Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How An Ice-Breaker Can Kill Your Business Meeting

Many business meetings kick off with an ice breaker.... but nobody signs up to attend a conference to play silly games, pull off squares of toilet paper, and share their biggest fear.  Jumping right in with some gimmick to break the ice can freeze your introverted attendees and leave them hiding at every break.

Creating a conference culture that promotes networking is paramount to the success of a meeting, but this is not accomplished by leading with exercises that nobody wants to do anyway.  My "Conference Catalyst" program is both informative and interactive, but I never instigate the socialization parts right out of the gate.  People need to feel comfortable with the venue, the presenter, the community and themselves before they are willing to give 100%.

Too many people who try to lead networking ice-breakers front load these activities into their presentations.  This causes the audience hold back in their participation and can kill the mood of the conference networking.  You have to wait until the MC or presentation leader has earned the right from the audience to ease people out of their comfort zones.

When ice breakers are done too early people are less likely to open their minds and hearts to the message encouraging them to make meaningful connections at the conference.  They are viewed as "hokey" and "forced", and while most people will go through the motions, they are not fully engaged.

Waiting to break the ice will allow people to thaw (I could not resist).

****For a copy of my free eight page special report on creating an atmosphere for better networking at conferences email me at thom (at)

Have A Great Day.

thom singer


Thom Singer said...

A smart and respected industry expert on Twitter said that this post was an "over-generalization" and that "Icebreakers can B purposeful, thoughtful, & simple, not silly games".

I was not saying ice-breakers are awful. Of course they are purposeful and thoughtful. But some are just silly games. To say that no ice-breakers at all the conferences in the world are silly games is an "over-generalization" (isn't it?... hmmm.. pot, kettle... he he)

I use ice-breakers as part of facilitation process. The point of this blog post is that too many speakers jump the gun and use their activities too soon in their presentation and that can limit their effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

Thom, you are wrong: Ice breakers rock and nobody on the planet ever thinks the speaker is a dork for making audiences do them. ;-)

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Glad to see your clarification Thom as your original language (for me) painted to broad a brushstroke of icebreakers as silly games and gimmicks.

What I think we can probably agree on is there is importance in breaking the ice among participants in a meeting or event. The degree of that importance depends on the relationships those people already have with each other, the reason they are called together and for how long, and what they need to know and how they need to feel about each other in order to do that work. That varies tremendously ... as should the different conversation starters, exercises, or activities we draw upon to help people break the ice.

You express a concern about them being front-loaded because the MC needs to earn the right to take people out of their comfort zone. I definitely agree that activities which will challenge participants' comfort zone require a level of trust and acceptance of the person introducing them. But the ice does often need to be broken at the front end, so we just need to incorporate a meaningful way for people to connect (usually brief I believe) that doesn't challenge them to do a group hug.

Icebreakers have gotten a bad name because some people commit meeting malpractice and inflict an inappropriate activity on a group of participants who are forced to endure it. And that is indeed a problem. So let's do a better job of modeling appropriate use of community-builders, conversation starters, or icebreakers. Let's ensure they are experienced as meaningful and connected to what the participants care most about.

It should never be about what we as presenters want to do to a group. It should always be about what is the social lubricant that a group needs to do the work we are called upon to do and how can we facilitate that happening. And in some cases the only social lubricant they need is to be invited to turn to their neighbor and introduce themselves. In other cases it may require a highly intentionally series of activities spread throughout the course of a weekend retreat, each building on the previous efforts and establishing a base for those yet to come.

But you opening line almost completely equates icebreakers with silly games, and I think that does a disservice to the value they can contribute when used appropriately ... even at a "business" conference. Because we usually don't do business with people we don't trust, and we don't usually trust people we don't know.

Thom Singer said...


thanks for your comment. I stand by what I said, as the title of the post is "HOW an ice-breaker can kill your business meeting"... NOT "Ice-breakers kill your business meeting".

That was why I did not understand your original tweet calling the post an "over generalization", as I thought it was specific that going too soon, before the audience is "ready", makes many of these activities come off in the wrong light.

I was not attacking the purpose or thoughtful motivation of ice-breakers (well, the silly ones that people hate I guess).

