Business conferences provide a fantastic opportunity to learn, interact, and network. That said, it’s likely that some of the attendees will be happy to be there, while others may be more begrudging about the matter. And, as you plan your program, it’s crucial to think of social activities, icebreakers, and themes to approach and engage both the reluctant and the eager, introverts and extroverts.
Finding fresh ways to have your audience interact with both the speakers and each other can be difficult, but it’s essential that you try to break the ice. Different techniques can be used to engage your audience and create a place for conversation that puts everyone at ease.
Below we’ll discuss some ideas that you’ll want to consider when event planning.
Unconventional Business Conference Activities
On the surface, most people cringe when they think about icebreakers. What often comes to mind are awkward experiences where the session leaders made you reveal something personal to a complete stranger or do something embarrassing out of peer pressure. While, at their essence, either of these things can be fantastic ways to get the ball rolling, how they are done matters. In Forbes, Lisa Bodell writes:
“A bad icebreaker can feel as awkward as the first day of middle school. A good one can start a friendship or a partnership and build trust and cooperation across an office or entire org… Effective icebreakers compel interactions between employees and establish a comfort level in the room. They also ease people into a focused and engaged mindset that’s conducive to ideation and learning. And after the ice is melted, your meeting or training session will be met with less resistance and awkwardness than a cold start.”
So, what are the components of a good icebreaker?
1. Have a clear purpose – It’s crucial that your icebreaker will not only get things going but will also supplement or improve the message or activity it’s leading into. For example:
a. Is the goal to simply loosen up the room and get people laughing before diving into a lecture?
b. Do you want to establish a sense of comradery between team members?
c. Are you hoping to encourage networking?
d. Do you want to start a dialogue?
2. Have rules or actions that complement the purpose – You need to set some constraints or guiding principles that are clear and concise. Audience members should have a very clear idea of what they will be doing and how it will happen.
3. Be challenging – Everyone likes a challenge, so questions or activities should cause some mental or physical strain, but not be some impossible feat. On the same note, questions can lead to revealing or informative answers but should avoid causing discomfort.
4. Be fun – Ideally, you want to select an activity that doesn’t have the audience members watching the clock until they’re done. Your goal should be to have them feeling more relaxed and receptive than they were beforehand.
5. Require working together – For team building activities, the best icebreakers will encourage all members to participate in order to succeed. Simply having one participant represent the group can turn it into a solitary activity rather than a communal event.
6. Have a debrief – The best icebreakers will include a moment to reflect, discuss, or deliberate on what just occurred.
a. What was learned from it?
b. What was accomplished?
c. How does this apply or segue to the next activity?
Ice Breaking Ideas
Knowing this, what are some interesting ice breakers for meetings & training seminars you may want to consider?
- Human barometer – If you want something that will lighten the atmosphere in the room, put a series of questions up on the screen—some funny, some revealing, others tricky. Having participants pick one or the other or separate into agree and disagree sides of the room. This always gets a lot of laughs and can garner great responses or interactions from the opposing parties. Questions you might add include:
- Should toilet paper be facing inwards or outwards?
- Is a hotdog a sandwich?
- Would you rather be surrounded by people who brag all the time or by people who complain all the time?
- Star Wars or Star Trek?
- Is this dress blue/black or gold/white?
- Yanny or Laurel?
- Would you rather have every song in existence be performed by Pitbull, or only one Pitbull song exists but it’s covered by every artist?
- Truth and target practice – Even a bunch of uptight executives have a soft spot for a good old fashioned snowball or water balloon fight. Hand all the attendees a piece of paper and tell them to write down some of their personal challenges, goals, and expectations. Have them crumple it up, then give them a target and tell them to throw their “snowballs.” (You can see this in practice here at the 3:00 mark.)
Once that’s done, have the audience find a crumpled piece of paper and read what someone else wrote. Then have them swap theirs with another stranger again. This gives a unique and honest insight into a stranger’s life, without all of the embarrassment.
- Q&A Prep – This exercise knocks out two birds with one stone—it breaks the ice and helps make the Q&A portion of the lecture more productive. Prompt audience members to get into groups of three with strangers and start a conversation. Have them introduce themselves briefly and then come up with one question each that they’d like answered by the keynote speaker. After each attendee presents their question and explains their reasoning, the group collectively decides on their favorite one.
After, the chosen questions can be submitted, and the audience can have the opportunity to upvote or choose the ones they like best for the panel or speaker to answer.
- Coffee Break Assignments – Coffee breaks can be a fantastic opportunity to encourage networking, but many people need that nudge to get them out of their comfort zone and engaging with strangers. They’re far likelier to do so if they’ve been assigned that task. So, instruct your audience to seek out 3 to 5 new people per day and ask them simple questions like:
- What’s your story?
- What are the challenges or obstacles you’ve faced?
- What are your goals?
- What’s something weird about you?
- What would be your ideal superpower?
- What’s your hidden talent?
- Campfire – Although this isn’t an icebreaker, this is one of the great interactive conference ideas that take your presentations to the next level. They start as a traditional lecture or seminar, with the speaker or panel presenting for 10-20 minutes. After that, the focus of the event shifts to the audience and the presenter becomes a facilitator, encouraging people to:
- Ask questions
- Provide insights
- Comment on the presentation or audience discussion
This creates a back and forth engagement that encourages people to share experiences, knowledge, or seek answers from the wide array of experts and professionals in the room.
- Group Question Switcheroo – This is an easy way to start a dialogue between a large group of people and ensure that attendees are interacting with as many members as possible. Have your audience separate themselves into groups of 4 to 6 members. At each table, a different question will be asked, and the table will then spend 10-20 minutes answering it.
Once that time is up, every member except for one leaves for a new table. The participant who doesn’t leave acts as the host for the new group. They present the question and then briefly recap what the previous group had to say on the matter. Then, the new group seeks to add their own input. This can be repeated a few times, with a new host staying after each session.
At the end of the entire session, the key points will be presented to everyone in order to create a collective discussion or dialogue.
- Find my friend – This is a great networking tool for smaller groups. Have all the members write their name on a name tag and then put it in a bowl. Everyone pulls a different name tag and then puts it on. After, guests are given 10 to 15 minutes to find their friend and then ask them as much as they can about the person.
So, each person will spend half of their time interviewing someone and the other half being interviewed by a different person. Once the time is up, every person presents their new friend to the room.
Making Conference Activities Memorable
According to Forbes, recent studies suggest that “informal professional networks and communities are more important for entrepreneurial success than formal structures such as incubators and accelerators.” Simply put, corporate events and networking that take place can provide immense value to those who attend.
Conferences, presentations, and icebreakers doesn’t have to be a dull experience. They should encourage learning, interaction, and fun. By taking the time to research unconventional business conference activities and icebreakers, you can ensure that attendees will be happy to be there, are maximizing their networking opportunities, and will want to keep returning for future events.
Ready to start planning your event? Reach out to the industry professionals at Vario for a consultation. Our team has developed a deep understanding of the components needed to make for a memorable business conference. We pride ourselves on working with clients to bring their creative visions to life. So if you have an idea in mind for your next event agenda, we can help make it a reality.