Icebreakers – Do they really?


Icebreakers – Do They Really?

How many courses have you as trainers sat in on or taken part in?  Lots? Yeah me too, and they always start with the obligatory round robin of ‘getting to know you’ type introductions where people tell you who they are, where they have come from, who they work for (bored yet?) and finally the ‘ever so interesting, but toe curling ‘interesting fact’.

Ah yes, the latter is simply an exercise in itself, a challenge you might say.  Who can come up with the most outrageously interesting thing to impress their fellow colleagues for the day, and often it is just for the one day and it so happens to be the day that you are leading them all in a training course.


So to kick us off Jayne (blushing, with a slight nervous laugh) from Cheshire/Accounts Payable (delete as appropriate) is so proud as she has just become a grandmother.  Harmless enough I suppose, but then everyone in the room has just thought “I can do better than that’.  Gavin steps up, he works in I.T./from Bristol and he is also very proud as he is a collector of Dr Who memorabilia, hmm getting interesting, probably sleeps with a dalek in his room, cost him a mortgage blah blah, and so it goes on, with every intro getting more and more ‘interesting’.  By the time you get to Carolyn who is either 1. Dreading this as she hates speaking publicly or 2. Champing at the bit, as her fact is soooo interesting she is almost bursting to divulge things, have well and truly warmed up with polite laughter, the odd hoot and general merriment.  Of course Carolyn can either make or break this lovely atmosphere, it can go two ways, she is either a collector of NASA archive, having been somehow related to Buzz Aldrin or she keeps a lot of cats in her basement, that have, over the years mysteriously disappeared from neighbourhoods, only to end their days being used as juggling practice.  Set alight.

Once the intros are done, and you have recovered your composure, you feel the urge to do a little intro too.  I keep this very short, preferring to send a biog if requested, you see people only want to know you are credible they do not want war and peace or the interesting fact from you.  They are not your friends they are there for the training.

Then comes the icebreaker.  I have in my time as a delegate juggled beanbags (not cats thankfully), thrown coloured balls, built things with Lego, stickle bricks (ahh stickle bricks, much tastier than Lego) and coloured blocks and even made things with food.  In fact when I do an icebreaker I have used food quite a lot.  Marshmallows and spaghetti boxes are particular favourite, ends up being like a fondue but with no dip, well there is the coffee, but I digress.   Every time I have been on a course I have felt myself inwardly cringe when it comes to the icebreaker, yet when I am training I find myself looking forward to them.  I could not help think, is this common? Delegates are pretty savvy and no what to expect, so the icebreaker cometh, it does its thing and on we go.  Really though, who does it benefit? Does it really warm things up? Or does it simply serve to make the trainer feel more comfortable and help to get over the first five-minute nerves? I am torn, I have run courses as experiments without an icebreaker, just cracking straight on with things and it does tend to work.  On a recent Presentation Skills programme I simply walked into the room, told everyone to get on their feet, passed around a presenter clicker and started a game of PowerPoint Karaoke, to illustrate thinking on your feet and spontaneity.  It worked rather well actually, even though they had no chance to introduce themselves, and if they did then it was during the later exercises and over coffee.  As it did no harm, I felt reassured that actually the course had not suffered, the delegates missed nothing vital and it meant I had gained a bit of time being able to crack straight on with the subject matter.  As we went through the day there was time to get to know people and do the engagement stuff, which is vital, but the icebreaker wasn’t needed.

Of course if delegates are expecting an icebreaker as they are all strangers then a call must be made as to the value it brings, but often when I look at forums, and boards reading lots of requests for people asking for an interesting and fun icebreaker for this, or and exciting warm up exercise for that, maybe one call is don’t bother.  Just crack on with the subject.  Whatever works? The thing is that I have also been a delegate where the icebreaker has left me thinking ‘why are we doing this’ or worse ‘what has this got to with the subject matter”.

Lots of time is often wasted on courses with these types of activities at the start of a course, they often lead to the inevitable agenda giving, which again for some reason can really bang on.  The trainer, goes through the agenda, then gives the location of the loos, when lunch will be, then finds out the cat thing from the delegates and then what the outcomes for the delegates have for the day, and before you know it10.30 has swung round and nothing has been done.  With this in mind, we need to understand that this doesn’t give much value to the client, as by the time you have done this, then added on your summing up and feedback sheets you have probably not given a huge amount of actual learning time to the delegates.  Yes I hear you, they can only learn so much in one time, but my call as a deliverer and buyer is probably keep sessions shorter, half days, two hour espresso shot sessions that sort of thing. At least you can be honest and say, they are concentrated sessions that demand attention and have no wastage elements.  I know from my delegates who are on tight deadlines that they prefer short sessions with longer subjects broken up over shorter sessions, therefore negating the need for wasteful icebreakers and ‘getting to know you’ sessions.

So when putting a course together, stop and ask yourself, icebreaker? Nah perhaps just hit with them the hot subject matter and bring to a simmer.

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One thought on “Icebreakers – Do they really?

  1. I wonder if it depends on the group and the subject matter? Perhaps for a group of people on a skills-based course who don’t know each and may never come across each other again, an icebreaker is surplus to requirements and a waste of time. For a group of people who think they know each other but need to work together more cohesively, a well-chosen activity at the beginning of the day may be just what it needs to stir them from complacency and give them a different perspective on each other. Just a thought …
    Personally I like the sound of the espresso shot sessions!

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