How to un-boring my meetings?
July 11, 2012 5:19 AM   Subscribe

What is the most awesome meeting icebreaker / energizer that you have ever heard of and / or participated in?

My job has in the last year or so required a lot more time spent as a meeting facilitator. I've found that there are times that you need to kick-off a meeting or session with a fun activity that gets people settled in (icebreaker). Perhaps even more importantly, there are the post-lunch doldrums that I often need to shake people out of with something more exciting than "EVERYBODY STAND UP AND STRETCH!" (energizer)

Icebreaker example: having everyone write 3-5 trivia items about themselves then the rest of the group guesses at who the person in question is. (kinda boring, but its one of the best I've got)

Energizer example: "Lion Hunting" - we all stand up and imitate the motions of picking up our hunting rifle, slinging it on our back, pushing through the bush (getting people to wave their arms in front of them), fording the river (getting people to high-step while holding the imaginary rifle above their head), crouching down when we see the lion, then firing our rifle. The joke is then that we "missed" and have to rush back through all the previous motions in rapid order.

Basically I'm looking for better-than-average, fun but fairly short activities that a group of business persons could engage in during a meeting / conference, with minimal props or pre-preparation needed. Everything I've been finding with google-fu is pretty lame.

What have you?
posted by allkindsoftime to Work & Money (32 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
This is honestly not meant to be snarky.... but the best meeting energizer anyone has ever lead with is "This meeting is going to be short and right to the point." I groan inside when meetings begin with other types of tangential activities. I think many people feel their time is valuable and like to conduct the business they have arrived to conduct. Maybe others will have better ideas along the lines you have set out, but my advice would be to invest energy in either (1) making the meeting go efficiently and effectively or (2) if you do have ice breakers make it conducive to the business at hand, like getting people to introduce and know each other better.
posted by Tallguy at 5:33 AM on July 11, 2012 [51 favorites]

Best answer: The only icebreaker I've actually seen that works and isn't just a dumb activity is this:

Give everyone a marker and a big piece of easel paper. Have them draw a picture representing themselves, their job, and something important to them. The organizer does the same and goes first in taking a minute to explain his paper, and then tack it to the wall. Everyone else takes turns to do the same.

This works because it allows team members to learn what's important to their teammates, and build better relationships on it ("Hey, Bob, I didn't know you cycled... I do tris throughout the summer!"). It's cheesy as hell. I hate it. But it works.
posted by bfranklin at 5:51 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've got to agree with Tallguy...the reason I'm at the meeting is communicate and plan to get work done. I want to get that over with so I can go back and actually get work done, so I can get home to my daughter and pretend to hunt lions with her.

If you need to fix the doldrums, do schedule some distinctive break-and-mingle conversations will happen over coffee/soda/snacks which are frequently more productive than the meeting time itself.

I think the reason you've only found ideas that are lame is simply that these ideas are inherently lame. Sorry.
posted by stevis23 at 5:54 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: my advice would be to invest energy in either (1) making the meeting go efficiently and effectively

Ooook. So, assume its a 2-week long conference where a global team is coming together to develop a new business strategy. There's been a lot of time spent on developing a full schedule of 8-5 meetings, it is not going to be short and to the point no matter what, because there is a lot of brainstorming and debate required. There's been a ton of pre-work done to review. There's a lot of material to cover.

or (2) if you do have ice breakers make it conducive to the business at hand, like getting people to introduce and know each other better.

That's the whole point of the icebreakers I'm asking about.

Let me know if you need more clarification, but you didn't answer the question.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:56 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Completely agreeing with Tallguy, I'll still throw out some icebreakers. Some of these were from college days (groan! RAs and their icebreakers) and other from work functions.

