There are few phrases that say “I need to do something at my event, but I don’t know what” than “can you do an ice breaker?”.
If that’s what you are looking for, you need to search the web for “ice breaker exercises”. You aren’t going to get any here. Instead you’ll get a question.
Why do you need one?
When someone says, “can you start with an ice breaker?” it poses a number of questions. If you don’t do one, what are you afraid might happen? Are you afraid that people are being artificially brought together, and that they won’t open up or engage with the content, or even speak to each other without something to get them over their paralysing awkwardness? Do you think that this kind of coming together is a fraught, painful, scary place? Or – dare I say it? – you’re not convinced that there is anything engaging in the meeting itself? Or could it be that you’re looking at a blank sheet of paper, and you don’t know where to begin.
So, here’s a thought. Start with “hello”.
It doesn’t matter if the attendees are strangers, if they know each other a bit, or are people who work with each other every day. They are people who are completely capable of talking to each other and contributing to the topics being presented without first being treated like children and treated to an out-of-context parlour game, to “break the ice”. Instead, look at the environment, and the level of permission you are affording them. If you are hosting the event, how do they see you, and their fellow attendees? Are they turning up to something that reminds them of school? If they start filling up from the back – like they did at school – they don’t need an ice breaker, they need something to break that paradigm. If there only a few people coming, try greeting people as they arrive – start with “hello” – and engage with them as humans. Just a few words will suffice, but it will make people feel less passive, and help them to open up to you.
If there are a few more people to engage with, that might not be so easy, and you may have to be a bit more creative…
Get people to talk to each other
That’s what you want to do isn’t it? That, and be interested in what you have brought them together for, so why not combine the two?
You could go down some hackneyed route of asking people to share three things about themselves that other people wouldn’t know… and you can revel in the awkwardness as people swing between mundane facts about their lives, embarrassing personal skills and lists of famous people they once saw in a bar. Then you launch into your content…
…Or pitch them into the topic you want to cover.
Give them the subject you are going to talk to them about – no details, just the general topic – and get them to turn to each other in small groups of 3, 4 or 5 and come up with a few areas, or questions that they would like to have answered. That way they are talking to each other and beginning to engage with your subject matter. If you’ve done your homework they shouldn’t be dealing you too many wildcards… and if they do, that’s just good information about what people have at the front of their minds, and it’s better to know rather than not know…
Of course, they don’t have to talk…
We’re not against an exercise to kick the day off… as long as it has relevance for what is going to follow. If you’ve come across something that will make people think, and perhaps make them laugh, or connect them to the topic, go for it. Just don’t treat the first thing you do with them, the first mark on the blank sheet, as a standalone, throwaway moment that will miraculously unite people – and “break the ice” – as an end in itself.
So, back to the first question…
“Can you do an ice breaker?” Yes, we can, but a better question to ask yourself might be “is there any ice to break, or do you simply not know how to start your meeting or event?” Either way, just think about this. What do you want to say, and what would be the best way to introduce the topic that will make people sit up and take notice, and feel that they have a personal connection to it?
When people come together to address a common cause, there isn’t ever any ice to break.