a conference breakout session with music


The image above is from a real conference breakout session. Notice the leader is not stuck in front of the room. She’s asking a question, smiling and looking at the audience. These people are not bored.

As an introverted creative type, I’m partial to breakout sessions because I stay focused better in smaller breakouts as compared to the large conference sessions that include everyone. In a conference breakout there’s opportunity to focus on specific topics and to allow for in depth discussion with lots of interaction.

With that great potential, you have responsibility as someone planning a session to find interesting topics, great facilitators and entertaining subject matter experts who will engage your attendees.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because someone is an expert at something their presentation will go over well. There are wonderful topic experts who aren’t great at connecting with an audience. The key to creating a memorable conference breakout is to focus on both content and delivery. It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing as far as what’s more important, content or delivery. So keep both in mind as you plan and you’ll do well.

Whether you’re looking for external speakers or working on delivering your own session at a conference these tips will apply.

The Medium As Message

Years ago when I was young musician, I was laser focused on acquiring dazzling technique at the piano. And because I’m pretty much a workaholic I got to be pretty good. Well, really good actually and I was working a lot. Late one night after a NYC club performance I got into an argument with an advertising executive who had been in the audience.

She argued that the medium (delivery of content) was as important, actually more important, than the message (content). I remember the passion with which I argued that content was king and performance  second. If you’re surmising that I wasn’t a great performer when I was young, you’re right.

Luckily twenty five years later I’ve figured something out. The ability to entertain; to hold an audience’s attention is at least as important as the message you’re delivering. No one will remember anything said in a breakout session if they’re bored and tuned out.

Elements of a Compelling Conference Breakout

To create a winning program, you need look for the following elements at each of your breakout sessions.

Subject Matter Expert

Yes, you do want subject matter experts to lead your sessions. A conference implies that you’re conferring about something so topic is important. Within the general theme of your conference try to create breakouts that cover a variety of specific topics related to your theme. After you crate a list of topics you want to cover, take time to brainstorm about new or different ways of approaching a topic. Sometimes bringing in a speaker who has a controversial or new take on a well worn subject creates energy and enthusiasm.

An Entertainer (not literally)

I don’t mean every presenter has to be a professional entertainer but he or she should be entertaining. There are some common attributes to look for. The session leader should know their material well enough that they’re not glued to a script or a series of powerpoint slides. Program materials are great but the person speaking should be looking at the audience and comfortable enough with their content that they can constantly interact with the audience.  Being polished isn’t necessary but being present and genuine reaches people. This is most important. I’ve been in sessions with presenters who were shy and soft spoken but very compelling at the same time.

Timing And Participation

Think about your ratio of yada yada yada to back and forth conversation between audience and leader. When I’m leading a conference breakout session I have a rule that I’ll never talk more than 3 minutes without asking a question. As soon as I ask a question, I’m changing the dynamic in the room by inviting people in as participants. That’s better than having a room full of passive recipients of information. So even if you do have to slog through a powerpoint presentation, stop often to invite comments and questions. Create interactivity and keep that going throughout.

Tell A Story

A good friend of mine, hit-songwriter Tony Haselden, is fond of saying that, “songwriters lie for a living”. When Tony first said this on stage during one of our shows, I was kinda bugged by it. I’d never thought of myself as a professional liar. But it’s really accurate in that good storytellers take a truth and elaborate, thus spinning a good yarn. Let’s say you need to communicate the value of seat belts used in conjunction with airbags. Before you launch into your powerpoint slides with the statistics about lives saved and injuries reduced tell a story.

Here’s an example: It was a rainy Sunday night and I was driving home after a long weekend, awake but fatigued. Rounding a bend on our narrow road about 1 mile from my house I saw a pickup truck driving right in the middle of the road. I hit the brakes and skidded into a tree but amazingly I wasn’t hurt. Scared yes, but not hurt. The police officer who came to the scene told me that my seat belt had kept me in place while my airbag protected me. He mentioned that he’d just come from an accident in which the driver was severely injured because they’d been thrown from the car.

Now show your first slide with the statistics about seat belts and airbags. People will pay attention and they’ll be interested because they’ll be thinking about what you went through the night of your accident. They’ll feel for you, they’ll feel like they know you and they’ll tune into what you’re saying.

Does this have to be a true story? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Just don’t share your secrets with the audience!

Keep It Moving And End On Time

My pet peeve with session leaders? Not staying on agenda. If you’re hiring a conference breakout professional, check references! Find out if he or she listened to their client’s needs, tailored their presentation to the audience, and/or delivered on their promise to deliver compelling content on schedule.

If you’re leading a session yourself, practice practice practice. When I started out as a keynote speaker, I practiced at home alone with a stop watch, plotting out every section of my presentations. There’s nothing that makes people more fidgety than being stuck in a session that’s run too long. Everyone always has somewhere else to be.

Lastly, and related to ending on time, professional entertainers know the best thing you can do is leave an audience wanting more. Try to wrap up when the energy level in the room is high, at it’s peak. The best compliment you can get is for someone to come up to you after a session and say, “I actually wanted to hear more about that, can I get your number?”

About Billy Kirsch

Billy is a Grammy & Emmy nominated, CMA & ACM award winning songwriter with numerous Top 10 hits to his credit. His team building programs and keynote speaking presentations help people tap into their creative abilities to become more innovative and engaged in their work. Clients include Fortune 100 companies and organizations throughout the world.