Don’t Break the Ice – Melt It

An effect group meeting
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Icebreakers have long been a staple for kicking off learning events, no matter the content of the learning. However, these seemingly simple activities meant to bring the group together and set the tone may actually hinder learning. Instead, trainers should focus on an effective instructional design that aims to create a welcoming environment.

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In 1912, an unsinkable ship, the Titanic, sank when it hit an iceberg. Now, unwitting trainers sink training programs when they begin by announcing, “We’re gonna’ start with an icebreaker.” Most of the participants, in response, experience a sinking feeling. And they may be right. There are three reasons to steer clear of icebreakers if you want to have an effective instructional design:

  1. Icebreakers suggest a frivolous training will follow. Forcing involvement in an activity with little seeming connection to the subject being taught implies a lack of relevance in the training as a whole.
  2. Icebreakers risk learner alienation before the subject has been introduced. Communication experts suggest that people, upon meeting someone new, make up their minds about that person and their message within seconds. The same dynamic holds true in the training environment. Icebreakers waste those precious seconds on seemingly mindless activities.
  3. Icebreakers squander valuable time on non-essential information. The short attention spans of modern learners make it difficult enough for learners to maintain a continued focus on on-target content. Activities that don’t readily connect to content send learners channel surfing.


The very term icebreaker creates the wrong metaphor. The goal of the first learning segment should be to defrost the ice, not break it. Learning can intimidate adults. Attending learning means admitting a lack of knowledge and, by inference, an admission of incomplete adultness. The wrong kind of opening activity can force learners to publicly admit their perceived incompleteness in a strange, uncomfortable room in front of strangers and to an instructor they likely do not know but who controls their fate for the duration of the program and perhaps beyond.

In addition, many people have negative memories from their time in school and training and may become all too reminiscent of those memories. Adults may also, based on those school experiences, have a negative image of their ability to learn. Still, others, especially those required to attend, may have negative suspicions about management motives.

Fortunately, there is a way to navigate past this ice while maximizing the first fifteen minutes of the training program. Listed below are the steps an effective instructional design should take.

Steps for an Effective Instructional Design

NOTE – This article is written with a focus on live training events, but the steps below can easily be modified for online learning.

Step 1. Create a Welcoming Environment

The classroom should be staged as a welcoming invitation to learn. Ensure that the area is clean, orderly, and free of junk. If it is morning, the smell of fresh coffee should embrace the trainees. Familiar music should comfort their ears. The room should be alive with subject-related items to touch. Visual stimuli that support key learning points should adorn the walls.

Step 2. Be a Welcoming Presence

The trainer should be directed to personally welcome the participants as they enter, to treat the trainees as they would a guest entering their house. They should be welcomed warmly and thanked for coming.

Step 3. Acknowledge the Class Start Time

At the scheduled start time, the trainer should acknowledge that the start time is at hand and, assuming some attendees are still not present, something non-critical should be started so that those who are on time are “rewarded” for their promptness while those who are late do not miss any critical information. Word search puzzles, matching terms and definitions, and a value-added video are all useful.

In one leadership class, for instance, a trainer covered the participant tables with quotes from famous leaders. The participants were then invited to select and post on the walls a quote they agreed with. The attendees who were on time got to decorate the room while the instructor had key leadership points they could point to throughout the training event that provided a direct connection with participants’ opinions.

Step 4. Introduce Yourself as the Trainer

The trainer should then be instructed to introduce themselves briefly – in thirty seconds or less. This is not a place to share a life story. No one other than the trainer really cares.

Step 5. Introduce the Reason for the Program

In under thirty seconds, and in clear language, the trainer should state the reason for the training. This is not a place to list objectives. It is rather, a general statement of why the participants are here.

Step 6. Begin a Consensus-Building Activity

Instead of an icebreaker, design a group activity free of introduction gimmicks and that is directly related to the subject at hand.

Continuing our example of a leadership development training program, you could give each table a pick-up-sticks game or other table-style game. Then, instruct each participant group to complete the game using a different leadership structure. One group could have a dictatorial-style leader who makes all the game-move decisions, another group may be completely team-driven, and a third group might have two leaders making conflicting decisions.

Step 7. Introduce the Participants

Once the game has begun, allow the natural flow of the material to help the participants introduce themselves. This is easily done within each team and can be expanded via report-outs from each team.

Step 8. Establish the Learning Need

Use the report-outs to establish the need for the training. This is the spot where the trainer gains learner consensus through participant discussion. This kind of activity, instead of being a set of boring generic get-to-know-each-other introductions, serves a higher purpose by establishing a reason for the participants to pay attention.

Step 9. Introduce the Objectives

With the reason for the learning now clear and agreed upon, the participants are ready to hear and accept the program objectives. The key is to introduce them as a way to learn what the participants suggested was needed in their debrief.

Step 10. Proceed with Your Class

An effective class can now begin with the assurance that the ice has defrosted and the participants are ready and eager to learn.

In conclusion, while icebreakers have been the predominant method for opening up a learning event, they have some real drawbacks that can detract from the overall message of your training and disengage learners. To implement an effective instructional design, trainers really need to reframe their approach to training and look for ways to create an open and inviting environment for learning.

Headshot of Lenn Millbower
Lenn Millbower
The Mouse Man™

Lenn Millbower, the Mouse Man™ and author of Care Like a Mouse, teaches Walt Disney-inspired service, leadership, innovation, training, and success strategies. Everything Disney touched seems magical. It isn’t. It’s a method. Lenn saw that method up close. He spent 25 years at Walt Disney World as an Epcot Operations trainer, Disney-MGM Studios stage manager, Animal Kingdom opening crew, Disney Institute, Disney University, and Walt Disney Entertainment management. Now, he shares methodologies that will help you make your own magic.

Connect with Lenn on LinkedIn, FacebookTwitterYouTube, and at

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