College :
- Everyone throws their pair of shoes into a pile. Then everyone has to grab a pair of shoes and guess who's shoes they are.
- The human knot! Mission is to get untangled with help from strangers!
- The name game. The first person says their name and and animal that starts with the same letter as their first name and then the next person repeats the previous and comes up for themselves.. etc
(Bob Bear, Bob Bear Scott Snake, Bob Bear Scott Snake Sonya Sloth, Bob Bear Scott Snake Sonya Sloth Jodi Jaguar..etc)

Work functions :
- Three truths and a lie. Works best in a small group. Everyone writes their three truths and a lie on a notecard. They read them out to the group and the group has to decide which is the truth. (Prizes are always good to entice people to participate!)
- Say your name, what department you work for, and something none of us know about you.
- With international groups, the presenter tried to guess where each of us was from. Was pretty funny.
posted by xicana63 at 5:56 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A global group! Great here are a few more ice breakers
- Tell us a unique tradition from your homeland.
- Everyone writes an interesting fact about them on notecards the day before. Then you create a bingo card and at the beginning of the next day you pass out the bingo cards and they have to write the name next to the fact that belongs to them. 10 mins will make everyone run around and talk quickly. The first person to get them all (and right) wins a prize. One of my fav ice breakers ever!
- Talent show ? We've had people from India sing, guys from Brazil do capoeira. Depends on how dynamic your group is.
posted by xicana63 at 6:03 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only time I've done this and not felt like I was insulting people was to do a variation of what xicana63 suggests and have people write a fact about their country that could be true, or a lie. There were some entertaining stories shared that helped to give people an idea of where everyone was from - this was an international meeting with about 30 countries in the room.

Icebreakers for people that already know each other or work together are unnecessary. The only exception is some kind of introductions game if the facilitator is external so they can work out how to read the room (who's dominant, who's quiet, power dynamics etc)
posted by wingless_angel at 6:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I generally hate these sorts of things, but I just came across one that is super fun.

Tell everyone the group is to count to ten. The trick is, they can't do it in seating order, and they can't communicate by signal or any other means who is to say a number and when. Any time two people say a number at the same time, they have to start over at one. Of course, the bigger the group the longer it might take; with a group of 30 we didn't get past "six" for over five minutes.
posted by solotoro at 6:07 AM on July 11, 2012 [13 favorites]

solotoro, that's awesome. I have seen it once before.

On Monday my brother & sister & I were emailing about this, bemoaning how miserable most team-building and ice-breaker activities are. Having been reminded of it, I may suggest your group counting activity as a counter-example free of lameness.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:11 AM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: So this sounds like a group of people who have interacted with each other, but maybe lots of them have only "met" each other via email/phone?

I work in a place that has two offices, on opposite coasts. We all get together at a retreat every other year. My first retreat, we did an icebreaker that was chaotic (there were too many of us for it to really work) but fun.

Ahead of the retreat, we were asked to email the organizer something we had done or accomplished or participated in that other people were unlikely to know about, and if it was funny or seemed like something the person would *never* do, so much the better. Stuff like "was captain of the cheerleading squad in high school" for someone who grew up to be as uncheerleader-y seeming as you could, etc. Mine was "I was in a sorority in college."

All these bits were collated on a sheet that was handed out to everyone and then we had to run around (there was a time limit) and ask each person one question to figure out what their thing on the list was; you wrote down the name of the person by the thing. There were so many of us that were were broken into teams of three or four; whichever team filled out their sheets first won a prize.
posted by rtha at 6:16 AM on July 11, 2012

Response by poster: I was intentionally trying to be vague / general in my OP but clearly that didn't work. The team I'm with right now is a global team that have all met each other before and interact with each other regularly. The team I was with 2 weeks ago were mostly from north America, who all work for the same organization but none of them had ever met anyone. I also work with large teams from one country who may or may not know each other well, and sometimes with large teams of technical specialists across regions who usually interact virtually and know each other very well.

So, basically, assume any mix of participants and background, and give me an awesome icebreaker / energizer.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:21 AM on July 11, 2012

I'm with Tallguy -- if a meeting has these scheduled into it (especially the post-lunch stuff), I see it as a signal that the scheduling is way, way too loose.

That said, I've enjoyed variations on "two facts and a lie" icebreakers, because you always end up hearing things that make for great conversations in the evenings. And those ones work even when everyone already kind of knows each other, because it's pretty rare to know a coworker (especially one from another office that you mostly know via email) well enough to know odd details like whether they stole a taxi in Newark or ate live centipedes.

