Getting Training Started on the Right Foot

By Berry, Bart Allen | Training & Development, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Getting Training Started on the Right Foot


Berry, Bart Allen, Training & Development


Trainers and consultants often find themselves in front of large and small groups of unfamiliar faces. In many cases, trainees are unfamiliar with each other, as well. Group members are feeling the initial anxiety and sense of expectation that comes with any new beginning.

In other words, it's time for the trainer to get things started by getting off on the right foot. Whatever you do first can set the tone for the rest of the training. We all know what people say about first impressions.

So, you need an "icebreaker"--some kind of activity, as short and succinct as possible, that will get your participants on-line, warmed up, and "bought in" so you can get on with what you're really there to deliver. Here are some fundamental concepts about what icebreakers are, and a few tips on how to deliver them.

Icebreaker basics. Understanding some basic principles about icebreaker activities can help ensure that your icebreakers set an effective tone for your training sessions.

It's important to remember that icebreakers create order. If you're not in control of the audience members, it's a fair bet that they will find a way to fill the void. Participating in a simple icebreaker gives people something to do together. And having everyone doing the same thing at the same time forces cooperation--no one wants to be the odd person out who's not participating. Icebreakers hand you the reins of control from the beginning and allow you to start steering the group.

Icebreakers also put people at ease. An effective opening exercise helps initiate relationship building among participants. Ideally, icebreakers should force interaction. If people are expected to interact with other group members because it's a required part of the exercise, they are unlikely to resist interaction.

Icebreakers should be relevant. A good icebreaker is in alignment with the subject matter of the training. There are many great icebreaker activities to choose from, but if your training is on process simplification, a communication and feedback-oriented icebreaker is not the way to go.

An icebreaker should pave the way for your main subject area, especially in cases in which the training material is abstract, sensitive, or technical. The opening activity gives people the opportunity to begin to feel comfortable with the subject matter.

There is another danger to consider if your icebreaker doesn't match the subject of your training. If the icebreaker ends up being more interesting than the seminar curriculum, you may find your class moving from a fun, exciting atmosphere to a boring and mundane topic area that's completely different. And that is a sure recipe for disaster.

Icebreakers are short. There is no set time limit for an icebreaker, but it should reflect only a very small percentage of your training time. You don't want to waste the group's energy, which is better spent on the main part of your program.

If groups need more warming up than a brief icebreaker allows, you might want to consider adding a team-building exercise or two after the icebreaker.

Icebreakers focus people on learning. A good, experiential icebreaker activity transfers the class's focus away from the trainer and onto the learning. In experiential activities, people learn by doing things themselves. You may be the greatest stand-up trainer ever, but people won't really own the information you teach or the skill you demonstrate until they've had the opportunity to practice it.

Involving people in effective, relevant icebreakers and other experiential training activities from the beginning of a session helps the group start the class with a better idea of the subject matter that will be delivered. The icebreaker helps group members to begin the learning process itself, rather than listen to you trying to sell them on your own expertise and credibility, or on the importance of the subject matter.

Icebreakers can help support the group dynamics you want to achieve in your class. …

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