Have you ever been invited to a business meeting and then had to introduce yourself to the assembled throng? Of course it's not enough just to give your name; maybe you have to say why you're there, or why this meeting is relevant to you and what you think your 'successful outcomes' will be. Occasionally, you're put on the spot and have to speak first, or sometimes you find that you're sitting at the far end of the table, suffering a kind of 'creeping death' as you wait for your turn. You can guarantee you'll never remember anyone else's name while you're frantically trying to remember your own.
In fact there's a reason why many of us hate this experience, and psychologists call it 'interpersonal tension'. When we enter a room full of strangers, we are naturally on our guard and it takes us a little time to relax in their company.
If however, you're running the meeting, you want people to be able to relax quickly, so that they can contribute from the outset. It was for this reason that someone invented one of the silliest items you'll ever see on a meeting agenda: the icebreaker1.
Sometimes icebreakers can be simple adjustments to the routine. Why should delegates go around the table introducing themselves in order, when they can instead toss a lemon to the person who they would like to speak next?
Why launch into boring things like reciting our expectations of the meeting's outcomes when we can instead say something more interesting about ourselves? Here are a few examples:
Everyone in turn says three things about themselves, one of which is a lie. For example: 'I was born in Asia', 'I've met Ozzy Osbourne' and 'I've been sacked from a previous job'. Other delegates then guess which one was the lie.
You could play 'Shag, shove or marry'. The meeting organiser lists three celebrities and each delegate decides the kind of relationship they would prefer with each. Be warned, however, that this icebreaker is only appropriate for delegates with a similar sexual orientation, and isn't recommended for, say, a contract negotiation meeting with a blue-chip client.
If you think a more physical exercise would work, then you could try the following: Get delegates to stand in a circle. The organiser starts by announcing their name, and doing a short action to accompany it - maybe jumping up and down, or doing a little dance step. All the other delegates then copy this action. Delegates then go around in turn announcing their name and doing an action of their choosing, which is repeated by the group. Finally, toss a beanbag around the group, but whoever throws the beanbag must say the name and do the action of the person they are throwing it to. This may all sound a little odd, but it's a good way to quickly learn everyone else's name.
Of course, if the group is a little more reserved, you can use verbal associations to help people remember names. Give them a category - plants, for example - and ask each delegate to announce their name followed by a plant beginning with the same letter: 'Annie Apple-tree', 'Peter Petunia', etc.
If you're running a large workshop, you may want to learn a little more about the delegates before you get started with some of the activities. Maybe you want to know who the strong characters are in the group. If you intend to split the group into smaller teams for some activities, then these exercises will help you decide who to allocate to each team. Here are a couple of ideas:
Write on a whiteboard or flipchart a list of ten crimes, from serious through to trivial. These could include, for example, selling state secrets to an enemy, killing your spouse and drunk driving, through to illegal file-sharing, possession of cannabis and parking on a double yellow line. Invite the delegates to allocate an appropriate jail sentence for each. Total them up and you'll have your delegates neatly defined along a scale with 'hanging's too good for them' at one end and 'bleeding heart liberals' at the other.
Ask each delegate to write down and pass to you one little-known fact about themselves, eg 'I play underwater unicycle hockey' or 'My wife's name is Derek'. Then, using a spreadsheet or word processor, produce a bingo card with these facts on. Print and distribute it, then invite delegates to mingle with each other and match the names to the facts, shouting 'House' when they've got them all2. The order in which they complete the task should separate the gregarious delegates from the introverts.
The other reason for icebreakers is to stimulate creativity. Psychologists tell us that as a race we are divided into left-brained and right-brained thinkers. Our left hemisphere processes logical, verbal tasks, whereas we use our right hemisphere for thinking in terms of images, sounds and the like. That's not to say that we can't use both, but some of us might need a bit of stimulating to get the creative juices flowing, so to speak. Here are some icebreakers which should get those synapses firing on the right-hand side:
Get all the delegates to draw a picture of how they think the company will look in 50 years time, both from the inside and the outside.
Put people in small groups and ask them to solve a problem by drawing a picture of the solution, eg 'draw an airport which will allow everyone to board their aircraft within five minutes of arriving'. You may need ground rules like 'use existing technology only'.
Use a metaphor, like 'if this company were an animal in a zoo, which would it be? Draw a picture showing who the manager is, who the competitors are, and where you are in relation to it'. Get each delegate to describe their pictures in turn. You may end up with quite a few dinosaurs or sloths, but you'll learn a lot about what people really think about their employer.
It's not just in business meetings of course; actors will use similar exercises to get warmed up for a rehearsal, using any of a number of improvisation techniques, such as the Hamster Throwing Game. These may not always transfer to the office environment, but they could certainly be used in new media organisations - you know, those ones with grass on the floor and break-out rooms with coloured beanbags.
Laughter is infectious of course, so if as the meeting organiser you feel up to it, you could just stand at the front of the room and laugh out loud. To get started, focus on anything which is slightly amusing - someone with untidy hair, maybe, or the confused looks on people's faces. Keep it going, no matter how stupid you feel inside - someone else is bound to join in3, and then it'll be unstoppable4.
Party games, too, are invaluable sources of ideas for warm-up icebreakers. As with all of these, try to adapt them as far as possible to the situation you're in. We'll finish with two which are popular in Germany, we're told:
Get each delegate to write the following sentence at the top of a piece of paper: 'Uncle Joe splashes merrily in the bathtub5'. Next, they write an alternative title beneath the word 'Uncle'. They fold it over so the next person can't see and pass it around to the delegate on their left. The next person adds an alternative name beneath the word 'Joe'; the one after that, a verb, and so on. Finally, you unfold them all and read the sentences - they'll be quite silly.
Ask delegates to each imagine a gift which has been left to them by a deceased relative, and what they should do with it. They then whisper the name of the gift ('a pair of socks') to the person sitting on their left, and what they should do with it ('wear it to work every day') to the person on their right. Delegates then go around in turn announcing the gifts and actions whispered to them, eg 'Aunt Agatha left me a pair of socks - I'm to feed it with tuna' or 'Aunt Agatha left me a pot of geraniums - I will wear it to work every day'.
None of these cunning schemes will guarantee that your meeting will be a success - but at least if it is a flop, you'll have had some fun trying!