I don't get the impression we disagree on anything. We need to know, like and trust people for many reasons if we want there to be power in the relationships. But our society today wants everything fast and now.


Dr. Rus Jeffrey said...

Hey Thom;

I'm in full agreement with you on this one! Sorry for those who have taken shots at you here saying you're wrong about ice-breakers. I think you're right on target. I used to do them back in the day and found exactly what you described. It freezes many people in the tracks.

As for me attending a conference. You're also right on target. If I pay good money for a conference I am NOT interested in playing "silly games" to get to know the person I'm sitting beside. Come on - We're all adults and if we want to chat with someone and network with them we don't need to be "forced" into it by playing a "silly little game".

Well done Thom!

Steve Harper aka Mr. Ripple said...

It's all in the presentation and delivery Thom. I've seen good ones, I've seen bad ones and clearly no speaker (or program) is perfect.

However I am a fan of any activity that helps make it fun and safe for people to engage, connect and discover the incredible resources that are possibly available to them by meeting a fellow attendee of an event (or meeting).

When I do my Conference Ripple program for conferences or corporate events, I focus a great deal on helping people understand the power of engagement and explaining why so many of us find it hard to engage (especially with a stranger). Talking about it is not enough though. You have to show people what to do! If I've done my job right, people will be engaging, connecting and Rippling throughout the remainder of the event and beyond.

Ripple On!!!

Thom Singer said...

To the anonymous poster who left a nasty toned post about me.... I welcome feedback that points our where I come up short in writing this blog. I am not perfect, and lord knows I have a long long way to go in the learning curve of life!

However, if you are going to say snark things about me or anyone else you have to leave your real name to have the comment approved.

I did not approve the comment since it was a bit nasty in tone, and there was no real name. The comment leaver basically took a few shots at me and how I write and promote myself on this blog. Essentially said I give no value in my writing. Okay, that might be true.

They said I claim here that all ice breakers are "silly games" (and they disagree). Not ALL Ice-breakers are silly games. And even if I thought they were, why is this such a touchy subject? I must be missing something as I appear to have hit a nerve.

In this post I suggest that people wait to do ice breakers until farther into the presentation. That is my suggestion. I think that some ice-breakers work better than others, and I think the timing makes a difference.


Thom Singer said...


thanks for your comment. You are totally right (not that I am surprised... as you are a huge leader in this area!). It is not just taking about how to make connections or playing games... it is showing and participating.

I always appreciate when you leave a comment.


Terry Coatta said...

I agree that the utility of ice-breakers depends a lot on the nature of the specific technique chosen, the audience, etc. I have experienced ice-breakers that have been a total waste of time, ones that have been fun, and ones that seemed like a waste of time, but ended up revealing interesting ideas.

I am very interested to get your feedback on the idea of ice-breakers for online communities. One of the big challenges in getting an online community started is getting people engaged and so it seems like some sort of ice-breaker strategies might apply.

Have you used ice-breakers in the context of online communities? Any general guidelines about what tends to work or not work in this context?

Anonymous said...

If I say something nice will you approve this comment?

I believe you do provide value in your writings. And you are right in this post about how the use of ice-breakers can often be lame, and if you are not right, why are people so raw on this issue?

Thom Singer said...

9 Months Later ---

I get hits to this post from people searching for "ice breakers" and other terms on a weekly basis. Clearly this is a topic of interest.

I have assisted several clients on how to create a culture for better networking at their events - and ice breakers can be part of that.... Just not silly ones that make half the group want to vomit ;-).

To those who find this post from a search, I am happy to talk with you and share ideas for your event (regardless of if hiring me to be "the Conference Catalyst" is the right solution!).

thom singer
(512) 970 - 0398

PS - I still do not know why some people left mean anonymous posts with personal attacks about my stance that silly ice breakers SUCK. (I do not post anonymous posts that are mean in any way).

Thom Singer said...

I had to go read it again, to make sure I said that "loading the ice breaker to the front" is the part I would change. It is not that one should never do an icebreaker... or that some of them are not great (some work well, others just hurt). My suggestion is do them a little farther into the opening session, not in the first few seconds!!!