I don’t often like icebreakers for large groups. It’s really hard to find fun and effective activities that work with lots of people.
In fact, I’d never thought much about trying to develop an effective large group session until a client asked me what I could do for a group of 1,700 people in about 45 minutes. That’s a really big group and the request was daunting. But I was intrigued.
It seems there’s a real demand for compelling conference icebreakers and activities that can be scaled up for lots of participants.
My Successful Musical Icebreaker
I’m going to speak first from personal experience and offer broad advice along the way that you can use. I think the following story of how I created a cool icebreaker event will give you a guide to consider this and other program ideas.
The client I mentioned above had clear goals. They wanted their session to be creative and highly interactive; a session that would allow everyone a solid opportunity to participate.
Every program I lead revolves around songwriting. My challenge with a group of 1,700 was how to allow everyone to contribute to the song creation in some way and then to get involved with performance.
My team and I started on stage. It’s important to have a program introduction that invites people in and that diminishes everyone’s hesitancy or fear. Most people in large groups freak out when they’re told they may have to participate!
I always begin my programs with some laugh lines and a musical performance. I’ll make sure everyone’s guard is down before I pounce off stage to get interactive. Don’t ever threaten to get interactive until people trust you at least a little bit…haha but true!
It’s my job, and the job of any leader you hire, to create an environment that makes people want to get involved. After the program introduction we did jump off stage to begin group participation, being careful not to every embarrass anyone.
Even with very large groups, the best icebreakers invite people in as individuals so that they the feel involved with the process. As my team and I solicited ideas for the song lyric we were tasked with creating, we started with one to one conversation. We began with simple questions that got people involved. Questions like, ‘what does your company do?’ or ‘what’s your role?’.
As soon as we had a flow going in the room, we allowed time for table groups to come up with themes and song titles. So at about ten minutes into the program, I stopped being a lead MC and allowed small groups of people to converse and do some creative brainstorming. Strangers at tables were soon laughing and talking non-stop, indeed breaking the ice.
People then shared their group’s ideas using microphones and via texting using a conference app. My team and I shared the many lyric suggestions as they came in. As lead MC my job is to be editor in chief and to make sure the entire group moves forward toward completing the program. I believe the job of every lead MC in a large group icebreaker is to be highly collaborative – and not to overpower.
Once we had lots of great lyric ideas, my team and I helped this large group quickly zero in on their most important themes and specifics as we created a complete song with input from throughout the room. We then got everyone on their feet as we performed and recorded the song.
In this case, the program literally ended on a high note with 1,700 people singing, moving and participating. The biggest takeaways were feelings of inclusion, motivation and a renewed sense of mission.
Start Big, Go Small, End Big
How can you find other great icebreakers for large groups? Know what you’re looking for by keeping in mind these key points.
Start big with an introduction that kicks off your event. Go small by allowing individuals to interact and contribute. End big with a unified activity or a discussion that creates group context and takeaways.
My successful icebreaker session, and every great session, should include:
- An entertaining and compelling introduction that gets buy in from attendees for what’s to come.
- Leadership that sets the stage for participation and a successful program.
- Leadership that directs the action without overpowering. The best program facilitators listen as much as they speak.
- Time and opportunity for individuals to contribute ideas as part of smaller groups within your large session.
- Leadership that honors each small group’s efforts by allowing groups to share the work they’ve done.
- A closing that unifies the large group with either an ending that involves everyone, or a spoken wrap up that creates context and meaning for what people have just experienced.
Other Icebreaker Sessions To Consider
In addition to the song session I’ve described above you should consider these ideas for your icebreaker session.
The following are all great when scaled up for large groups:
- Improv – Improv sessions work well because you can break into micro-groups. Your facilitators can show everyone the what and the how. Then you’ll feel like you’re in an intimate setting as you create improv skits with a small team.
- Speed networking – I’m not sure if there’s one specific term for this activity but I know it as speed networking. It’s really simple to set up and facilitate. In fact you won’t need a team of professional facilitators like you would for songwriting or improv. You’ll need lots of long tables with chairs on each side. People spend 4 minutes in pairs, each person giving their elevator speech and sharing a business card. Every 4 minutes you move to the person next to you and begin again. This activity is great for associations where people may not work for the same company.
- Drumming – Drumming programs are fantastic icebreakers for large groups. Fast paced and visceral, a drumming program will allow people to let their guard down, wake up and become motivated. This is a great event to kick-off a conference.
There’s no way to promise that everyone in a large group will participate in any activity you provide. But the best icebreakers for large groups will provide ample opportunity for both introverts and extroverts to contribute in some way.