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When the global pandemic first hit last year, many brands barely skipped a beat before they pivoted over to virtual events and video conferencing. After all, the inability to gather in-person didn’t stop their need to spread ideas, communicate with their teams, and get on with the show.

But while many brands were able to transition their content and communications over to a virtual format quite easily, some still found it challenging to network and connect with guests and attendees in the personable way that often happened between main stage events, in breakout sessions, at cocktail hours, or even when grabbing a quick bite at lunch.

Later into the pandemic, we saw more and more virtual event platforms begin to offer breakout room options as a way to help bring the one-on-one aspects of conferences and trade shows into the virtual world, but there are still a lot of considerations that must be taken into account to make these breakouts as efficient, enjoyable, and personable as they are in the real world. Thankfully, we’ve put together a few tips from our experience running and hosting virtual breakout rooms over the last year (and even before then) to help you get started!

transitioning to virtual events

Tips for hosting an efficient virtual breakout session

1. Define Breakout Room Activities Beforehand

Just as it’s important to define and find success for your overall virtual event before jumping in, it’s important to establish the activity and goal of your breakout room session before randomly assigning attendees to different rooms. Instead, decide how to group your attendees based on the activity that they will be participating in.

For example, if you are hosting a discussion of some kind, it may be helpful to organize breakout groups who have similar work backgrounds or characteristics, as they will be able to get to the heart of the problem faster without having to work to get on equal footing. On the opposite side, if you are hosting a brainstorming session or asking attendees to solve a problem, it may be good to include a mix of people with different positions and experiences, so that they can tackle the topic from all sides.

2. Avoid Gathering Larger Groups

When deciding how many people should be grouped into each breakout room, imagine a large group trying to have a discussion in person. 15 people all sat around a dinner table, for example, are going to end up talking over one another or breaking into side conversations in an attempt to share their voice. However, a smaller group of 4-6 people can easily allow for each person to feel included and heard. Your group number should always be smaller in virtual settings, as talking over one another can easily happen when too many audio feeds run into one conversation or audio delays happen.

3. Brainstorm Individually Before Sharing

For many people, it can feel intimidating to jump into a group of strangers and be asked to start presenting your thoughts on a topic without having a moment to collect your thoughts and come to a clear conclusion first. Therefore, if you are asking people to discuss a topic or brainstorm, give them a prompt before jumping into the breakout room (“how might we achieve…” or “what changes would you make in order to improve…”) and then give them a couple of minutes to think and brainstorm to themselves before presenting their opinion to the group.

Once individuals have had a chance to jot down their thoughts, they will feel more prepared to discuss the idea with the group and you will get to a solution faster. This will also give like-minded individuals an easy way to cluster similar ideas together.

4. Make Group Discussions Engaging

“When people enter any social setting, they tacitly work to determine their role,” writes The Harvard Business Review. “For example, when you enter a movie theater, you unconsciously define your role as observer — you are there to be entertained … The biggest engagement threat in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer. Many already happily defined their role this way when they received the meeting invite.”

To combat your breakout room attendees from automatically checking out, it’s important that meeting facilitators create an experience of shared responsibility early on, or provide attendees with tasks that they can actively engage in so that they can’t simply tune out.

Some virtual tasks that we have helped brands incorporate into their virtual breakout sessions include poll questions, role-playing, an online quiz, live video from the presenter or group moderator, videos, and more. The key is to actively give participants something to engage with so that they can have ownership over the session, rather than just running through a slide deck or talking at them for 15 minutes straight.

If you are unsure of how to incorporate this kind of interactive technology or live poll into your virtual event or breakout session, working with a virtual event company like Bluewater can go a long way. Ensure that both attendees and your brand are getting the most out of these sessions by recording the answers and interactions that happen, and helping to make sure all transitions and technology flows smoothly.

5. Share Small Group Takeaways

Last, but not least, if it makes sense for your type of virtual event, share the takeaways or insights that were gathered in each breakout room with the larger event. This could happen during an open conversation or debrief immediately following the breakouts, or even as a document that is shared with attendees as a follow-up to the event that keeps the conversation going.

If you’re looking for even more creative and engaging ways to utilize virtual event breakout rooms for your next conference or trade show, be sure to reach out to our event experts at Bluewater today!