7 Fundamental Ways To Drastically Improve Conference Breakouts

2014.02.25_Edge Conference at Google New York

Concurrent sessions, often known as breakouts, are the meat and potatoes of conferences.

They are also one of the most difficult areas for your continuous improvement efforts.

In many associations, volunteers vet submissions, decide topics and select speakers for their annual meeting’s concurrent sessions. While well intentioned, volunteer committees rarely are equipped with a big-picture view of 21st-century adult-learning trends.

Seven Improvement Trends For Breakouts

This past summer, we conducted a survey of 175 conference organizers to capture improvement trends for education sessions. Here’s a listing of the top seven initiatives they say they are focusing on:

1. Go on a session diet

For every three respondents who plan to reduce the number of sessions and/or speakers, there is one who is planning to add more. Quality is winning over quantity. The best gauge for identifying the need to decrease the number of concurrent sessions you offer is attendance. Your goal may vary, but if a session is attracting fewer than 75 attendees, it’s time to cut it out.

2. Reduce panels

Many believe that panels are less interactive than single- presenter–led sessions. Quite a few organizers are significantly reducing the number of panels they offer and/or limiting their size to three or fewer panelists.

3. Increase social learning

Organizations are craving innovative session formats and presenters who make education more participatory through improved facilitation versus the lecture. Some think providing more time for Q&A works but it rarely leads to improved learning. Others program more peer-to-peer roundtables. Some seek planned audience engagement strategies in their call for proposals (CFP). And many provide speaker coaching and tip sheets.

4. Control costs

As compared to the survey two years ago, there is a noticeably heightened focus in respondent comments on managing hard costs associated with education sessions. That indicates increased stewardship of the P&L for those responsible for the education program. Some are cutting back on sessions to save on AV, while others are using the same speaker for multiple sessions and/or repeating popular sessions.

5. Dial it up

Some organizers realize that they must err on the side of advanced or hi-tech versus 101 content to differentiate their education offering and attract a higher-level participant.

6. Add bite-sized learning

An increasing number of organizations are programming TED-type or Ignite talks to serve attendees’ shrinking attention spans. For some, these shorter, more concise formats actually improve the presentation skills of their industry presenters.

7. Featuring just-in-time content

A growing number of organizations are leaving session slots open to address late-breaking content or hot topics. Some are issuing a second call for proposals two to three months before their conference for emerging issues.

Start With 25% Change

If you’re interested in developing your improvement plan around these trends, it’s recommended that you start with two or three initiatives and apply them to 25 percent of your program.

Most meetings don’t need a wholesale change. Start small, collect data and feedback — and then swing for the fences.

Get your free copy of The 2013 Speaker Report: The Use of Professional and Industry Speakers in the Meetings Market, conducted by Tagoras and Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

What are some additional ways to make continuous improvements to conference breakouts? What would happen if breakouts disappeared from the conference schedule?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2014.


  1. says

    Great post, Dave! Break outs are expensive meeting real estate and deserve a thorough look see. So let’s look at #2. As an advocate of the panel format, let’s make panels more intentional. It’s easy for a meeting planner to “fill the slot” with a panel of sponsors, or people who need some visibility – but don’t quite fit the MainStage slot. Throw a couple of people together and assume magic will happen.

    Well, it won’t, unless you have an exceptionally skilled moderator and interesting panelists. So, if you ARE going to do a panel, then make some great choices (topic, moderator, panelists) to make it worthwhile.

    One of my favorite breakouts is to take the MainStage speakers and do a very interactive panel discussion with them as a breakout. That way, those who want more can get more…and we tie the theme of the conference around the discussion.

    What do you think about a mash up #2 & #3? Panel formats can be highly engaging from the get-go. Oh, unless you leave audience Q&A for 5 minutes at the end. For example, I just love using ski.do that allows audiences to answer polls and also ask questions, then RATE the questions – and then a google app that allows the moderator to view the question in his/her google glasses! How cool is that?

  2. says

    Kristin, thanks for adding progressive ideas for improving vs. cutting back on panels. No question, panel success is highly dependent on a skilled and prepared moderator.

    Involving the audience is absolutely key to designing a worthwhile learning experience. Love the concept of incorporating Google Glass as a teleprompter for the moderator to be the voice of the audience!

  3. says

    Perhaps it didn’t make the list because its fundamental but I believe for every component of a conference, be it general sessions or breakouts, I think you need to start with building up from a blank page. Each session needs to be evaluated based on previous years success or intended participants benefits rather than inclusion because it always has been or because its the latest thing.


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