Just as the name suggests, an icebreaker is a useful tool in “warming people up” at the start of a training session. A good icebreaker will enable participants to get into a learning state of mind and begin focusing on the coming session. Most icebreakers are fun and informal. They encourage participants to get to know each other a little and start to interact, while the trainer can begin to assess her audience. Icebreakers can be as simple as getting everyone to introduce themselves to the group with a few basic facts, or it can be a physical or mental activity designed to activate both the left and right sides of the brain for optimum learning. Many ideas are out there to choose from, but the trainer should tailor her choice to each individual training session.

Choosing Your Icebreaker

Different types of icebreakers include introductory, discussion-based and team-building. Always choose or design an activity based on the kind of training you’re doing, the type of group you have and the outcomes you want to achieve. Ask yourself which type of icebreaker would best suit the group, the training style and the key learning objectives. For a newly formed group, an introductory style activity might be the most appropriate. A group of young, energetic sales executives might benefit from a team-based, creative activity, while a group of experienced senior managers might prefer a discussion group. You can even refer back to the icebreaker at the end to see if opinions or ideas had changed as a result of the session. Always consider how the group will feel about the icebreaker. Some people might be easily embarrassed and others bored, so getting the balance right is essential if the training session is to get off to a good start.

Introductory Icebreakers

Introductory exercises can be as simple as asking each person to tell the group their name and job role. Others are slightly more complex and might involve props such as a ball thrown randomly across the room to fellow participants, who then shout out their name before throwing to another person. You might also want to ask them to provide a memorable fact about themselves to help participants remember each other’s names. For example, by asking them to give a fact that relates to the first letter of their name – such as "Suzie likes snakes" – a visual impression is created that helps fix the name in everyone’s memory. For a training session that involves listening skills in which the group is unfamiliar with each other, ask participants to pair up and each spend 30 seconds talking about themselves to their partner. Tell them when the first 30 seconds are up so the other person can do the same. At the end, each person introduces his partner to the group.

Discussion-Based Icebreakers

For groups that already have been introduced or who know each other well, a short discussion or brainstorming session can help get everyone thinking and focusing. One of the most basic exercises involves everyone shouting out what they want to get from the training, with you recording it on a flip-chart. For a more complex discussion, split the group into subgroups, with each assigned to discuss a different aspect of the topic, then present to the main group after 10 minutes. Give them materials such as flip-chart paper and marker pens, and get each sub-group to appoint a spokesperson. There are two main options – choose a topic related to the training itself or something completely different and off-the-wall. The related topic can be a good introduction to the training topic and can help you, as the facilitator, to assess knowledge and attitudes of participants and how they'll react to the training subjects. By choosing something completely different, you can add humor and take some of the pressure off so the participants start the training relaxed and focused on what comes next. However, choose carefully if you don’t know the group well to reduce the risk of offending anyone.

Team-Building Activities

This type of activity is not only good for practicing working together as a functioning team, but also for the facilitator to identify who in the group is a natural leader, a follower or someone who would prefer to work alone. It is also useful for jobs in which competitiveness is important. Offer a small prize for the winning team to add a spark of incentive. A very simple exercise is to split the group into smaller teams and give them a puzzle to solve in a given amount of time. If you don’t have a puzzle, try using a large poster cut into pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle. A more complex activity is presenting each team with a written problem to solve within a specific time frame that involves a number of roles or skills such as financial, creative and technical.