Whether your meeting is large or small, whether attendees know each other or are complete strangers, whether your goal is motivation, learning, change management, or something else, the event you’ve planned needs a great start.

Compelling kickoff speakers often fill that role. What can be more engaging, however, is to first get participants involved in an activity, looking at each other, listening to each other, and allowing the critical transition from workaday world to meeting venue to take place. To start us off, here’s an idea that gets people relaxed and sharing a few laughs, then invites them to open up and share with each other. This outline was used successfully for a first-timers’ session of about 100 attendees at a larger conference. The room was set with 12 tables, and each table included a mix of first-timers and mentors to first-timers.

THE CANDY BAR PERSONALITY TEST
The Setup
• A banquet table set with nine types of candy bars. (Specifically: Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, Snickers, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Nestle Crunch, Almond Joy, Twix, and an energy bar.)
• 8 to 16 round tables each with a small pile of one of the candy bars in the center and an instruction sheet face down.

The Flow
1. (10 minutes)
As participants enter the room, they are told to choose their favorite candy bar, then sit at the corresponding table.
2. (5 minutes)
Facilitator welcomes the group, explains that participants have revealed their personalities by choosing their favorite candy, then reads the descriptions of the candy bar types.* This gets people comfortable with meeting for the first time and helps to raise the energy in the room.
3. (15 minutes)
Facilitator tells participants to turn over the instruction sheet at their table. There are three different potential activities spread out among the tables in the room, all of which encourage discussion and interaction:
  • Dinner Guests
Each person at the table lists the 10 (living or dead) people they would love to invite to dinner. From all the lists, the group agrees on the top five to share.
  • Desert Island Musts
Each person lists the top 10 items they would need to survive on a desert island. From the lists, the group agrees on the top five to share.
  • Greatest Travel Story Ever Told
This activity can be customized to the industry or mission of the group. In this case, the industry was hospitality and travel, so each person’s task was to share his or her craziest travel experience. From the stories, the group selects one to share.
4. (20 minutes)
Table groups report out on their assigned activities.

*Here's the "candy answer key"! You can read these personality snapshots once everyone is seated:
Baby Ruth
You are sweet and loving. You are a cuddly person who loves hugs and warm, fuzzy items. Stuffed animals and fleece clothing are your friends. You can be a little nutty! Sometimes you need a little treat like an ice-cream bar at the end of a stressful day.

3 Musketeers
You are adventurous and brave. You love new ideas. You stick up for people who can't stick up for themselves. You have the personality to succeed in challenging endeavors. When tempers flare up, you are never afraid to leap into battle!

Butterfinger
You are smooth and articulate. You express yourself well and you would make a terrific actor or public speaker. You are also a natural teacher. Others sometimes think you are a bit fluffy, but they just don't understand you!

Snickers
You are fun-loving, sassy, and humorous. Everyone enjoys being around you. You are a practical joker and others should be cautious when shaking hands with you!

Nestle Crunch
You are warm and romantic. You have a loving personality by nature. You care about other people and can be counted on in a crisis. You are pretty emotional and you probably cry at sad movies. You can be mushy, especially in relationships.

Milky Way
You are an outgoing person who likes to laugh. You are fun to be with. People like to go to the movies with you. Children find you amusing!

Almond Joy
You are flirtatious, energetic, and highly attractive. You have a sexy presence and you know your own power. You are always ready to give and take in love. You love life!

Twix
You are sporty and energetic. The more active you are, the happier you will be. You throw yourself into life with energy. When watching TV, you don't like to give up the remote control!

Energy Bar
You are very active. In fact, you are so active, life is passing you by. Get a life!

Icebreaker Ideas for General Sessions

BUSINESS BINGO
Karyn Schumaker, president, Experience Unlimited Irvine, a professional networking group, has a favorite icebreaker version of Bingo. She used this game successfully at a corporate Quality Assurance meeting.

Using Excel, she created cards with categories across the top instead of the letters B-I-N-G-O. Under each category, she placed 12 squares. Below are her five categories, plus examples of what could fill the squares below each one. (She also notes that she used a random number generator to ensure all cards were different.)

• Appearance  
(long hair, green eyes, wearing red)

• Work History  
(has worked at more than one facility, has visited corporate HQ but does not work there, works in a different department from you, has been with the company for more than 10 years, has been with the company for less than six months)

• Common Traits 
(watches “American Idol,” prefers dogs over cats, is left-handed, an only child)

• On the Job 
(fill these squares with items specific to your meeting, your company, or your industry)

• Getting to Know You 
(lives within an hour of where he/she was born, has survived a hurricane, does charity work, went to school in a country other than the one he/she grew up in, speaks a foreign language fluently)

How to Play: The goal is for attendees to find fellow participants who can sign the appropriate squares on their Bingo cards. Offer prizes for the first Bingo and for the first blackout. “It got people really talking,” Schumaker says. “The CEO thought it was a blast.”

