Episode 10. Ice breakers for online workshops

Today we’re going to talk about icebreakers for online workshops. “Aren’t ice breakers just awful and they suck? Aren’t they just lame and creepy?”. No. Well, it really depends on what you’re trying to do.


We bandy around the word workshop quite a lot, but it applies to most meetings. Any get-together where there is an objective or an outcome or something that means that the people that have been invited to it, their participation will contribute to something. So your absolute goal at the beginning is that you’ve got to get everyone contributing. It’s not like I’m going to stand up and lecture you all in that context, we don’t need any kind of icebreaker.

It’s probably in your interest as the person presenting to sort of check in with everybody, make sure they’re already or do something that allows everyone to mentally arrive. Because you know, I do think these days we’re missing that walking into the venue.

like, yeah, I was, I was here. I was replying to my email. Yeah. And then I’m not, I’ve got the taboo. The lecture started, right. That’s not giving me, I, you know, I’ve not arrived.

If somebody is still sending an email in Slack, or whatever it might be, they haven’t mentally arrived. So creating that moment of “hello everybody. Are we all here?” is important. They do it at the beginning of a yoga class. Like “sit on your mat, take a deep breath”. And that doesn’t matter if you’re online or offline,

That’s distinct from a situation where everyone’s here, everyone’s present, everyone’s turned off their ear to put their phone in focus mode, and now we’re going to break the ice, I suppose. And I suppose there’s different levels of call. Right? So, so what, what are we going to start like? So what’s the most common one for you to be involved?

When do you need an ice breaker?

If you’ve got anything more than three or four people then you might want to use an ice breaker. If it’s just a few people you can ask “Does everyone know each other? Can you just say your name and what you do or which organisation you’re from, or blah, blah.”

If it’s more than that, especially, if you’re going to have some organised, planned activities, like for a workshop, you might be coming up with some ideas or getting some feedback about something you need people to be feeling that they can actively participate.

What is an ice breaker?

An icebreaker is a really important way to get people to practice their voice in the setting. It’s designed really to “level” people and to go, right, everybody’s allowed to speak. This is how we’re going to speak.

We test it out on something when none of us need to worry about what we’re saying – we’re not creating any judgment, we’re creating a level playing field. And then from then on, hopefully as a moderator, it serves two purposes. One, hopefully you get everyone active in your icebreaker, but if you don’t, you also have your eye on the people who are more hesitant to participate.

It doesn’t have to involve using your voice.

“If we’re going to be using a post-it noting tool for our workshop, especially an online one, you may want to ask everybody to do the icebreaker via that tool. So I’ve often been in workshops where I’ve used this to let people upload pictures of where they would like to go on holiday”


Emily Webber has a good post blog post about all this on her website with a few good examples.

You can do this where there are big numbers of people, because you have to go like “we’re all here together”. And then you can have a bit of a laugh later.

What not to do

You don’t want to ask something that might make someone uncomfortable like “what are your best dreams?”

“I was in a workshop where the moderator wanted to ask “what’s happening in your life that you’re bringing to this meeting?” and my cousin had just died and I was like “I’m not going to tell you what’s happening with my mental state right now, because this is going to bring everybody down. But I’m very happy to tell you whether or not I prefer tea or coffee”


“I was moderating a zoom thing and people would assign you and you’d bang into a room. No idea who was coming. I’d say “Hello? Right before we start, tell us your name, tell us what organization you’re from. What do you recommend to your coffee?” And that got everybody loosened up. It’s gotta be something really unlikely to offend.

“What did you do today?” is a lot easier to answer than “What are you doing with your life?”.


There are culturally appropriate questions as well. And culture doesn’t just mean “what’s your favourite alcohol?” to have a group of people that don’t drink alcohol. Certain cultures, in a professional setting, wouldn’t expect to be asked what they had for breakfast. And they would feel very uncomfortable being asked that. But if you ask them what they, what their main question from the day is, or what they hope to do, net something more connected to the, to the content there’ll be comfortable and more, or just simply asking them to introduce with their job title or something more formal.

How long to spend

Don’t spend 30 minutes doing an icebreaker if the workshop is only an hour and a half. If you have more people, do something with post-its or similar, rather than going to each participant one at a time.

But often it’s very important to take this time because it’s all in the set-up – you’ve got to set the mood in the room, your authority etc… But in situations with 30 participants you can limit responses to a word to keep things moving.

You’ve got to get everyone talking to each other. But it’s very easy for them, for them to be very lame.

Online icebreakers

With online workshops you can do things like make people get up. So sort of like, cause that’s useful as well.

Sometimes they’d been sitting at there so in the warmup you can say, “go and find something yellow, go and find a fridge magnet”

Another one, which I may or may not have talked to you about where everybody has as far but far enough back from their screen. So their hands are touching the edge of the square.”

You don’t need a huge selection

If something works then you can re-use it. There’s no benefit to inventing a new icebreaker. Your energy should go into the workshop itself.

What did you expect to get out of today?

Running a training course, you can ask “what questions have you come with?” Then gather them put them somewhere to come back to later. And you can say “yes we’ll cover that later” or “no we won’t be talking about that”.

What is the difference between the online and the offline?

If it’s an online thing, there’s a bit more scope for capturing a little bit of information about someone ahead of time and maybe just have a look and see if there’s anything that inspires you for the day that sort of takes it beyond us.

Really the differences, what you do that you can’t do it. Find something yellow in most offices. You know, plus physically everyone’s walked into the room, so you don’t need them to stand up and shake about yeah.

You’ve got this difference of holding the focus of the room. In a physical workshop there’s almost always a flip chart. As people are talking to me, you might ask them to write on the post-its and put them. You’re showing them physically where the focus is in the room. It’s like, “this is where we’re looking now, and look, I have heard you, I have listened to what you hope to get out of today. Look, it’s there. We’re going to talk about it” which in an online form is different because you’ve got to take people to a tool instead.

Post-it husbandry

I have a slide called post-it husbandry that I present up to people because post-workshop, you want to take photos of the post-its. We’ll be asking people to use a Sharpie, write in block capitals, choose the colour. So you kind of this way, so you get some training. It’s often the little icebreaker bit that people will remember.

Link to Emily Webber’s ice breakers

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