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Break-outs sessions are the heart of event sharing and interaction. Once an initial sense of community has been established by morning circle and other group exercises, break-out sessions allow for rich collaboration between specific participants. It is presumed that each break-out session has one or more facilitators to guide the dialog, but these individuals should see themselves not as presenters but rather catalysts of constructive exchange and discovery. If the person leading a breakout does not have facilitation experience, you may want to offer to pair them up with a someone who does have experience to help share the load.

Why break out?

As has been stated, small groups offer more participants a chance to weigh in and be heard. Large-group lecture and panel formats often succeed in boring a broad range of attendees while offering limited in-depth value, and question/answer periods at the end of such sessions usually devolve along random vectors of inquiry.

How to break out

Depending on the nature of the agenda, there are several ways to break into smaller groups:

  • Counting off: If an agenda time slot has all participants considering the same topic, then simple counting off creates nicely mixed groups: based on the number of desired small groups, the facilitator counts off participants around the circle, 1 to repeatedly until are are counted, and then assigns all the 1's to group 1, 2's to group 2 and so on. This insures that acquaintances who are sitting together won't end up in the same group, and that rich random cross sections come together for dialog in a fashion that would be unlikely given normal seating behavior.
  • Self selection: If an agenda time slot has a range of session topics, participants can simply self-select into the various sessions based on personal preference. In this model, pay close attention to under-attended sessions and encourage folks from the larger sessions to consider switching. In addition, agenda planners should be careful to design relatively symmetric sessions; one "sexy" session opposite several practical workshops usually robs the latter sessions of participants and energy. Another consideration regards the nature of sessions; if some workshops will be highly technical, it is productive to offer non-technical or qualitative sections in parallel to give non-technical participants an engaging alternative to tech talk.
  • Skill level: For technical and applied workshops, it can often be productive to divide participants according to their level of skill and experience. This allows those who are new or less confident to enjoy a dialog consistent with their understanding and curiosity, while letting more advanced participants consider more specific, conceptual or nuanced aspects of the topics at hand. Dividing according to skill level is often challenging in practice; there is no magic formula for such segmentation. Two useful mechanisms in this regard are "screening questions" and "section goals". With the latter, you let participants select themselves into a group based on what is intended to be discussed and learned; with the former, facilitators use questions of the form "do you know [how to] ... to route participants to appropriate groups.
  • "Friendly strangers": for sessions that involve topical dialog and comparing perspectives, an interesting heuristic for breaking out is to tell each participant they can not be in a group with anyone they know or know well. While such criteria are entirely subjective, and in close-knit communities can be somewhat meaningless, compelling participants to move out their clique and comfort zone yields surprising serendipity and diverse animated dialog.

In all cases, repeatedly encourage participants to sit next to folks they have not yet met rather than their friends.

While some organizers may be tempted to get participants to pre-register for specific break-out sessions, this is rarely beneficial; any planning value afforded by this additional pre-event information is usually offset by the number of participants who change their preferences and choices at the event based on any number of logical and random factors, which they should be allowed to do in the interest of maximizing their experience. Walk-in participants are usually desirable, and can also skew session sign-up. An exception to this guideline sometimes involves sessions with limited resources; if participants will use computers or other finite hardware supplies, first-come/first-served pre-registration can preserve sanity and mitigate disappointment and resentment at the event.

Anatomy of a break-out session

A three-phase trajectory can yield excellent results. Participants come together first as a large group. This time is used to establish the goals of the time slot, set expectations, and address questions and suggestions. In addition, each break-out group facilitator can elaborate on what they will address in their section and entertain brief questions. Participants then break out into small group for focused dialog. At the end of the time slot, the group reunites as a whole, with each break-out section reporting back their key outcomes and "ah-ha's". Such report-backs can be used to drive group discussion and the merging of break-out themes and topics.

In a 1-hour time slot, the three phases might be allocated as follows: 10 minutes for whole-group meeting, 30 minutes for break-out, and 20 minutes for report-back and group discussion. It is essential to move cleanly and briskly between the phases; discourage cigarette breaks and voicemail/email checking until the whole session has completed. Especially moving into the break-out phase, it is essential that all participants be present at the outset to introduce themselves and establish group chemistry; participants slowly drifting in dissipate the energy and kill the potential for buzz.

The 1-hour format can be frustratingly short and seem rushed, and it is recommended where possible to consider 90-minute and 2-hour sessions. In the 90-minute window, the phases might run 15 minutes intro/50 minutes break-out/20 minutes report-back, with a 5-minute break before report-backs. In the 2-hour format, the phases might run 15/80/20, with a 5-minute break before reports-backs and facilitators deciding how to break up their 80-minute slots.

How to report back

A key piece of making break-outs valuable is having participants summarize the key take-aways from each break-out session to the larger group. These can sometimes be described as the "ah-ha's" of a discussion.

Each break-out facilitator should identify a note-taker for their session. In addition, the person who will report back to the larger circle should be identified as early as possible so they can visualize and prepare their report-back in real time. Whether the note-taker and the reporter are one and the same can be decided on a per-group basis; having different participants handle the two tasks engages additional brains in bringing value to the proceedings.

Report-backs should be short and sweet, and in particular should not be narrations of group dialog or summaries of proceedings. They should focus on specific learnings that participants enjoyed or shared. A good report-back is 1 or 2 paragraphs of dialog, and rarely more. Spending 5 minutes at the end of a break-out session letting group participants collectively define the report-back is an excellent closing mechanism for the break-out. Once a group has reported back, the main facilitator can invite questions and comments from other members of the same group as well as members of other groups.