Few words in the English language inspire more dread in a meeting than “icebreaker.” Except maybe “skit.”
Icebreakers are the necessary evil in a cold meeting room of disconnected people. They’re the sometimes-awkward bridge between “welcome” and “let’s get started.” They can feel like forced merriment, induce eye-rolling or get your meeting off-track in a hurry.
For me, the key to less cringeworthy icebreakers is to assign them a purpose. Icebreakers should accomplish something for the meeting rather than being a throwaway exercise. Sometimes their purpose is to energize the room with a little light fun, but before you go the “two truths and a lie” route, consider these factors to guide what you do for your next icebreaker.
- Who – Think about who is in the room and how well they know each other. When the participants don’t know each other at all, some element of the icebreaker should be about introduction and connection. If they do know each other, the icebreaker can focus on energizing the group and sharing objectives for the meeting.
- What – What do you need your participants to know about each other in order to have a productive meeting and accomplish the goals? Is there input needed for the meeting that can be shared by each participant during the icebreaker? Eliminate extraneous information that isn’t necessary to the meeting’s context. For example, skip titles or years with an organization if those data points aren’t relevant to the meeting’s purpose.
- Why – Why are you having a meeting? The why of the meeting should be apparent in the icebreaker. When the outcomes of the meeting are relational, the icebreaker should be, too. In cases where the meeting focuses on a task-oriented or strategic output, use an icebreaker that gets people to contribute to the outcome – sharing their view of success or an item on their to-do list they’d like to see elevated to the group.
- How long – Icebreakers can range from speedy introductions to full-scale scavenger hunts. How much of your meeting can you devote to fostering connections? Multi-day meetings need a larger percentage of time devoted to personal connection than a two-hour stretch. But don’t underestimate the power of kicking your meeting off right, no matter how short it is.
With time in mind, here are a few frameworks that can help you break the ice with speed, depth or good ol’ fashioned competition.
- Rapid Response – Use a templated approach to show participants exactly what they should say to get through a lot of introductions quickly. For example, “First Name + key objective for the day.” To discourage deviations, give the group an overall time limit for completing all introductions so they are collectively working against the clock.
- Quick Connections – To take those connections up a level, you can challenge participants to quickly find commonalities with others in a timed exercise – sort of like musical chairs with personal details. Formats for this include a BINGO card or a list of characteristics they’re trying to find in common with others. Keep the time tight and reward those who make the most connections.
- Meaningful Conversations – With a little more time, it can be worthwhile to push the icebreaker to a deeper connection level. Pair off and challenge participants to chat and then introduce one another. You can gamify this, too. We created a set of cards that give each participant three notable figures and asked them to report who they would dine with, learn from and work for and why. For longer sessions or to initiate a project with a lengthy duration, scratching below the surface can start to build the bonds that produce better work.
- Physical Activity – Best suited for longer meetings, physical activities require extra time because they typically involve instructions (and no one is listening the first time) and people moving around. The risk is worth the reward with a well-designed activity that gets participants to establish a group dynamic, solve a problem and collectively celebrate their achievements.
It can be tempting to give icebreakers the cold shoulder. We’ve all seen them go horribly wrong or be a complete waste of time. But with a little consideration and planning, your icebreaker can melt the awkwardness and set the tone for a productive meeting.