Don’t Break the #1 Rule of Icebreakers

high five students

Audible groans rolled across the audience as we begrudgingly stood up from our seats. In a room of 200 people, the speaker had managed to universally turn everyone’s attitude negative by uttering one phrase. This phrase is commonly used, but also commonly despised. What’s the phrase? 

“Ok, now we are going to do an icebreaker to warm up.”

See, even just reading that sentence probably made you cringe. The trick, though, is that once people are actually doing a good icebreaker, they usually like it, or at least don’t despise it.

The number one rule of icebreakers is to not call it an icebreaker.

Here are a few alternative terms you can use instead:

  • Warm-Up – “Let’s do a quick warm up.”
  • Starter – “As a starter, we’re going to…”
  • Activity – “To kick things off, here’s an activity that…”
  • Deep Dive – “I have a deep dive for us to try out…”
  • Challenge – “To start, my challenge for you is…”

high five studentsMost of these phrases don’t have the negative anchor attached to them that the term icebreaker does, so at least you’ll start off on the right foot. But to run a successful activity, you need more than just a name change. Here are a few additional tips to support you:

Fill The Space With Music

A good rule of thumb is that any time you, the facilitator, are not talking, there should be music playing. Music helps avoid the awkward silence, and it makes the room feel more alive. When picking music, make sure you pick music that works for them, not just music that you like. I know you love to blast D.C. punk bands, but it’s not about you having a good time, it’s about them and what they like. Also, you want to pick music that fits the mood. If you want energy, play upbeat. If you want self-reflection, play instrumental. If you want tears, play Sarah McLachlan… on repeat.  

Build Up The Engagement

I never want to have groups do activities unless they are activities I like to do myself. I am not someone that will go from zero to chest bumping in five seconds, so I don’t ask anyone else to do that. I build up the level of engagement. I might start with a hello to their neighbor, then share a laugh, then share something personal, then chest bumping. Just kidding on the chest bumping, it’s still not my thing. By building up the group’s engagement, you are also building up the psychological safety between everyone in the room. This gives you permission to ask them to do even more. Without psychological safety, you’ll face a lot of resistance. 

Don’t Be Cheesy

Seriously. Just don’t be cheesy. 


The larger the group, the clearer you need to be with instructions. In other words, Keep It Stupidly Simple (K.I.S.S.). Don’t over-complicate things. If an activity is complicated, break it down into smaller pieces and walk them through step by step. I suggest that you verbally explain the activity and also have a copy of the instructions on a screen or handout. 

Build Some Mystery

icebreakers chair set upAt the start of one meeting I ran, each person found a set of three sealed envelopes waiting for them at their seat. The seats were facing inward towards each other, so each person had one partner. I told them their challenge (see what I did here instead of calling it an icebreaker?) was to find out whose birthday was the closest to today. Then, that person got to open their envelope and ask the question inside. Afterwards, the other person should open their envelope and do the same. They repeated this process three times with a different partner, each time.

I could have just put a question on the screen and then told them all to ask and answer the question with their partner. But that’s boring and doesn’t create any intrigue or excitement. The success of a group activity is all about the set-up. Adding in a little mystery as to what is going to happen will go a long way to get them to want to participate. 

Warm up activities serve a valuable purpose for events, meetings, conferences, and orientations. They are needed to break the ice, get the blood flowing, build connections, increase the group’s psychological safety, and if done well, create a lot of good memories. The key is to do them right. Following these five tips, plus not calling them icebreakers, will drastically increase your chances of success.

Check out some more posts about warm up activities!

Icebreakers: Why are they important?

Ineffective Icebreakers: What Not To Do

Icebreakers: How to Make Them Effective

What are 10 Different Types of Icebreakers?

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