December 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions Breaking the Ice December 1998 Current Issue
December 1998

Breaking the Ice

10 ways to get your attendees to loosen up

By Sarah J.F. Braley

ONCE YOU’VE gathered your flock, don’t force them to break the ice the way penguins do. These flightless birds fearfully gather along icy cliffs, then push and shove one another until a lone penguin plummets into the sea. If it isn’t gobbled up by a killer whale, they all take the plunge.

Whether your attendees have come together at a cocktail party, for a team-building retreat, to brainstorm or to hear a keynote speaker, it’s your job to make them feel comfortable and convivial. The icebreaker can, in fact, set the temperature for the entire meeting.

Once a warmup exercise is under way, even the most jaded in the group tend to follow along, possibly because they don’t want to seem uncooperative. But icebreakers work their best magic when they have been tailored specifically for the group. “The higher the level, the more sophisticated they are, the more you have to set up the exercise,” says facilitator Kathleen Fenton. “Sometimes I use humor to poke fun at some of the underlying fears people might have, like the worry that the icebreaker will be too touchy-feely.”

Fenton, president of the Atlantic Rim Group in Alexandria, Va., won’t force anyone into an activity they don’t want to join, but adds: “I’ve never had anyone say they weren’t going to participate. Most of the time, once they’ve done it, they’re glad they did.”

The following exercises are designed to add a little spice to your meeting’s ingredients and make participants more comfortable with one another. You can choose the one you want to use depending on how much time you have. If the group will be together all day or for several days, opt for a more in-depth game, but if the meeting is only an hour long, go with the five-minute drill.

Many icebreakers are a variation on this theme, a favorite of facilitator Darin Ulmer. People pair up and find three things in common they didn’t already know about each other. “It can’t be anything they can see,” says The Woodlands, Texas-based Ulmer. This rules out hair and eye color, clothing and the fact they have the same boss. After that, ask them to join up with another pair and go through the same process, but they must find things all four of them have in common without using anything they learned in the first round. The four then join up with another four and look for things all eight share. If the group is sizeable and there’s lots of time to mingle, Ulmer will go the next step and create groups of 16.

“I also use this exercise to divide people into groups for whatever comes next, so they already know each other a little bit and know what they have in common,” he says.

For people who already know each other pretty well, Ulmer changes this exercise a bit to play a variation on the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that involves connecting other actors to Kevin Bacon by way of the movies they have starred in. In this case, with groups split into eight or more (it works well with people sitting at round tables), the participants find experiences they share in increasing degrees of commonality. For example, Ulmer once had people from a consulting firm who discovered they had all been to a foreign country, the country was Mexico, they all went to a bar in a border town, they all drank the same kind of beer, and so on. “This table of eight ended up with 13 degrees of commonality in one 15-minute break,” says the facilitator.

Arts and Crafts
What better way to make new friends than to work together on an art project? Warmups for Meeting Leaders (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer & Co., San Francisco, $59.95), a book full of great icebreaker ideas by Sue Bianchi, Jan Butler and David Richey, suggests using a creative project to develop team spirit or positive interaction between group members. Take basic materials like finger paints, modeling clay or paper, glue and scissors or such building toys as Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets or Legos, then set the groups to a creative task with a time limit. The first to finish wins a prize.

To the Point
Topping the list of favorite icebreakers for facilitator Fenton is one that is simple, but effective.

“I use this one for training, strategic planning, almost anything,” she says. In this opening exercise, people pair up, ask each other’s names and job functions (not titles, but what they actually do), and share an interesting fact the other wouldn’t know. “I’ve had someone who was the state spelling champ in sixth grade, another who had built his own plane and one who had made local TV commercials for car dealers using big cats.”

Another Fenton activity breaks the room into small groups and has them work on brainteasers. She hands out pieces of paper listing 25 coded lines, like “4Q=G” (four quarts equal a gallon) and challenges the groups to be the first to figure out all the lines. A variation on this exercise, which demonstrates how teams work, is for half the people to collaborate on decoding the list while the rest puzzle it out alone. Invariably, according to Fenton, the teams figure out all the lines first.

