by Christina Green
Engagement keeps attendees coming back, right? And that adds to the pressure of needing to create more interactive sessions. So what do you do when group interaction isn’t living up to your expectations? Here are a few ways to increase engagement and interaction in your breakout sessions.
Most event planners these days long for interactive sessions that engage their audience in dynamic ways. But interaction is a two-way street - just like conversation. The audience has to play along as much as the session leaders need to give them the opportunity to do so. If your group interaction isn’t what you’ve been hoping for, you can make it better by taking a more in-depth look into several factors that could be impeding it.
Reasons People Don’t Interact
Understanding why a group doesn’t interact is important to turning it all around. Here are some of the most common reasons groups fail to thrive:
Your group members feel too self-conscious to share.
They simply aren’t interested in the topic or the question.
They have no experience to share.
They don’t understand the expectations, roles, or assignment.
There’s a barrier to communication.
They aren’t paying attention.
Your event is too early in the morning and they were out too late last night.
They’re simply not invested in the outcome.
So how do you turn it around? How do you ensure more people participate in your sessions?
13 Ways to Improve Group Interaction During Breakout Sessions
For increased group interaction at your event it’s important to establish or maximize several things early on.
1. Optimize Seating
Sharing and participation occur best when people are organized in a way that promotes discussion. Traditional classroom seating doesn’t do this with everyone facing front. A room that has many open seats and people peppered throughout is also not conducive to sharing. In the latter situation, encourage people to move up or cluster together. No one wants to share their ideas by shouting across the room.
Arrange seats in a pattern that lends itself to exchange. Better yet, take people out of the formal upright (and uptight) chairs in a ballroom or classroom. Give them comfortable seating (like lounge chairs or couches) and watch interaction improve.
2. Make It a Smartphone-free Zone
I may take a lot of flack for this one, but just as it’s difficult to have a personal conversation with someone when their head is buried in their phone, it is equally inhibiting to have good dynamic conversation during breakouts if every is virtually “back at the office” getting stressed or checking Facebook.
You need them present physically and mentally. Cell phones make this very hard. Yes, there is value in encouraging tweets and disseminating bits of goodness from the session on social media. But when it’s time for the breakout, it’s important everyone is contributing to the discussion in the room, not the millions that are going on outside of it.
In order to avoid further push back, it may serve you well to discourage phone usage in break out sessions at the beginning of the day. That way people can get in all their funny quips and cat video watching prior to the breakouts.
3. Provide Good Directions
Many breakouts use poor directions. They don’t have the true elements of engagement mastered. They present concepts, break people into groups, and then use words like “discuss.” That’s about as inspiring as it gets. (Note the sarcasm.) Instead, you have to give people good directions that leave them interested in discussion.
This can be done several ways but one of the easiest is ensuring the problem you’ve asked them to solve is one they can identify with or see themselves in. Our minds find it easier to solve other people’s problems than our own but we need to be interested in the solution for it to feel anything other than clinical what-if situations.
Another way to get people involved is through teasing them, much like you would in a trailer to a film. Give them part of the story, paint a vivid picture, and then ask them to complete it. You’ve gotten them halfway there. They’re able to see a partial vision so completing it is not quite as daunting as slapping down an empty piece of paper and asking them to create a masterpiece with only a yellow crayon.
4. Give Them Some Skin in the Game
In order to be inspired to contribute to the group discussion, some people need more than instructions. Since the problem or concept you’re discussing is a hypothetical one, they may need a reason to care. You can create a reason by offering a prize for the winning group or promising notoriety for sharing. This will be easiest for you if you have some insight into what motivates them. But if you don’t, you still need to give them a reason to want to get involved and solve the problem or join the discussion. Sometimes all that takes is a reminder of why the solution or outcome could be valuable to them.
5. Increase Competition
Some people thrive in competitive circumstances so creating a little friendly competition could invite the type of interaction you’re looking for. Whether it’s competition between groups to solve a problem or find a solution or whether the group is simply racing against the clock, competition drives activity.
6. Make Sure the Interactive Component Is Well Thought Out
There are a lot of speakers who feel compelled to add an interactive component to their sessions. And that’s simply what they do. But adding a “what would you do” question at the end of the session does nothing to facilitate interaction. It will feel like a useless add-on and that’s exactly how the group will treat it.
Instead, speakers should design their entire session around group interaction. Making the session feel like a natural place to share and not a speaker-to-audience dump is important to creating an atmosphere that drives group interaction.
