Comedians know that when audience members first walk into the club and sit down in their seats, they're "cold" . . . on guard, tense and skeptical.
And even when the air conditioning is not out of control, people who come to your meeting (especially when it's a conference or summit) are cold, too. Their minds are on other things. They wonder whether this meeting will be worth their time. They're not ready to plunge into whatever work you need to them to do.
That's why you need to start with an icebreaker. According to Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human, icebreakers and other getting-to-know-you activities promote better collaboration. These exercises raise the energy level and give people a chance to get to know one another.
Here are 7 cold-busting icebreakers:
1. Newspaper blackout. This activity helps teams create stories from scratch. Here's how it works: Divide your participants into two to three teams. Give each team a newspaper page and both a thin and a thick black marker. Instruct teams to create a short story or poem by boxing select words they like and crossing out the remaining text. Consider asking a specific question such as: "Describe how communication helps organizations succeed" or "Convey what problems clients need us to help them solve."
2. What do we have in common? Pair up and pose this question: 'What do we have in common, either with another person or with everyone?' Go beyond the surface. For example:
- Does everyone have a younger brother?
- Have most people visited a Disney property in the last year?
- Are some people soccer fanatics or opera buffs or amateur cheese makers?
Set a timer for five minutes and see how many commonalities you can come up with.
3. Quick draw. Cover each table with butcher paper and provide crayons or markers. Ask each person to draw a picture to represent three parts of his/her life; for example, job, hobby and where you live (can be any combination depending how well the participants know each other and the focus of the meeting). Each person quickly reviews his/her drawing and when there are connections, everyone draws lines to link images. For example, two people like to canoe or three people live in the same town. Hang the posters in the meeting room during the rest of the meeting so everyone can see the creative drawings.
4. One thing. One of the simplest ice-breaker exercises that provides an insight about each participant. Ask participants to say one thing their colleagues may not know about them.
5. How did you get your name? Ask each participant to introduce himself/herself and share how his/her first name was chosen. Most people have a little story to tell involving family traditions, their parents' thinking or even how a person renamed himself/herself to fit his/her true personality.
6. The six-word story. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway's famous six-word tale--"For sale: baby shoes, never worn,"--the idea is to ask participants to sum up an aspect of their lives in just six words. Start by creating a few sample stories, then introduce the exercise and give each person a few minutes to compose his/her own story. Then go around the room and ask each person to introduce himself/herself and share his/her story. You get some really interesting little snippets. It makes for interesting conversations during the introductions, as well as throughout the rest of the meeting.
7. Fishbowl. Participants draw one question from a fishbowl and need to answer right away. Sample questions:
- In 10 seconds or less, how would you explain your job to a child?
- What is your favorite comfort food?
- If you could be anywhere else right now, where would you be?
- What was the last thing you purchased?
- If you could share dinner with anyone (alive or dead), who would it be?
- What is one thing about your job people don't know?
- What's your favorite charitable organization/volunteer activity?
- Are you a dog or cat person?
- If you could be any character in a movie or TV show, who would you be and why?
- What was your first job?
- What is the last book you read?
- Are you an early riser or a late owl?
- What website do you visit most often?
- In life what is one thing you wished you knew more about?
Want more icebreaking exercises? Here you go.