How do we make icebreakers relevant?

Some training participants really enjoy icebreakers. They can be fun, a nice way to ease into a day of learning and they can ensure participants have an opportunity to meet one another in a low stakes activity before needing to work with each other in small group activities later in the day.

On the other hand, many training participants do not like icebreakers. Some, seeing an icebreaker scheduled for the first 15-30 minutes of a training program, choose to arrive late in order to avoid the icebreaking activities all together.

If you feel an icebreaking activity is important to help create a sense of connection and get participants talking with one another before the “real work” begins, what’s a trainer to do?

There are several elements that can be built around an icebreaking activity to make it a more meaningful and important opening piece to your training session, and if you were to bond these elements together the formula may look something like this:

Ib + Al + Lo + Pp (+ Gs and/or Re) –> More meaningful and purposeful opening activities

Icebreakers

ice breakers

Let’s break this formula down, piece by piece. The first element, Ib or Icebreakers, is what we’re talking about, but how can these other elements bond with Icebreakers to make more meaningful and purposeful opening activities?

Adult Learning

adult learning

A cornerstone to adult learning theory is that a learning experience needs to be relevant. A relevant activity is more important than a fun activity. The best part about this last statement is that “relevant” and “fun” aren’t mutually exclusive, you can definitely do both, and that’s where the next element comes in.

Learning Objectives Taxonomy

Ask yourself how your icebreaking activity can connect to the purpose of your training program. What is it that people should be able to do by the end of your training program, and how can the icebreaking activity help to support it?

In this post, I outlined an icebreaking activity that served to help participants get to know one another and it helped lay the foundation for a sales training program I was creating. In fact, here are four other examples of how icebreaking activities can be connected to your content.

learning objectives

The key here is to have a firm grasp on what you want your learners to be able to do by the end of your training program? Are they simply being introduced to a concept? Will they expected to master certain procedures? Once this has been defined, you can be strategic in connecting those objectives to your icebreaking activity to set the tone for your program.

It’s also fun to refer back to the icebreaking experience throughout the day when certain concepts come up that were introduced in your icebreaker because it’s a common experience that all your learners had and it can help cement the meaning of your concepts in your learners minds.

PowerPoint

powerpoint

Have you ever given instructions to participants, broken them up into groups, and then walked around the room to check on progress only to have three different groups ask: “What was it that we were supposed to be doing again?”

Having a slide that reminds participants of the purpose and/or the instructions for your activity can help prevent this situation going forward.

Optional: Goal Setting

Since an icebreaking activity, by its nature, is to break the ice of a training program, it naturally happens in the beginning of a session and can set the tone of the entire day. Including a goal setting component to your icebreaker can be an easy way to help your learners focus their attention on what they’d like to get out of the session.

goals setting

Fifteen different participants may have fifteen different things they’d like to get out of the same session, and that’s ok (as long as all fifteen goals align with what you’re planning to cover). This concept intersects with the element of adult learning, as adult learners prefer to be self-directed and often are hoping that your training program will help them solve a problem or can somehow be put to use immediately.

Taking advantage of your opening activity to help your learners focus on what they’d like to get out of the day, simply by asking: “What’s one thing you’d like to walk away from this session knowing or being able to do?” can help keep them focused on their goal throughout your entire session.

Optional: Audience Response

One final option for your icebreaking activity is to integrate audience response tools such as PollEverywhere (if it’s an in-person session) or the polling feature (if it’s a virtual session) into your icebreaker. I’ve found that warming participants up with a series of poll questions can:

audience response

a) Help me understand what level of knowledge or experience participants already have with a given topic, and

b) Serve as a non-threatening way for participants to get involved in a session early (I use the term “non-threatening” because polls are generally anonymous and they involve very little risk on the part of your participants).

Icebreakers can be a powerful element of any learning program, holding the potential to set the tone for a training program and helping participants establish rapport with each other and with you… as long as you take some time to be intentional about your icebreaking activity.


This formula concept was inspired by my new book, What’s Your Formula: Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training. You can learn more about each of these elements in the book (obviously) and you can check out an interactive periodic table of learning elements at www.51elementsoflearning.com.

periodic table of learning

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