3 February, 2023, 13:05

5 Fresh – Not Awkward – Icebreaker Exercises to Kick Off Your Next Conference or Meeting

“We’re going to begin with an icebreaker.” If you just instantly rolled your eyes at the thought of hearing this at the start of your next conference or meeting, you’re not alone. Because the truth of the matter is, icebreakers have a bit of a bad rap. “A bad icebreaker can feel as awkward as the first day of middle school,” says Lisa Bodell, founder and CEO of FutureThink and a contributor to ForbesWomen. “A good one can start a friendship or a partnership, and build trust and cooperation across an office or entire organization.”

When done thoughtfully with an activity appropriate for the particular occasion, icebreakers can gently and effectively nudge interactions between employees or attendees and establish a comfort level. They also ease people into a mindset that is conducive to learning and brainstorming. So what kind of icebreaker is best for your next corporate program or group? The key is that they should be done in a relaxed format, be simple and short with instructions that are easy to follow, and not force someone to be put on the spot. Here, we mine a few gems that have proven to be effective – and unique – from other recent national conferences.

Paper Snowball Fight with a Spin

During 2015’s TEDxFryslân, Netherlands-based meeting designer and facilitator Eric de Groot kicked off his presentation with a “snowball fight.” Essentially, each attendee was instructed to stand up, crumple a piece of paper up into a ball, then, at the start of the music (we suggest something upbeat and fast-paced), the attendees were tasked with throwing the crumpled pieces of paper at one another for a full 10 to 15 seconds. The result – witness a video of it here – was a great way to raise the energy quickly in the room and lighten the mood.

To take his snowball fight to another level, first, instruct each attendee to write one sentence on their piece of paper about what they hope to get out of the event. After the snowball fight is over, ask different willing individuals to pick up a nearby ball and read what’s on it. Not only is the activity light-hearted, but it helps facilitators elicit information without putting attendees on the spot.

Fresh Icebreaker Exercises to Kick Off Your Next Conference or Meeting

Coffee Break “Assignment”

This one came from Eventex 2016, when Jan-Jaap In Der Maur, another seasoned meeting designer, demonstrated how easy it is to take advantage of the underused coffee breaks as a way to network. Following the keynote, he instructed attendees to meet three new people during the upcoming break, prompted by one of two simple questions: “What’s your story?” or “How did you get to do what you’re doing?” After the break, Jan-Jaap grabbed a Catchbox, a throwable microphone, and had the audience toss it around to each other while music played in the background. When the music stopped, the person holding the microphone was tasked with retelling one of the stories from the earlier coffee break. Again, they weren’t tasked with talking about themselves, simply recalling another’s story.

If your group is a company that already knows each other, and you’re simply looking for a side of laughter, use different prompts for your attendees, like “What’s the weirdest food you’ve eaten?” “What’s your best scar story?” or “What’s the most out-of-character thing you’ve ever done?”

Speed Networking

No matter how many hands are shaken at conferences, there will always a few folks that are a little uneasy about approaching strangers. To ensure no one is left awkwardly in the corner, this networking icebreaker takes inspiration from speed dating, where potential couples have only a few minutes to talk to each other before a buzzer goes off and they move to the next person. Have attendees sit in pairs, then have a quick two-minute conversation before pairing off with another attendee and repeating the exercise. To ensure this doesn’t zap too much time from your meeting, make the activity only 10 minutes long, so that each person meets at least five other new people. Even the shyest participant can manage to talk with another person for two minutes, and it also gets your participants physically moving around the room for an added warm-up advantage.


Photo courtesy of sli.do

Two Truths & a Lie…With Real-Time Polling

Better for smaller company groups, the concept of this common icebreaker is pretty simple: Collect three facts from each employee – two being truths, one being a lie. But rather than having the individual in question stand up in front of the room and read each statement aloud while the attendees shout guesses, download a polling software like Sli.do. Not only does it limit the yelling of answers, but it enables digital polling and displays results on a screen in real time. In fact, Sli.do offers a custom live poll for this very game, where attendees can vote which fact they think is false. Your team will learn some interesting things about each other while taking the pressure off of attendees.

Instagram Photo Competition

Multi-day conferences regularly promote event-specific hashtags in the hopes to engage people at your event, as well as market the event itself with user-generated content (especially if an annual event, like IMEX, DreamForce, and Digital Summit). But you can actually turn this hashtag into something of an icebreaker and competition by providing backdrops and photo props throughout the public conference spaces and encouraging attendees to take creative photographs or the biggest group selfie (remember when Ellen DeGeneres’s 2014 Oscar group selfie broke a twitter record?). Not only does it task attendees – who may not know each other – with getting together for the photo, but prior to the keynote speaker, you can circle through the top 10 user-generated images among the attendees and even award the user with the best photo some sort of prize (free tickets to your next event?).