What Makes a Successful Icebreaker Activity?

Ah, the icebreaker activity: An age-old classic for kicking off any group gathering, from a department meeting at work to a college class orientation. At this point, we’re all used to participating in these get-to-know-you activities. It’s second nature.

But if you’ve participated in several icebreaker sessions, then you know full well they’re not always created equally. One time the activity gets everyone laughing and talking—becoming one of the most memorable parts of the event. Other times, things simply seem tense or dull and you can tell people are waiting for it to be over.

When you’re organizing a work meeting, conference event, work training or any other gathering involving team building, ask yourself first: What makes a successful icebreaker activity? Then you can design your session so it embodies positive and productive characteristics.

Fits the Size of the Group

An ill-fitting icebreaker is awkward at best, incredibly time-consuming at worst. If you have a group of 30 people, asking them to remember everyone’s names and personal information is simply unrealistic. So is asking people to share a significant amount about themselves, or move around a crowded room. Asking a small group to participate in a game designed for many more people also tends to be an underwhelming way to connect participants.

Includes a Creative Question or Prompt

Icebreakers are meant to set a tone while getting an audience comfortable. Good icebreaker questions are key in this regard. The exact nature of your questions will depend on the specific session you’re hosting, of course, but there’s always room for creativity—and some fun.

Think deeper than the “alliterate your name” game next time you’re planning an icebreaker. How can you make participants laugh, think outside the box or share their reaction with the person next to them? Here are a few examples of innovative questions for audience polling, sure to make a splash:

  • What was your favorite food as a child?
  • You come into possession of a time machine. To which era do you travel?
  • Which animal would you like to be?
  • You’re trapped inside the most recent TV show you watched. Where are you—and will you survive?
  • How do you handle the ‘check engine’ light going on in your vehicle?

Questions of these nature lend themselves well to different formats: multiple-choice, open-ended responses or collaborative word clouds. Above all, they open up the doors for interactive communication with a fun twist.

Gets People Talking and Collaborating

Silence during an icebreaker usually indicates awkwardness. But you want these activities to be dynamic; to get the brain juices flowing and people comfortable with the other people in the room.

The energy of a presentation, conference or meeting begins with the moderator. Make sure the person administering the icebreaker is doing so with a positive, communicative attitude. Others will follow suit. Encourage chatting and sharing between participants. Let the results sink in for a bit without rushing onto the next agenda item.

Lasts the Right Amount of Time

Last but not least, the best icebreakers are brief yet effective. As The Leaders Institute points out, good icebreakers usually last between two and five minutes, because “if it goes any longer than 10 minutes, it risks taking over the broader purpose of the meeting or gathering.”

You want to strike a balance between your icebreaker feeling unnecessarily lengthy and feeling rushed. Move at an efficient pace while still giving people time to think, contribute and get to know the people around them.

What makes a successful icebreaker activity? Creativity, taking size into account, plenty of collaboration and proper timing.


Arnel Ariate is the webmaster of Money Soldiers.

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