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  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow” at the top of the page!

Did Malcolm Knowles Have It Wrong?

Every once in a while, I’ll look at a post-training evaluation form and see glowing praise for a PowerPoint-based lecture.  Lecture receives a 5 out of 5 on evaluation forms?!  With feedback like that, I sometimes wonder if Malcolm Knowles knew what he was talking about.  Is the effort that goes into interactive, engaging sessions really worthwhile?

The other night, I had a 3-minute interaction with a co-worker that re-affirmed for me that Malcolm Knowles, John Dewey, Jane Vella and the rest of the adult/experiential/dialogue education crowd indeed knew a thing or two about effective educational experiences.

As we were finishing our call, she mentioned that her staff was wondering when I would be returning to facilitate another workshop.  The comment surprised me a bit.  The last time I was in India I had designed the session but it was mostly facilitated by my Indian colleagues in Hindi.  I understood little of the conversations that took place.

“Yeah, well, they want you to come back.  They still remember the towel activity.  It transcended language.”

Several months ago, I had been asked to help put together a teambuilding session for a team in India that was transitioning from a workplace culture that valued individual efforts to our workplace culture which required a substantial degree of teamwork.  We didn’t want to just talk about teamwork but we weren’t going to take everyone out to a ropes course, either.

I worked with my India-based colleagues to design a half-day workshop as a kick-off to a series of monthly sessions we would offer to this new team.  We began with an activity that required smuggling a few towels out of my hotel (the aforementioned “towel activity”).  The team had an hour-long conversation about our mission, vision and core values.  To wrap up, we gave each team member a small stick.  We asked them to break it in half.  Then we asked them to break the two halves in half.  Holding the four quarters of the stick in one hand, the team members could no longer break the sticks.  Four small pieces together were much stronger, less breakable than one individual stick.

It was flattering that they wanted me back, but I asked my co-worker for specific examples of anything that’s changed since this workshop.

“Brian, they communicate now.  They cover for each other.  In the past, if someone was working with a family in the hospital, I wouldn’t know about it for hours… if I ever found out.  Now, if someone is working with a family, someone else gives me a call and a third person sends me a text.  They’re truly working as a team.  And that’s very different.  They put your session into practice.  If it hadn’t been so interactive, I don’t think they’d have remembered.  They still have their sticks!”

Sticks2 Sticks3 Sticks1

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow” at the top of the page!