Presenting an Online Workshop – Tips for Engaging your Audience: Part 5 – Breakout Rooms

Presenting an Online Workshop – Tips for Engaging your Audience: Part 5 – Breakout Rooms

Presenting a workshop to an online audience is not without its challenges. Primary among these is the inability of the presenter to gauge the audience’s reaction or to use any of the non-verbal (read: eyerolls, nods, smiles, confused looks, etc.) or verbal cues (laughter at your jokes 😉 ) that are typically available when presenting in-person. This five-part series describes tips and tricks for engaging an online audience and making the workshop experience an interactive one, including: Visual Considerations; Ice Breakers; Chats & Open Discussions; Polls, Surveys & Quizzes; and Breakout Rooms.

The simple fact is that it is difficult for anyone to pay attention to a presentation for any real length of time but when the presentation is online, and the presenter is not in the same space as the participant, this becomes even more difficult. The demands of life and the reality of attending a workshop online from one’s home or office presents multiple additional distractions than are likely when the workshop presentation is in person.

To reduce ‘zoom fatigue’ and to encourage active participation on the part of your online audience, several different techniques can be used. We started with Visual Considerations,Ice Breakers, Chats & Open Discussions, and Polls, Surveys & Quizzes, now we move on to Breakout Rooms.

Part 5: Engaging an Online Audience – Breakout Rooms

Breakout rooms are an effective tool for engaging your online audience in hands-on learning and active discussion. Many types of in-person activities can be translated online through the breakout room feature.

Breakout rooms are small online sessions that are split off from the main online meeting room. The zoom platform can accommodate up to 50 breakout rooms, with as few as 2 people per room. Participants in a breakout room can interact with each other, separate from the main meeting. These are a nice way to have pairs or small-to-large groups of participants work together on an assignment, discussion question, or other tasks. Role-plays and other interactions can be facilitated using breakout rooms.

The presenter is able to visit these breakout rooms sequentially to interact with the participants in each room. Simple exercises such as “think-pair-share” or small-group “brainstorming” are easily facilitated using breakout rooms and pose a nice way of engaging participants in problem-solving around specific issues being discussed in the workshop.
Example: Participants in a crisis intervention workshop might role-play de-escalation techniques or imminent risk assessment.

Structured discussions are another engaging use of the breakout room feature. Presenters can use discussion prompts and questions based on overarching or specific topics covered in the workshop for participants to share their perspectives on and engage in dialogue to deepen their understanding. These prompts/questions can be used to stimulate thought and discussion within the breakout group, which can then be brought back to the overall group for larger discussion.
Example: A workshop on ethics might identify one or more key ethical challenges to have participants break out and discuss (and bring back to the main group for further discussion, or not).

Practical Tips

  • The breakout feature allows the presenter to assign participants to separate small groups that can be either pre-set or randomized.
  • The size of the breakout rooms can be adjusted to the activity. For example, a role play exercise may be best with just two participants, whereas structured group discussions can be facilitated with several.
  • Prompts for group discussions are not visible in the breakout rooms so be sure to give participants enough time to write down or screen shot your prompt before breaking off
  • Think about how long you want participants to break out – some discussions or activities can be quick, whereas others will need several minutes or longer. The breakout feature can be set to give participants in the breakout room a “warning” or count-down to wrap up at preset times before bringing participants back into the main room.
  • The breakout feature also allows you to “drop-in” on the rooms to check in with participants, answer questions, or give guidance. These might be most useful during longer, structured discussions, where you’ll have time to drop into many different rooms.


Other topics in this series: visual considerations, ice breakers; chats and open discussions; polls, surveys, & quizzes

Authored By Leila N. Wallach

Leila N. Wallach is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Palo Alto University. Her research and clinical interests focus on alternatives to incarceration, culture and trauma-informed care, policy in the juvenile justice system, and risk assessment for community offender management.


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