3 Non-Cheesy Icebreakers

Is there such a thing as a truly fun, engaging, and non-cheesy icebreaker?

Absolutely. But, why even bother with an icebreaker to kick off your training program or big meeting? 

Here’s why: icebreakers – even the cheesy ones – help people feel more comfortable, engaged, and ready to speak up as you move into the program content. It also gives attendees who might arrive a Icebreaker_thumbfew minutes late, some breathing space before the program begins. Think of it as a transition phase before the actual content.

A strong icebreaker gets participants to consider the topic. Think of it as a warm-up for the brain. It helps transition adult learners from life and work to the training. Some icebreakers are designed specifically as lead-ins to the training. Others are designed to simply help make people more comfortable with a fun, light, start to the session. Often, icebreakers accomplish both.

Psychologist and independent consultant Anton Villado says, “Everyone has this anxiety about speaking up in a group for the first time in a new setting. Icebreakers force people to speak up when the content of the response doesn’t really matter, so that eliminates or reduces that anxiety.”

Of course, for many of us the content of the response to an icebreaker does matter, especially if we don’t know the other participants. We don’t want to be judged or put on the spot.

Let’s look at three icebreakers that address those very real human concerns.

One:  Pick an activity, any activity

“Pick an Activity” works best for smaller groups, up to perhaps 15 or so people; beyond that, reading out the activities can get too lengthy. It can tie into any content related to teams or processes.

 “What’s your favorite book?” sounds innocuous enough, but how does a non-reader answer that question?

“Pick an activity” is open-ended enough that people can choose something that feels safe to them, while also revealing a bit about who they are and what they enjoy.

Ask everyone to write an enjoyable activity on a piece of paper. It could be a sport they participate in or watch, or a hobby, or something as simple as walking the dog on a warm spring day.  Note that this is not asking them for a “favorite” activity; just one they enjoy.

  1. Ask participants to fold the paper in half and pass it to you. Read each one out loud. People can either claim theirs, or not, as they choose. 
  2. Ask how this icebreaker ties into the topic. Transition the answers to the topic. Explain that every one of these activities, even something as solitary as walking the dog or reading a book, “takes a village” to create or maintain. The dog-walker had to get the dog from somewhere, walks on paths that are maintained by someone, uses a collar and leash – and poop bags – that are provided by a manufacturer and sold in a store, and so on.

This activity develops awareness of the essential need for team support and interaction in everything we do.


Two:  What Year Is It?

Requiring a little more self-revelation, this is a fun activity for any size group. With larger groups, break them out into sub-groups; you want about eight or nine people in each cluster.

This activity allows people to reveal only what they’re comfortable sharing. It can also easily transition you into a company timeline or project timeline.

  1. Collect pennies minted in multiple years. Try to have all the mint years within the range of your participants’ ages. Put the pennies in a bag or bowl, one for each group.
  2. Let each participant select a penny.

Ask each person to say one thing they remember in their life from the year on their penny. For older pennies, they can share something from the decade. Provide examples: “2012 was the year I got married, or got a new job at…” Or, the 1970s, that was the decade I wore a pair of bell-bottoms so often, the bottoms got frayed.” If someone gets a penny minted before they were born, have them can add 5 or 10 years to the date on the coin.

In this way, everyone’s privacy is kept safe, while at the same time they’re sharing something personal about themselves. The activity helps people get to know each other a little more, and it can be highly entertaining and fun.


Three:  Pick a question

Like, “Pick an Activity,” this icebreaker avoids putting anyone on the spot by providing options. It tends to generate a lot of laughs and opportunities to get to know co-workers and colleagues.

Create a list of 10 – 12 questions. Examples:

1.     What is an activity you’ve always wanted to try? 
2.     What’s the last movie you saw?
3.     Where’s your favorite vacation spot?
4.     What foreign country would you most like to visit? 
5.     What national cuisine do you enjoy?
6.     What’s the last thing you cooked?
7.     What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to explain to someone?
8.     What’s the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked?
9.     Is there a book that’s changed your life, and if so, what was it?
10.   What gives you confidence?

(Disclaimer: questions 7 – 10 come from Alan Alda’s podcast “Clear and Vivid,” where he asks his guests seven quick questions at the end of every episode. The podcast is well worth checking out if you’re interested in communication – or in any of his eclectic list of guests!)

Display the questions where everyone can see them.

Invite open discussion where each person can pick any of the questions to answer.


3 non cheesy icebreak_bonus“Make it 100% relevant”

After participants have answered from the list of questions, ask an opening question to the group, that’s directly relevant to what the participants will be learning. Or, if you are tight on time, skip the personal icebreaker questions, and ask questions that transition the group to the topic. For instance, if you’re conducting a team-building program, ask each person to describe the best team experience they’ve ever had.

By describing the “best experience,” they’re free to be enthusiastic and positive, which is less vulnerable than if they had to describe a bad experience, or even an experience where they were the team lead.

And by making it 100% relevant (whether it’s team-building or any other topic), you’re starting off with an interactive experience that will engage your participants, while also diving directly into the material and demonstrating its importance.