I've never seen it done (and I have to go to lots of the multi-day, all-day meetings you describe), but I think it would build energy and focus in the right kind of way if the icebreakers built on one another rather than just being disconnected ten minute bits at the beginning of each day. So day one you do the regular two facts and a lie. Day two, everyone writes two facts and a lie about a coworker. Day three, people draw a picture based on the lie. Etc.
posted by Forktine at 6:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In a group of people who are already comfortable with one another, this is my favorite:

- The entire group splits up into pairs.
- Each pair plays three rounds of Rock-Paper-Scissors. First person to win two rounds wins.
- The winner find the winner of another match to play again.
- The loser follows the winner to their next match and is require to cheer/hoot/shout/encourage.
- Lather, rinse, repeat, with the winners taking the losers' cheering sections.
- You end up with two people in the middle of the room playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with the rest of the room screaming and cheering them on.

It's a stupid lot of fun, requires no prep, and is over pretty quick. :)
posted by DWRoelands at 6:39 AM on July 11, 2012 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I took a 3 week course* with approx 40 people with three instructors . Starting in the last week or so, we each drew a card from a deck of regular playing cards as we started one day. The next day, we were sorted by suits; the next day by high vs low, the next day reds vs blacks etc. Whatever group you got sorted in was your group for the day so there was a lot of different configurations.

On the last day, it noticed that the cards weren't from the same deck: blue backed cards and red backed cards as we were then sorted red vs blues - that's when we did the last group activity - try to build a higher card house than the other team in a 20 minute period.

*the course being taught was a new single stream accounting system across a one company and the participants had similar jobs in different divisions in different cities. Most of us had never met although some of us spoken over the phone and a few of us worked in the same buildings but for different divisions. After the new system was in place, we'd have to have a lot more contact and the course was successful in that we learned the new software but when I called Betty in Boston, I knew her as more than just a voice on the phone so the ice breakers continued to work for a couple of years.
posted by jaimystery at 6:54 AM on July 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

My favorite was always a little inappropriate:

Everyone goes around the room and states their least favorite chore, and why they don't like it.

"My name is bbqturtle, and I hate washing the dishes because I have to roll up my sleeves and get my arms wet".

Make sure everyone remembers exactly what they said and why.

Next, go around the room, and replace their least favorite chore with "I hate sex"

"My name is bbqturtle, and I hate sex because I have to roll up my sleeves and get my arms wet".

There is always one about smelling funny, or hurting your back, or being too loud, and it's just always exciting.
posted by bbqturtle at 7:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: At one time my significant other was doing chaplaincy at a university known for very brainy students with somewhat ... unconventional sets of social skills. In group settings, icebreakers like "favorite ice-cream" and "things I do for fun on the weekend" tended to fall flat. But you know what worked? Ask them this: "how, and in what way, could the result of the work you do conceivably kill me?"

That never failed to get a fantastic response. It definitely made the theoretical math PhDs think a little bit.
posted by awenner at 7:58 AM on July 11, 2012 [28 favorites]

The ones I've enjoyed most are simple, go-around-the-room ones where everyone offers a bit of info about themselves. "First concert?" "Favorite vegetable?" "Best vacation you ever took?" "What were you listening to in the car/on your iPod right before you got here?" "Favorite book?". These (in my workplace) never fail to stimulate interesting and fun conversation for the first 10-15 minutes.
posted by ersatzkat at 8:01 AM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: I also tend to dislike these, but I think they are necessary and helpful, no matter how awkward and ridiculous, in the context you describe. With that said, my favorite is when the moderator/leader asks a bunch of either personal/hobby or work-related questions and asks people to stand up if they meet the description. It's good to start with work-related ones (even if you think the participants know these things about each other) such as "stand up if you've ever worked in a non-profit organization" "stand up if you work in an office building with an elevator" "stand up if you commute by bicycle", and then move on to maybe more personal (but not too personal!) things like "stand up if you have a pet" "stand up if you've ever windsurfed/run a marathon/ridden a horse/[insert activity of choice]" "stand up if you've never windsurfed/etc but would love to try it". It can actually be fun for people to discover things about each other and/or remember things about themselves that they might not even think are interesting.
posted by gubenuj at 8:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A great one from a recent conference:

Split the group into two teams. Give each team a pile of little cups. Blindfold one member of the team. First team to get the blinded member to build the highest tower of cups at the buzzer wins. No touching/physical guidance allowed!

