Is Your Training Icebreaker Any Good?

I was going to post my top 5 training icebreakers.  Then I remembered that if I give you icebreakers, you can break the ice for a day.  But if I teach you how to design a good icebreaking activity, you can break the ice for a lifetime!  Here are five questions to ponder when designing training icebreakers:

Question 1: Is your icebreaker relevant?

Fun and relevant don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  When I used to facilitate workshops for professionals working in the foster care system, I used to begin sessions by asking people their names, positions, organizations, tenure and favorite ice cream.  Asking tenure as part of the icebreaking question set can be helpful, especially if you add everyone’s experience together (“Wow, we have a combined 147 years of training experience in this room.  While I’ll try to offer you some great insights over the next two days, I obviously don’t hold a monopoly on training experience.  Let’s make sure we learn from one another over these next two days.”).  But ice cream doesn’t have much to do with the topic at hand.  One of my colleagues tweaked the question to be: what is your favorite children’s book?  This helped us tap into the topic at hand (working with youth) and could be used in a variety of ways later (ie.: how many children’s books actually feature characters from diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds?  Well, let’s talk about how this can impact the messages received by children of color…).

Question 2: Will your icebreaker be talked about after the “welcome and introduction” activities?

Recently, I designed an icebreaker that asked 70 participants to get out of their seats, take a marker, and write answers to various questions (“One thing I forgot to do before coming here was…”, “This training will be successful if…”, “One word that describes my biggest challenge is…”) posted on flipcharts around the conference room.  One participant wrote the word “believe” in response to a question and it turned into a theme mentioned by every facilitator (and a number of participants) throughout the remainder of the 2-day meeting.  Icebreakers can be fun, and a good de-brief adds value to the icebreaking activity.

Question 3: Does your icebreaker actually engage people?

We’ve all attended training sessions where a facilitator has thrown an icebreaker at us that either isn’t interesting or just really seems to force the idea of breaking the ice.  An icebreaker doesn’t need to be forced.  A simple question related to the overall topic at hand can break the ice while allowing every participant to hear from everyone else.

Question 4: Is your icebreaker customized?

I’ve attended too many training sessions where the same icebreaking activity is used.  “Turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself… now everyone introduce their neighbor.”  Introductions are good.  But a little effort and creativity can put a fresh spin on an old activity.  If it’s a sales training, then maybe adjust this activity to be: “Turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself… now everyone sell us on why their neighbor is the most interesting person in the room.”  You get the point, find the central theme of your topic and then tweak an old icebreaker to fit your topic.

Question 5: Do others want to steal your icebreaker and bring it to their own audiences?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  You know you’ve come up with a winning icebreaking activity when participants ask for a copy of your icebreaker activity instructions. Any time you design an icebreaking activity, a good guiding question is: if I was in my own audience, would I want to steal this icebreaker and use it someplace else?

Your Train Like A Champion Blog author is suffering from an intractable case of jetlag following a business trip to India last week.  I’ll be taking some time off from writing this week, but I will be back next Monday.  In the mean time, if you think someone else might find this blog interesting, please pass it along.  If you have blog ideas, email me at bpwashburn@gmail.com.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow” at the top of the page!

12 thoughts on “Is Your Training Icebreaker Any Good?

  1. I use 3 truths and a lie for my new hire Onboarding classes. Each person tell us 4 things about themselves, only 3 are true. Te rest of the class tries to find the lie. I have seen people become best friends because of what they learned about each other in this exercise.

    • That’s a great one – especially for onboarding. A good way to find out some new things about new people… and a good way to discover senses of humor when it comes to that one lie!

  2. In our TOT: Principles of Adult Learning, we start in a circle and everyone shares a peak learning experience. I take notes, and to date no one has shared anything that happened in a lecture or presentation (or even a traditional classroom setting). It’s a good way to link to the topic, and there are usually several examples that people share that I can refer to later to demonstrate effective facilitation skills, experiential learning, etc.

    • Thanks for sharing Paige. There are two reasons I really like what you wrote: 1) it’s a simple question, focused on the topic at hand and it provides information that you can refer to again and again throughout the lesson – basically the learners have just built some of the content for the session! and 2) the “choreography” of it all – everyone is in a circle, which means everyone can see one another as they listen to each other – it’s a simple request of the participants (all right, everyone please form a circle), but it gets them up and able to see/hear everyone else.

  3. Thanks for teaching us to fish (instead of just serving a nice meal). An ice-breaker that I really like is asking people in the introductions (where everyone says their names and what they work on) to tell us one thing that makes them happy. There are two reasons why I like this:
    1. It gives people something positive to connect with the others in the room that they continue relating to throughout the day. They often joke in the break afterward about who would take a trip to the beach together, who’d take their kids with them or rather their dogs (these three seem to be the most common happy things in my audiences).
    2. It does something to the mood in the room: Everybody mentally visits their happy place at the start of the meeting, so that’s the frame of mind you start with.

    • Thanks for the comment, Eva – perhaps some day when I’m in a less smug mood, I’ll just put together a list of my favorite ice breakers (I’ll serve that nice meal!).

      I like your activity – I think the key is the intent and the ability of a facilitator to actually de-brief the exercise. The de-briefing (and the ability to refer to comments made during the ice breaker on an off-the-cuff basis later on during a session) is the key to transforming something from just another fun activity to an activity that adds to the learning experience.

  4. Pingback: Instructional Design Blogs and Resources Week 1 | Learning24/7

  5. Thanks for a great post Brian. Many years ago when I was in a team and on the student end of ice-breakers I have to admit that I hated them with a passion! You will be pleased to hear that now I have crossed the classroom I am a convert.

    What caused this conversion? In hindsight I think the ice-breakers we had inflicted upon us failed to address the first 4 of the questions Brian has raised. Believe me; none us were looking to steal those ideas! In fact even more sinister than that I suspect they were designed to be manipulative.

    That was 15 years ago and we have all moved on a lot. On occasions there is an apprehensive atmosphere at the start of an event and I have witnessed that a well crafted ice-breaker with a good sense of fun relaxes, informs and prepares the delegates for the excitement of the day ahead.

    Thanks again Brian, and keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Nick!

      Yes, ice breakers have earned an icy and skeptical reception from audiences big and small, young and old. Too many times they’re done in either a superficial (let’s have fun and just get to know people for a bit) or manipulative manner. I prefer ice breakers that have a point. Otherwise people (wisely) will just come 15 minutes later to your session, realizing that they’re not missing much.

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