Trainer's Notebook: A Great Training Starts with A Great Icebreaker | Beth's Blog

Trainer’s Notebook: A Great Training Starts with A Great Icebreaker

Instructional Design, Trainer's Notebook

During the summer, I’ve been designing workshops based on The Happy Healthy Nonprofit and Emerging Leaders Playbook.    A great training always start with a great opening or icebreaker.   Icebreakers are discussion questions or activities used to help participants relax
and ease people into a group meeting or learning situation.    It is important to build in time for an icebreaker whether it is a staff training, board retreat, or a workshop with people coming together for the first time.

Icebreakers have these benefits:

• create a positive group atmosphere
• help people to relax
• break down social barriers
• energize & motivate
• help people to think about what they already know related to the topic
• help people to get to know one another

A selected icebreaker game get your training off to a great start, but a poorly chosen and designed icebreaker can have the opposite effect, making people feel nervous and uncomfortable.  A “bad icebreaker” is one that requires sharing too much personal information or touching.  Milk the Cow is one example and while it might have been fun to do different handshakes when you were summer camp in Junior High,  it is awkward and a little creepy to do this type of opener with professionals.  Nonprofit blogger Vu Lee has some tips on what types of openers to avoid.

Before deciding which activities to use, assess your audience for age, familiarity with one another, purpose of the group gathering, and potential considerations for physical abilities.  An icebreaker for a staff training might be different from one that you use at a conference session where people don’t already know each other.

Also be aware of the group dynamics.  Not all participants attend a training voluntarily or your training may be the kick off to a more in-depth program and participants may have hopes and concerns about their ability to complete the project.  For example, they may be concerned about the amount of time required for “homework,” or the topics included.    Having a opening that creates the space for participants to ask questions, air concerns, and get everyone on the same page is essential in this context.

Sometimes, you can design the icebreaker to connect with the content of the training. No matter what the learning objectives of the training are, participants will already know something about it.  Learning is about connecting the dots to existing knowledge and skills so participants can build on it during the training.  It also helps you, as the trainer, learn a little bit about the group dynamics and participants before getting started. Depending on the context, I might do a icebreaker that is purely to get people comfortable, but I will also do second icebreaker that helps get people ready to learn.

While I love using magic markers and sticky notes or tossing a ball in icebreakers and exercises, don’t only use activities that require having materials or equipment on hand. You can always adapt or improvise.

I have a repertoire of icebreakers and openings that I have done over the past 25 years, but I also know that I can fall into icebreaker ruts.   So, it important to change up your routine.   To avoid getting into an rut,  I keep a notebook to document icebreakers I’ve used or discovered.    When designing a training, I refer to this and try different from my last training.

Here’s a few Icebreaker recipes from my playbook.

(1)      Meet and Greet:  Throw the Ball

This works for a group of 5-25 people.    The group stands in the circle.   Each person will have an opportunity to introduce themselves saying their name, title, organization, and a fun fact about them they would like to share.  With that latter point, you can ask for something specific, like their favorite breakfast food or what they keep in their trunk of their car.    The first person to introduce themselves gets to toss the ball to anyone in the circle or the ball can be handed to the next person going clock wise.

(2)    Meet and Greet: Getting To Know You

This works for a small group of twelve people or less and especially good for a staff training.  You ask each person to introduce themselves and to briefly answer a question that can build a common bond.  These might be questions such as:

  • Describe how and when you came to work at this organization.
  • Share your biggest current challenge you are experiencing at work.
  • Describe a positive client or audience interaction you have experienced.
  • Tell your coworkers something you appreciate about your organization.
  • Tell your coworkers what you appreciate about your coworkers.
  • Share what you like most about your current job.
  • Share the funniest or most fun situation you have experienced at work.

Here’s an excellent resource with tons of great icebreakers and exercises  that can be adapted for staff training.

(3)   Meet and Greet:  Share and Answer Your Favorite Icebreaker Question

This works for a small group of 20 people or less.   I love to use the people shaped sticky notes and speech bubbles, but you can use plain old yellow post it notes.  I ask participants to write down their favorite icebreaker question and give examples like those questions above.   Next, I ask participants to pair up and share and answer their icebreaker questions. I am them to exchange the people sticky notes with their partner.   Then I ask them to pair with another person and repeat the activity two more times.   I bring them back into circle and ask them to write down their answer to the question on they have in their hand and use it to introduce themselves.

(4)  Meet and Greet:  Word Cloud

This works for a small group of 12 or less.   (If you have a larger group, you can use an online polling app like Slido that allows participants to use their cells to share their answers and automatically generates a word cloud.)  You can use sticky notes or capture the words on white board or paper.

Ask participants to jot down “Just Three Words” about what comes to mind when think about the topic you are going to cover in the training.   Ask participants to write one word or phrase per sticky note.  Ask people to introduce themselves and share their words.   Collect their sticky notes and cluster them on the wall into common themes.    Reflect as a group on the common themes and unpack what they mean.

(5)  Meet and Greet: Fun Introductions

This works for any size group.  You need to have markers and “Hello My Name Is” name tags.   You ask participants to create a first and last name based on words that represent what they already know related to the topic and what they’d like to learn.  Then you have participants do a series of share pairs introducing themselves to each other or you can do it speed networking style with two long lines of people facing each other and one person moving to the head of the line.  I’ve also used this a closer for people to share what they learned.  Here’s a more detailed documentation.

(6)  Meet and Greet:  My Burning Question

This works for any size group.   I use this icebreaker at conference sessions or workshops where there was not an opportunity to do in-depth participant assessments before the workshop.   I ask participants to introduce themselves and their burning question about what they want to learn from the workshop.      If it is a large group or people feel uncomfortable, I have them first write down their questions, and then share with a partner before asking for people to share it with the whole group.

As the facilitator, I capture the burning questions (I don’t answer them).   I usually point out what questions will be answered as part of the training and what it isn’t included, but mention that I will leave time at the end of the session to address remaining questions.  I keep the burning question list taped to the wall and refer to it during the Q/A.

Here’s a list of resources that share some tips and recipes for icebreakers:

My blog Posts on icebreakers and openings:

Icebreaker Collections

What are some of your favorite meeting icebreakers?

Update: Just saw this great post on Twitter

2 Responses

  1. Hello Beth,
    I’m an adult education instructor with Hunterdon County ESC. My job is to help welfare recipients return to gainful employment. I’ve built many google classroom assignments and I’m looking for new ideas for virtual icebreakers.
    What ideas do you have for virtual icebreakers for vastly diverse groups of people who don’t know each other at all?
    Thank you.

  2. Beth Kanter says:

    Robin: Check the – you can set to “people don’t know each other well” and it gives you some options. For this, keep it light.

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