We were a really big group, so we didn't all participate, but being in the audience was just as fun and gripping.

(p.s. Thanks for this question--I'm a teacher with an ever-changing class, and always on the lookout for good icebreakers!)
posted by sundaydriver at 8:20 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I usually get a twinge of horror when I think I'm going to have to undergo some sort of public humiliation at the hands of an icebreaker (I know that's not the intent, but that's what goes through my mind), but I enjoyed Jane McGonigal's Massively Multiplayer Thumbwrestling at SXSW 2011. And I did indeed feel energized and happy after helping link together a big room of people like that.

Here's another really basic one I enjoyed recently. This was used in a large group where nobody knew each other. We were asked to turn to the person next to us, introduce ourselves, and a slip of paper would be handed to us with a question we should ask eachother. I don't know if it was on purpose, but knowing that there was an end goal and basically we were just chatting while waiting for some paper made the "introduce yourself" more earnest. And by the time the slip of paper showed up (which had a sort of cheesy question, like "if you could go anywhere in the world for a vacation, where would you go and why?") we already had talked enough to laugh about having to answer such a structured question. The downside of that one is that you now kind of want to talk to the person you're sitting next to during the presentation.
posted by Secretariat at 8:41 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

If it's a big enough group, you can have a short ice-breaker where you get everyone to get up out of their seats and go round the room meeting as many new people as possible, introducing themselves, and having some brief conversation that you've asked them to have.

The conversation you ask people to have can really set the room buzzing and set the mood and energy of the room. It can be things like...

- Tell each other one fun or unusual thing about yourself
- Tell each other one thing that you love in life
- Tell each other something that makes you proud about your work / organization / community
posted by philipy at 8:50 AM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: Oh gawd, please don't do the pile of shoes or human knot. Those are horribly juvenile and embarrassing ways to introduce people. Seconding that stevis23 and I would rather play lions with the kids.

If you want them to love you, to follow you with their hearts and minds, the ONLY icebreaker to use is this:

Tell them you're going to start with an icebreaker. [suppressed groans and immediate loathing.] This will commence in the breaking out into groups of X# and group introductions. Then everyone separately writes on a sheet of paper the absolute worst icebreaker they have been forced to commit, ever heard of, whatever. When done, they then reveal, discuss, and vote for one. When all groups are finished, they compare, discuss--with individuals from each group defending their choice--and the everyone does a silent vote. You then count votes and reveal 'The One Most Loathed' and tell them the group will not be performing this icebreaker. Sit back and be prepared to be hailed as the best group leader evar. Break for short introductory period with groups to introduce themselves to other groups and conversation. Reconvene, and tell them you have reserved the option of reintroducing 'The One' if they act as strangers to one another. Pause for nervous laughter.

Alternatively, have everyone prepare their own name tag and, in addition to their name, draw a simple small cartoon--a bike, a shoe, a cow--whatever. Go around the room and everyone introduces themselves to the group and indicates what their cartoon is: bike, shoe, etc. Break for individual introductions, with discussion of cartoons prompting broken ice.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

For team building/creativity exercises, the Marshmallow Challenge works well (not so great for introductions but very energizing).

Afterwards, be sure you show them the TED talk that demonstrates that business school graduates consistently underperform kindergarteners on this challenge due to time wasted jockeying for leadership and not testing their ideas as they go.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 12:28 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Take into consideration that you may not know how able bodied everyone is. Trying to get everyone to play that "lion hunter" game might be lame and embarrassing for some, but there's also plenty of people who have physical ailments or issues that are not visible or just don't want to be seen crouching in a skirt and heels.

I really like BlueHorse's suggestion!

