Avoid the Irrelevant and Boring Icebreakers

By Mark Isabella

We all know the value of starting face-to-face training with a relevant icebreaker.  Immediate-involvement icebreakers, which get participants to dive into program content without delay, typically consist of questions for learners to reflect on and discuss.

This type of opener has obvious benefits.  Instead of discussing hobbies, pets, or family life (as with social icebreakers), learners begin working toward program objectives right from the start of the session. 

At times, however, even immediate involvement icebreakers can become stale and boring to participants, especially if they’re made a part of every workshop. So how might we punch up our icebreakers to make them more novel, interesting, and engaging?

Here is an approach that allows you to pose the relevant discussion starters necessary to introduce program topic, but in a way that promotes creative thinking and enjoyable conversation.

Here are the steps:

Draft the content-based questions and discussion topics you want to use in your icebreaker.

Choose a pop-culture metaphor that will be familiar and appealing to the group.  For example, you might select something from popular culture—a TV show, movie genre, or type of music.  Or you could opt for a popular vacation destination, a famous historical landmark, or a trending news item.

Reframe your questions and discussion prompts to match your metaphor.

Here are some before-and-after examples using this approach:

Example 1

Standard approach: Think about your team’s performance and identify the major problems.

Revised approach: Imagine that you are visiting an amusement park.   Think about your team and how it is currently functioning.  Which of the following rides and attractions best describes your team’s experience?

  1. A roller-coaster: A rough ride that includes a fast pace, dramatic ups and downs, and occasional moments of terror and stress.
  2. The Scrambler: A crazy-fast ride that leaves people dizzy and disoriented at the end of the day.
  3. The haunted house: Team members are in the dark much of the time and it’s impossible to predict what might jump out and surprise them.
  4. The merry-go-round: Team members experience a relatively slow pace, some moderate ups and downs, but basically see the same thing over and over again.
  5. Another ride or attraction of your choice.

Once you’ve made your selection, share it with members of your breakout group and provide a few brief details to support it.

Example 2

Standard approach: Turn to a partner and name the top five qualities of a good leader.

Revised approach: Imagine that the QVC shopping network is selling a product called Leadership in a Box that contains important attributes required to be a great leader.  What five qualities would be found in your box?  Write them down and then share them with other members of your small group.

Example 3

Standard approach:  Please discuss with a partner the three or four teachers, coaches, or leaders who’ve had the greatest positive influence on you.

Revised approach: Mount Rushmore honors four of the most influential U.S. presidents in the nation’s history.  Imagine that you can create your own version of Mount Rushmore.  Write down the four teachers, coaches, and leaders from your life that you would you carve into the side of a mountain.  Then share them with a partner.

These modest changes will prompt participants to think a little differently about your program content and will add some playful energy to the beginning of your program.  Experiment with your own creations and provide us with feedback on your progress.

 For more creative icebreakers, energizers, and closers, check out my Engagement Emergency card deck. .