Engagement Waning During Your Virtual Breakout Session? Make the Experience More Enjoyable for Attendees!

September 2, 2021

Bob Marsh

Bob Marsh is the chief revenue officer at Bluewater, a design-forward technology company that helps craft moments that connect and inspire.

Open your calendar on any given day, and chances are good that it looks nearly identical to the day before: chock full of video meetings and conferences. Meeting after meeting can be taxing enough, but those held in the digital realm are leading to a phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.” 

This seems almost counterintuitive, as little effort is required to attend. However, there are many reasons why virtual meetings and conferences feel so exhausting. For one, they require an exorbitant amount of eye contact. No longer are you looking around a room as people speak; your attention is directed forward constantly. Video calls, especially a day of them, also cut down on mobility. You must sit in one place for hours on end, and the lack of movement affects attention, cognition and more. In addition, virtual meetings add to your cognitive load. It takes more effort to relay nonverbal cues via video. Nodding and other gestures become more exaggerated. 

The last thing you want is to burden guests with these issues in breakout meeting rooms at virtual conferences. After all, connecting and networking with other attendees often takes place in breakout sessions — but not if participants are disengaged. Luckily, there are ways to make virtual breakout sessions more enjoyable, personable and engaging:

1. Limit the number of people in each session.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is taking a conference as planned and putting it directly online. Although this can sometimes work with talks, lectures and learning sessions, the entire cadence often comes to a halt when moving to breakout rooms. In a virtual setting, you simply can’t include as many people as you would in person. They’ll inevitably talk over one another, which is not a productive use of time. Limit breakout groups to 25 people maximum. The smaller number allows everyone to participate easily, making the experience much more engaging. 

2. Build in time for contemplation.

Not everyone is quick on their feet — or excels at extemporaneous speaking. Build time into the schedule to allow people to collect their thoughts before asking them to contribute in a breakout meeting. Send out an agenda well in advance, and if the breakout session stems from a topic introduced during a talk, provide a prompt or pose a question. For example, “Do you foresee any obstacles in…?” or, “What do you envision as the next step to achieve…?” Then, give everyone a break for reflection. Going straight into the virtual breakout room puts people on the spot, and the goal should always be a constructive and informative conversation in these types of sessions.  

3. Ask for contributions directly.

Even after giving people time to think about a topic or issue, they might stay mum. Putting a virtual moderator in breakout rooms to ask for input individually not only encourages people to speak up but also keeps everyone engaged. It can also ensure that everyone takes turns in sharing their opinions with one another, again making for a more productive and engrossing conversation. As an added tip, give a couple of participants a heads-up that you plan to call on them to ask for comments. This way, they can be mentally prepared.

4. Add interactive elements.

At a conference, you’re often in attendance to learn, and this active acquisition of knowledge can easily be carried over into breakout sessions. However, in any social setting, some people unconsciously take on roles; certain participants might commandeer a conversation while others stay observers. To prevent this, make the overall experience more engaging by presenting everyone with an interactive task. Skip the slide deck, and instead provide an online quiz or poll questions. Pose different scenarios or invite a presenter to expand on talking points. Ultimately, give participants something to own and engage with so they aren’t stuck listening to one person talk for the length of the breakout meeting.  

5. Take advantage of Zoom’s lesser-known tools.

Teleconferencing platforms such as Zoom offer much more to participants than a way to attend virtual meetings. Few people take advantage of Zoom’s built-in whiteboard, for example. All breakout participants can add to and alter the content, making for a much more collaborative experience. Besides, putting something like this up on the screen can break up the monotony of people just talking. Another little-used Zoom tool is the self-select function for breakout rooms. Set up multiple sessions on a variety of different topics, and then let participants choose which room to join. 

Breakout sessions are an important component of virtual conferences, so a lot of consideration should go into their structure. Don’t treat a breakout room like any other meeting. Get creative to ensure high levels of engagement and less Zoom fatigue. In turn, participants will remember the conference experience — and for the right reasons. 

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