer solutions from a panel of experts or from other attendees. Many large conferences draw participants from several different disciplines or functional areas; the topics covered in breakout sessions are usually designed for one of these specific groups and are most likely not relevant to the entire conference.

Breakout sessions may also serve to create a report or list of questions that will be presented at a later time to the entire conference. A facilitator or moderator can guide the session while a reporter takes notes and synthesizes the comments and input from a panel, presenters, or the meeting participants.

Some considerations for breakout sessions:

  • Establish clear and concise goals for the session. The goals should be defined in the conference promotional literature. If the session requires participation, ask participants to prepare questions in advance. It is even reasonable to suggest that due to time constraints, attendees submit questions in advance of the conference via e-mail or online form.
  • The use of technology can simplify and streamline a breakout session. Many conferences are using social media such as Twitter or Google+ to take questions and comments from attendees. Using social media maximizes time and allows only relevant questions and comments. Employing hashtags for the conference and breakout sessions makes it easy to identify comments that are specific to the topic at hand.
  • Consider requiring attendees to register in advance of the conference for the sessions they plan to attend. Registration eases some of the strain on meeting planners when deciding on which rooms should be used for breakout sessions and can also drive the use of technology or pre-submitted questions. Planners typically provide an online registration form, but e-mail registration can be used for smaller meetings.
  • Multiple sessions on the same topic help to limit the size of breakout sessions that have high demand. If the schedules of the presenters, panel, and moderators/facilitators allow, consider offering two or even three breakout sessions on the same topic at different times or on different days during the conference. Multiple scheduling can also make it easier for attendees who wish to attend two sessions taking place simultaneously.
  • Wi-Fi access has gone from being a luxury to a necessity and an expected amenity at every conference. As you consider whether or not to incorporate the use of mobile devices and social media in your breakout sessions, you need to ensure that Wi-Fi is free and reliable for all your attendees.