To run a great workshop you need your attendees to be engaged.

Facilitators know that a workshop or training session needs open discussion and sharing to be effective.  Breaking the ice with a group of people you are about to start a workshop or training course with is a critical hurdle we all need to overcome.

The quality of that introduction to each other will cast its shadow over the whole event.  I’ve both attended and facilitated many such sessions, and know that to be productive it  is crucial the participants feel comfortable with each other.  When people feel comfortable with each other they engage better and so learn better too.

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 Breaking the Ice

I have seen lots of approaches to this ‘breaking the ice’ exercise.  Delegates may interview each other about their work, or talk about their home life.  They might be asked to sell a random object to each other, or have to ‘present’ themselves to each other.   Sometimes this ‘introduce yourself’ bit is to the whole group, sometimes its just to the person next to them.  All these feel stilted, and I have found many people hate being the focus of attention.  In fact, people can worry so much what they will say when its ‘their turn’, they don’t listen to anyone else until after they have spoken.  This obviously doesn’t help with getting to know each other and feeling comfortable!

This summer at NewVoiceMedia my colleague Melisa Collett and I ran a 2 day mini-conference for our scrum masters.  We had full days of workshops and training planned, the output from which would feed the learning sessions we were going to run for the next 12 months.  We needed our attendees on top form and fully engaged, so how to introduce them to each other?

We had several people who knew each other a little attending, and several new starters too.  Mindful of the social pressure to stand up and introduce yourself when you are a newbie at a company, we wanted to find a gentler way.  This is an experience report on what we tried, and how wonderfully well it worked.

What We Did

We sent out an email a week in advance asking each attendee to return 4 facts about themselves.  3 of these 4 facts were to be true, and 1 was to be a lie.  We explained these would be used in a short game: We would write everyone’s facts on the whiteboard, and then guess which set of facts belonged to whom.

Once we had identified the owner of each set of facts we would then try to work out which of the 4 was the lie.
It was important that the attendees knew the outline of the game beforehand so that they only shared facts they were happy for others to know.  As it was, the quality  and imaginative nature of the material sent to us was astounding. Here are some examples:

“I once fell off a warship”  (True Fact)

“I have walked barefoot over hot coals and stood on a glacier in flip-flops.  Not on the same day though”  (True Fact)

“I once attended an 8 month course to become a certified witch as research for a novel I never finished writing” (True Fact)

“I narrowly escaped being caught at sea in a hurricane.  I had to run the ship aground in a mangrove swamp and was nearly eaten by salt water crocodiles, all on the same day.”  (True Fact)

 The email also had to be very clear that the facts should ONLY come to the workshop facilitators.  If others attendees knew,whose facts where whose, the game would be spoiled.

Why it worked so well

By asking the attendees to be complicit in keeping a secret we began to engender a sense of belonging.  Also, by framing this in the sense of a game, we introduced some sense of fun.  Play only occurs in environments you feel safe, so this further reinforced the tribal feeling.

These 2 things combined in such a way that the attendees were already actively engaged just by participating.

It was important the attendees knew that the information would be shared so they could choose appropriately. The facts weren’t shared outside the room.  This was an implicit part of the agreement we made with the attendees.  As we see from the example submissions above (I have permission to share these ones) people felt much more free to choose interesting facts about themselves than they might have done in a more traditional intro.

There was also a definite trend to see people hiding the lie in plain sight.  To illustrate, here are some examples of the lies.

“I am an American Citizen.”  (Not true, attendee was Canadian citizen)

“I built & owned a replica 1850s wooden pilot cutter that I ran as a traditional sail training and adventure holiday company.” (Almost true, ‘commissioned’, rather than ‘built’ the ship)

“I have been to the North Pole” (Not true, attendee had been to the North Circle)

Interesting conclusion:  people really embraced the sneakiness aspect of hiding the lies!

What is great is the unforeseen consequences of this exercise.  It has sparked countless conversations between the attendees both during and since the event.  Conversations where shyness and unfamiliarity may have made things awkward, there is now a great place to start.  When you want to talk to someone but don’t know how to open, how about saying “so, you really walked over hot coals? – can you tell me the story behind that?”  As the inquirer you know the story is going to be interesting in advance.  As the responder, you know the person asking is genuinely interested to hear a story you are already prepared to tell. This removes a large amount of the social anxiety around early conversations.

Feedback from attendees on the whole 2 day mini-conference rated this session as the most enjoyable session we ran.

I would love to hear how others get on running with this introduction format.