 

PLAY BALL
Toss a ball from table to table: Whoever catches it reacts to the prompt under his or her thumb. It might say “fantasy vacation” or “favorite childhood toy,” or the catcher may have to compare himself to a vegetable, superhero, or musical instrument. Or she may have to make a choice: summer or winter? Formal or casual? Then the ball gets tossed to another participant. Make your own with a beach ball or check out the Thumball collection at Trainerswarehouse.com

 

REV UP THE ROOM
Nothing gets a group’s energy up like a speed date! Paula Gurney, senior manager at U.K.–based Mazars, regularly uses a kind of speed-networking activity at the beginning of an international training course she manages. Delegates stand in two lines facing one another, and the moderator asks a question (some examples: What is your favorite vacation destination and why? What is your favorite tourist attraction in your town/country and why?). The two people opposite one another have 30 seconds to introduce themselves and answer the question. At a signal, one line of people shifts one place to the left and the process continues with a different question.

Gurney usually wraps up with a question like “What do you want to get out of the program?” or “What was the best piece of career advice you ever received?” to bring the content back to business. Following the last question, each delegate introduces the person he or she has just met to the rest of the group.

Icebreakers to Use at a Reception

MIXOLOGY
Created by Orlando-based teambuilding company Play with a Purpose, is designed as a structured program where participants are assigned to teams to create a signature cocktail. This activity often can dovetail with the meeting goals. For example, a hotel company once held a meeting planner fam during which they wanted to introduce several new properties across the country. Each Mixology team was assigned a city where a new hotel was located, and told to create a drink for the opening of the hotel in that city.

Play up the business angle by having facilitators discuss promotions and tie-ins, explaining how the Cosmopolitan took off after it was featured on episodes of “Sex and the City,” and how bartenders create their own simple syrup recipes, which become their brands.

The teams create names for their drinks, along with a branding piece (imagine a tent card on a bar announcing it as that evening’s special drink), and then each team pitches the larger group on its creation.

 

TRIED AND TRUE: "TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE"
When Play with a Purpose conducts this classic icebreaker, the company encourages planners to get their attendees to submit information ahead of time. Ask all participants to contribute three things about themselves—two that are true and one that is a (believable) lie. Ask for things that are a bit unusual and that most people wouldn’t know (“I’m a certified belly-dance instructor” rather than “I have two kids”).

Facilitators create stickers or name badge inserts with the three statements and everyone gets a certain number of tickets. As people mingle, they try to guess the lie on others’ tags. If a person guesses correctly on the first try, that person gets a ticket. If not, he or she has to give the successful liar a ticket.
 

THE NEWEST IDEA IN COCKTAIL PARTY CHAT   
“What’s popular lately is to create conversation points,” says Sharon Fisher of Play with a Purpose, a teambuilding company based in Orlando. “Rather than mixers, where individuals have to approach other individuals, in this scenario you create a place for people to gather and discuss a topic.”

The setup requires a computer and printer. Pick a topic that has to do with your meeting content—say, leadership. Ask each participant to give a facilitator one word that defines leadership. The facilitator inputs all of the attendees’ words into a program that creates a word cloud. Word clouds are a graphic representation of all the responses, and the size of a word indicates how often the same word was repeated. The facilitator prints out the word cloud and tacks it up on an easel or other surface.

You can create a few different word clouds for your reception on a range of topics (what’s the best part of attending this meeting, what sparks your creativity, what is your favorite vacation spot), and this creates many casual conversational areas where people have something to start talking about. “It works so well at cocktail parties because it’s a spot where people can gather,” Fisher says. “It gives introverts a reason to talk to people, creates a place for them to go.”

Icebreakers to Use With Small Groups

YOUR WORST JOB
Ask participants to share the worst jobs they’ve ever had. At the end, have everyone vote for the absolute worst, and award a prize to that attendee. (Variation: Everyone shares his or her first job.)

COMMONALITIES
Group participants at separate tables. Have each table figure out five things that everyone has in common. Only one can be a physical description (such as, “we’re all wearing black shoes”). To get the conversation going, suggest some ideas: What languages does everyone speak? When was your last business trip? What pets do you have? After a set amount of time, have the tables report out on the most interesting commonality each has discovered.

5 Questions to Find Your Icebreaker

Sharon Fisher has spent 20 years creating teambuilding, community service, and icebreaker activities for groups. With the official title of “idea sparker” at Orlando-based teambuilding company Play with a Purpose, she has loads of experience with all types of meeting attendees. Here’s what she needs to know about yours to help you choose your perfect icebreaker:

1. What’s the overall personality blend of the group? Are they primarily extroverts or more naturally introverted? “A group of salespeople will do something more strange or extreme than a group of engineers,” she says. But she is quick to caution planners not to underestimate their participants. “Planners tell me all the time, ‘Oh, my people won’t do that.’ But you would be surprised.”

2. What is the setting? What else is happening at the function? Will people be eating, drinking, walking around?

3. What is the timing of the activity? Is it opening night, and people are just seeing each other for the first time since the last meeting? Or is it the second or third night and they’ve all had the chance to do their hugging and reconnecting?

4. Can we blend the activity into the overall program, so that it dovetails with another meeting element or with the meeting content? Would you like to create an activity that helps you build toward something? Or is this simply an activity to get people to break out of their cliques and talk to each other?

5. How much structure do you need? Do you prefer a free-flowing activity, where attendees can play or not, as it suits them? Or will it be more formatted, with everyone encouraged to take part?