3 Meeting Icebreakers That Turn Strangers Into Collaborators

By creating scenarios for attendees to socialize, you increase learning opportunities.

Cassie Brown was worried.

As a meeting she was planning for a group of chief technology officers neared, Brown began getting cold feet about the Kiss impersonators she had hired to mingle with the CTOs during a meet-and-greet.

“We were concerned they wouldn’t be the right demographic,” says Brown, chief experience officer for planning company TCG Events. “But people loved it. They talked to the impersonators, talked to each other about the impersonators and posted pictures.”

No matter the icebreaker, it should be something that drives people to interact right off the bat, she says.

To Encourage Networking, Tap Into the Brain

As it turns out, the brain is highly social and thrives on interactions with other brains, according to a Maritz Institute study on the neuroscience of learning.

The study cites research that indicates 80 percent of organizational learning happens in an ad hoc manner. That means that setting the stage for meeting attendees to interact may be more important than giving them free time. In an indirect way, the Kiss impersonators were helping those attendees learn.

From over-the-top drinks to SwarmGaming, where a big group can jointly play a racecar game, Brown says surprising elements help get people—even those who may know one another well—talking. And, what’s more, they’ll continue talking between speakers and after the meeting.

The Maritz study points out that only new objects, which are viewed as rewards, increase the levels of dopamine in our brains. “So much with conferences can become habitual,” Brown says. “You know there’ll be a registration table; you know your name is in the A–G line. When you take people out of that process and they see things they weren’t expecting, it makes them want to talk about it.”

Here are three icebreakers to get your own attendees interacting:

  • Create a registration “lounge” rather than a line: That way, Brown says, when some attendees are in line, others might grab a spot on a couch for a beverage. They will interact while they’re registering—from the moment they arrive on site. Post-registration, the area can become a “living room” for mid-meeting chats.
  • Substitute networking for “netbonding”: Encourage the event team to consider activities such as having cooks prepare dinners or desserts tableside, creating a common, bonding experience and a natural conversation starter.

  • Mix interaction time with presentations: Brown points to the TED Talk format, with 45-minute breaks and opportunities for attendees to discuss the content right after it’s taken place rather than stacking presentations.  “Eight-hour days with one talking head after another and no breaks? The brain doesn’t function that way,” Brown says.

A format change is definitely coming for meetings. “There will be more time for people to have conversations and for the brain to digest,” Brown says. “We’re slowing things down.”