Create an Effective Conference Breakout Strategy to Keep Members Engaged

Conferences are an essential part of corporation and workforce strategies. There will be a lot going on here, but the star players are breakout sessions. So what’s the difference between breakout and general sessions? Creating effective conference breakout sessions can help keep your members engaged during the whole event.

General vs Breakout Sessions

  • General sessions are what the public pictures when they think about conferences. These typically include a speaker or group of speakers discussing broader elements of the convention’s theme or topics. General sessions are focused on inspiration, motivation, or getting a basic orientation on an issue.
  • Breakout sessions, meanwhile, are shorter sessions that involve smaller groups of attendees. They discuss a topic or teach a skill in more detail. These sessions also tend to be more hands-on, integrating technique demonstrations or projects that individuals and groups can work on.
Breakout sessions are where the real learning happens. They build practical knowledge about actionable skills. These sessions also encourage group negotiation and participation. People who attend breakout sessions can go back to their job place with new team-building skills and strategies.

Structuring Your Conference Breakout Sessions

Every conference group will be different. However, in general it’s a good idea to start by introducing the subject of the breakout session. Explain what will be covered, define the goals of the session, and quickly assess what attendees already know about the topic. This gives you a chance to clear up misconceptions or fill in gaps in knowledge before the real work begins. Next, it’s time to get to the heart of the session: the real learning. Whether you’re doing an in-depth lecture and demonstration or assigning group activities, you’ll want to keep your audience engaged. You can build engagement through many strategies including icebreakers, managing the pace of information, adapting to different kinds of learners, building practical skills on prior knowledge, and throwing in a touch of the unexpected.


Get your session flowing quickly with an event icebreaker. This will put your audience at ease, help them change gears from whatever lecture they attended before this, and keep your session lingering in their memory. Here are a few ideas:
  • Take a poll by show of hands, asking how they feel about a topic.
  • Start with a funny anecdote, preferably at your own expense.
  • Pass out bingo cards of important terms in the coming demonstration.
  • Start with a ‘top ten’ list of ways that the skill or strategy will help them at their job. Throw in a few funny ones.

Consider the Timing

Consider when this session falls on the schedule. Conferences bombard attendees with constant information, but the human brain can only absorb so much in a short span of time. If your session is in the afternoon of the second day, try to slow the pace down and focus on the most important elements, glossing over details that may overwhelm your audience. Likewise, if you have an early morning session, ease into the topic. This will give enough time for peoples’ coffee to work its magic.

The Different Learning Styles

Considering how your audience learns is crucial if you want them to take away some genuine value. In general, there are three different types of learners: visual, audio, and tactile.
  • Visual learners do best when reading or looking at diagrams.
  • Audio learners get the most out of spoken lectures or taking with others.
  • Tactile learners need hand-on activities to really grasp and retain the knowledge.
Make sure your breakout session should include elements for each style.

How Adults Learn

During planning, keep in mind adult best learning practices. The attendees who’ve chosen to go to your session have come for your valuable knowledge. They want to learn a specific skill or strategy. Emphasize how this session will teach them something practical that will measurably improve their job performance. Next, remember that adults learn by building upon their existing knowledge. They want active learning, tying what you’re offering to the skills they already have. Interactive learning is far better than listening and taking notes because it cements knowledge into their minds. This also lets you catch and correct any mistakes or confusion.

Knowledge In Motion

You can also make your session unforgettable by throwing in a twist that the group doesn’t expect. One strategy is to get attendees on their feet and the blood moving. You can ask them to change the seating arrangement from rows to a circle of chairs, move the lecture outside if the weather and venue permits, or ask attendees to swap lecture notes so they can gain a new perspective.

Breakout Sessions Cement Knowledge

General sessions have their place in a conference. They motivate and inspire the audience and familiarize them with broad topics. However, motivation fades unless it’s put into action. Breakout sessions help build discipline, work habits, and the foundation of a new skill. Three months later, those actionable skills built through experiential learning are what will stick with your attendees.