Hands Across the Room
Sometimes you want the activity to be short and sweet, but you want all attendees to interact in some way. Consider another of Ulmer’s tricks: the handshake chain.

“It’s really brief and it gets everyone out of their chairs,” he says of the exercise that challenges each participant to shake hands with everyone in the room. Once, with a group of 1,600 who were meeting over several days, they did some problem-solving overnight and figured out how to finish the task more efficiently. The 1,600 got it down to about five minutes by forming two facing parallel lines and even remembered to shake Ulmer’s hand (he was in the room, after all).

Compliments All Around
Everybody likes to hear positive things about themselves, which is at the basis of this exercise from Warmups for Meeting Leaders. Start with a packet of four to six stick-on labels, a felt pen and a blank piece of paper for each attendee. After discussing how it feels to receive a compliment, each participant writes a comment on each label by answering the question: “What is something positive I would like my boss to say to me today?” Then have everyone get up and stick the labels on each other’s backs, spreading the good thoughts around.

When all the comments have been pasted to backs around the room, have everyone take the stickers they received and put them on their piece of paper. Have them then read the labels out loud and, if time permits, discuss how it felt to receive the positive comments.

20 questions
When it’s time for fun and you have a group of guests milling around a room, play this celebrity-guessing game many facilitators use. Have the names of celebrities or historical figures written on stickers and put one on each person’s back (without letting them see the name). Each person has to figure out whose name is on his back by asking yes or no questions.

Quick And Easy
Sometimes, you want to get people around a table to become comfortable quickly, and then move on to the business at hand. In this case, ask a question they all have to answer, and go around the table. The question can be timely: What’s the coolest thing they did over the summer? What are their plans for the weekend? Or it can be evergreen: What’s their favorite way to pamper themselves? What’s the riskiest thing they have ever done? Use one of these or make one up that fits the occasion.

Scavenger Hunt
Another fun game from Warmups for Meeting Leaders is a personal scavenger hunt. Each participant receives a list of attributes to find in other attendees. The person who fills out the list first (or most completely) gets a prize. Have the group query each other to find someone with the same color eyes, someone who was born in the same state, someone who has the same astrological sign, the same favorite sport and so on. Again, use these suggestions and/or make up some attributes that might contribute to the objectives of the meeting.

Will It Work?
Even the best efforts to warm up a group can leave some participants out in the cold. Insiders offer these dos and don’ts.
  • DO MAKE SURE NAMETAGS ARE COMPLETE, so attendees don’t have to ask “where are you from?” or “who are you with?”
  • DON’T HIRE A LOUD BAND for a cocktail or social hour. You want people to mingle and chat without screaming over the din.
  • DON’T GET POLITICAL. And don’t use games that can isolate any person.
  • DO HAVE A FACILITATOR to serve as cheerleader you’re getting a group that’s cold or not engaged, and you need someone to drive the energy in the room.
  • DO TIE THE ACTIVITY TO THE LEVEL OF PARTICIPANTS. For instance, something overly intellectual might alienate a blue-collar group. Consider the skills and abilities involved in the exercise and make sure they’re appropriate.
  • DO BE AWARE THAT SOME EXERCISES CAN BACKFIRE. “I don’t like the ones where people walk around with signs on their backs,” says Kathleen Fenton of the Atlantic Rim Group. She worries that someone who is shy might find these exercises offensive. Facilitator Darin Ulmer noted an uncomfortable moment that occurred during his Commonality exercise: When asking groups for items they had in common, one group piped up, “We all fear our boss.” (He was in the room.)
  • Good Idea
    Icebreakers aren’t just for cold groups. Sure, they help strangers get to know each other, but they can also help to:
  • Juice up a flagging group when fatigue is threatening to take over.
  • Build team spirit.
  • Bring back some harmony when dissension threatens.
  • Help people who’ve already met get better acquainted.

  • S.B. Back to Current Issue index
    M&C Home Page
    Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
    Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C