The only icebreaker I liked was from my college freshman orientation. Everyone had to write down an interesting fact about themselves that no one else would know. The leader picked three people to answer questions about their interesting fact, only choosing one fact for all three people--so one person would be answering questions honestly while the other two were lying. The rest of the group has to figure out which of the three is telling the truth.
posted by inertia at 12:35 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only "icebreaker" I have ever liked were the ones where people were offered free snacks and then people sat around chatting while they ate food. You know, like norma human people do. Because seriously, I have never liked being forced to do stupid games in supposedly business context, especially if I am not dressed to uh, lion hunt. And most of them just make me feel like a six-year-old with no dignity and make me hate the presenter.

However, BlueHorse's idea about the worst one ever sounds absolutely fabulous.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:23 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of course this depends on your audience. If you're facilitating a meeting at the National Convention of Certified Professional Facilitators, then go crazy with wacky icebreakers, because that will help build credibility with your audience.

Every icebreaker that's "worked" in my professional context (engineers), has always been some variation of "name/where from/fun fact." The "fun fact" part is the interesting one. Keeps it short, no one uses up too much time, and as awenner points out there are lots of clever/creative variations within this format that are clever and memorable while also keeping your audience's respect for you as a professional.
posted by deanc at 4:24 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a specific icebreaker but in my experience facilitating groups you can never over-estimate how much people will care/compete for some fun-sized chocolate bars.

It's crazy seeing a room of execs on >six figure salaries really fighting it out and emotionally invested for a 30 cent chocolate.
posted by smoke at 5:37 PM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: I don't know whether this is the sort of thing that would work with your group, but the best icebreaker I did at a work thing like this was recently where we had to pair up with someone we didn't know, and had three minutes to figure out a work-related project we could conceivable collaborate on. I'm in academia, so we ended up with things like amusing titles for joint-authored papers by a gender studies person and an astrophysicist, or a new algorithm for data mining by a computer scientist and an economist, etc. But in a business setting, I imagine you might get some creative and weird ideas when you put e.g. an HR person and an IT technician together, or a marketing guy and a project manager who work in different areas.
posted by lollusc at 11:35 PM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Next, go around the room, and replace their least favorite chore with "I hate sex"

Please don't do this. The only situation in which I want to make a funny about sex is with very close friends, absolutely not with strangers or in a professional setting. And I'm not especially prudish - you might well offend conservative or religious people with something like this.
posted by mippy at 9:33 AM on July 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Something that's worked pretty well for me as a "get to know you" ice breaker when I teach classes is to mix in some strange and pointless questions. When I teach a new class of undergrads, my usual set of questions includes not only the boring ones like name/year/major, but a couple of others as well that have no bearing whatsoever on the class. My most effective have been "What's your favorite kitchen utensil," "Ninjas or Pirates," and "Zombie-killing weapon of choice."

I never remember people by the fact that they play tennis or have a pet poodle or whatever their "interesting fact" of choice is, but I totally remember the quiet freshman in the back who wants to kill zombies with a garden hoe. I also tend to keep track of the responses to the weird questions on the board, especially of Ninjas vs. Pirates, as people really start cheering for their "team" to win. The various "teams" develop some camaraderie that way early on, as well.
posted by Rallon at 1:51 PM on July 12, 2012

If you're doing baby-shower level icebreakers, I'm not sure what you actually *do* for a living, but that seems painful to me.

Announce the format of the meeting at the very beginning, tell everyone they're going to get out early, and stick to that format as long as they do.

No one likes unnecessary meetings. If this meeting didn't need to be a *meeting*, call it what it is; an icebreaker or social event.
posted by talldean at 2:02 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I mostly loathe icebreakers as well, but enjoyed a recent one at a client meeting.

Go around the room and have everyone name three of their heroes (too many people? have them name one or two heroes instead) and then one to three words that describes why that person is their hero. (i.e. "Amelia Earhart" "risk-taking"). After everyone goes around and identifies their heroes and attributes, you make the reveal: the attributes describe the participants' best selves and the values that really matter to them, and those are the things they bring to their own work. It allows you to look at your colleagues in a new way ("Gosh, I didn't know Jim valued creativity so highly - he always seemed kind of boring!", etc.) and allows you to share those parts of yourself that you would not have revealed had you been asked "What values are important to you?" more directly.
posted by judith at 2:44 AM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

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