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ATD Blog

Be Strategic to Warm Up Participants

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Kicking off a training course or meeting session isn’t as easy as posing a question of participants to get conversation going. An effective icebreaker—an activity or question used to welcome and warm up conversation among participants—requires a facilitator or speaker to be strategic. In “Icebreakers: Be Strategic,” Nikki O’Keeffe and I offer guidance about what information a trainer should gather or consider before an event, information about the audience and themselves. The issue of TD at Work is an update of an earlier Infoline written by Robert Prezioso.


The number of audience members, demographic, role, and familiarity with each other should be considered when choosing your icebreaker activity or question.

If you have a small number of participants, it may make sense for a facilitator to use an icebreaker in which the group interacts with each other. Participants hear others’ responses and get to know each other better. On the other hand, if you’re presenting to a group of a few hundred, an icebreaker in which attendees pairs up is more practical.

Are attendees about the same age? Do they work in the same region of the country? Or do they span the generations and the globe? Will learners understand your references if they’re not from the same country as you? Will participants recognize what others from different generations are referencing in response to a question you pose?

Entry-level employees, managers, and leaders may feel differently about icebreakers. Will leaders think it’s a waste of their time, for example? Consider using icebreakers specially tailored to your audience’s role. For example, engage managers in a quick discussion about the best leader they’ve had the opportunity to work for and what made the leader so effective.

If you’re facilitating a group of teammates who work closely with each other, will you design your activity to imbue a further sense of trust among them? Pose a question that may surprise learners when they find out something new about their close colleague.



Are you speaking at a conference session? Team off-site? A team-building exercise? This will tie back to your audience and relate to your purpose for the icebreaker.

Do you want participants in a conference session to network with each other? Share best practices?

Are you laying the groundwork for high-level executives to develop a vision for the coming year?

Does a group of colleagues need to be more engaged with each other? Respect what each other brings to the table more than they currently do?

Do you want to energize a group of sales professionals during an annual sales kickoff? Or secure buy-in of employees on a new software?



Keep in mind whether you’re facilitating a group of instructional designers or conducting a train-the-trainer course. Will the icebreaker question or activity you pose relate to your audience in that way? For example, ask about required skills of facilitators. Or tying an effective course design with audience member’s favorite invention—both of which serve to solve a problem.

Are you leading a course on new technology? Do learners have a fear of learning the new software, a fear that needs to be abated prior to delving into the material? Are you kicking off day two of a multiday course by refreshing learners on what was discussed the previous day?


Are you a seasoned facilitator who is comfortable letting the room go a bit rogue? Or are you more comfortable with the group somewhat restrained? Do you use humor easily? Participants are going to know if you’re relaxed. You need for them to be at ease and ready to learn. That is, after all, a key to an icebreaker—getting participants ready to learn.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

1 Comment
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Nice to read that. Since I came to the US I didn’t have a chance to be a mediator. But reading that refreshed my kind how I was used to prepare for presentation or mediation. I was already going in the right direction. Thank you for your pots.
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