7. Choose a Dynamic Leader
Some people are natural communicators and so they are able to elicit responses from others in a very natural way. A fantastic keynote speaker is not always a great session leader. If you want to improve group interaction, you need to examine the leader of the group as well.
Speaking of which, if you want to promote better interaction you should start with the word that was just used, “leader.” Discussion happens best around facilitators or guides, not authoritarian speakers. Start with the entire culture of the group and ensure you have assembled a session that does not feel top heavy. Interaction is difficult if attendees feel like they’re being judged or graded by someone who knows everything, coming from an area of knowledge power.
Instead, you want a facilitator that shapes the entire session as an exploration of concepts where everyone in the group can learn from each other, including the one who organized it. One way to do this quickly is to share with the group other ideas and concepts that have been fleshed out in previous sessions or discussions and lauding what was learned at that time.
This free-flow exchange of information will inspire people in this group to share as well. After all, their point may be something that’s shared in future sessions. This creates a nice dynamic of exchange.
8. Facilitate Introductions
There’s a reason most group sharing is held until the end of the session and that’s because it gives people time to feel comfortable in their surroundings and with their group. But achieving that early on can mean more meaningful, prolonged exchange. But how do you do that?
Make people feel welcome and encourage discussion early on. Don’t request quiet. Encourage the noise of sharing from the moment they walk in the door. Facilitators should greet people and immediately begin asking them open-ended, conversation-starting questions. The event is always a safe topic but they could also ask questions about the host city and whether this is the attendee’s first time there. If people know discussion is valued, they’re more likely to become a part of it.
You want to create an energy that is so infectious that people are bubbling with ideas. Leaders can also encourage people to get to know a little about one another by using a few funny ice-breakers.
9. Improve the Event Ethos
While you’re at it, the best way to encourage participation in sessions is to create an entire event around participatory practices. If you want more interaction in groups, you want to create an ethos of interaction throughout your larger event. Otherwise, it feels very compartmentalized. This is where you share. This is where you listen. Those types of edicts don’t improve interaction. They limit it and make interaction feel like it’s something largely inappropriate that needs to be reigned in. Try adding some of these participatory activities to set the stage for interaction in your sessions.
10. Recognize the Introverts
Introverts can make extraordinary leaders and conversationalists when they enjoy the topic at hand. If they don’t, they often feel drained by the whole experience. Be cognizant that as many as half of your audience could fall into this category. Forced group interaction is low on their list of interests. This means you have two options:
Market the session as highly interactive so that individuals who do not enjoy group work will decide to participate in something else or
Ask your introverts to identify themselves as such and proceed from there.
If you decide to go with the second option ask everyone to identify themselves as introverts, extroverts, or ambiverts. With that knowledge of people identified as such, ask them to break into groups. Note where the introverts go. Do they stick with one another or surround themselves with extroverts? Switch up the groups mid-way through and see how it affects the discussions.
11. Limit Choice
Friends sit together. People who come to events together sit together. It’s just that simple. And while they may feel extremely comfortable sharing with one another, they may also not feel the need to stay on topic or they may accidentally alienate other members of the group because of their closeness.
Sometimes for the sake of interaction, you need to bust up the cliques and assign groups. You can do this by having them count off a number and then asking them to report to the table of the corresponding number. That way you’re assured people sitting next to each other won’t end up in the same group. You can also simply rearrange people to balance out some of the groups.
12. Choose Topics of Interest
Sometimes people don’t interact to the extent you were hoping for because they simply have no interest in the topic of the discussion. In order to avoid these types of situations, you can create areas of discussion focussed around different topics along the same theme and have people select which one appeals to them.
The upside of this process is that people are engaged from the beginning. They’re not being told what to talk about. They’re asked what they’re interested in. The downside is that, conceivably, everyone could select the same group. If that’s the case, you could break down that large group into smaller ones so that discussion will flow more freely.
13. Set the Tone
Earlier, I mentioned encouraging discussion from the beginning. As a continuation of that, it’s also important to set the tone in the session. For instance, if the leader begins by covering a few concepts or strategies, it’s important during this learning time that interaction is still valued.
A concept should be presented and discussion should occur through probing questions like, “has anyone found this to be true?” or “who thinks I’m full of malarkey?” This sets the tone and people quickly understand that concepts are best explored not preached for maximum interaction.
Boasting about interactive sessions at your event isn’t enough to actually get people participating. You need to create and nurture the right environment and encourage discussion under an explorer type leader. Asking questions is a good start but you need much more than that. Interaction must be an underlying theme of your event if your goal is meaningful exchange.