Icebreakers for online meetings

Are icebreakers necessary for online meetings? Not always – but often.

Dr. Jo North in her home office with online meeting equipment set up
Dr. Jo North

If your online meeting is a regular catch-up on the day-to-day, it may be better to get straight to business after some quick hellos. But if your online meeting is more of a training session, workshop, team building event, innovation or problem solving sprint, it will need creative facilitation all the way through, and a great icebreaker is definitely an important part of your meeting agenda.

Benefits of icebreakers in online meetings

Fun, well-chosen and facilitated icebreakers bring a number of benefits:

  • When they are unusual or surprising, fun icebreakers positively ‘disrupt’ delegates’ thinking, get them out of the day-to-day and straight into participating in the session.
  • They bring people together, create what will become shared memories and your delegates will begin to collaborate early on – setting them up for more task-focused work later.
  • The best ones are linked in some way to the main purpose of your online meeting – so your icebreaker will provide a great warm-up for the themes you’ll be diving into more deeply.
Screenshot of May King Tsang‘s #FOMO Creation Session on Zoom as part of Atomicon 2020

12 simple and fun icebreaker activities

In this blog I’m going to share 12 of my favourite, simple and fun icebreakers for online meetings. Each of them have been tried and tested with many different group types and sizes. I’ve used them with groups of up to 30 people who didn’t know each other before the session, through to smaller groups who knew each other pretty well.

These 12 online meeting icebreakers are:

  1. Thoughts and hopes
  2. Sketch your neighbour
  3. Team treasure hunt
  4. “One thing”
  5. Guilty pleasure
  6. Two truths and a lie
  7. Quick quiz
  8. “I spy” bingo
  9. Random “speed dating” pairs
  10. Week in three words
  11. Something that represents you
  12. Create a masterpiece

Plan your online meeting icebreaker in advance

Whichever activity you choose, make sure that you plan your icebreaker well, practise it before the actual online meeting with some willing volunteers and be very clear about how you will run it, because how you open your session helps to set you up well for the rest of your event.

Just as when you’re facilitating an in-person session, there are some similar factors to consider when you’re planning your icebreaker for your online session. You still need to think about:

  • What you want your icebreaker to achieve.
  • Logistics – such as group size and any technical or physical constraints.
  • Social factors – such as how well people know each other, why they are attending the session and how familiar they are with the technology.
  • Contingencies in case your icebreaker doesn’t go as planned.

Here are the 12 icebreakers.

#1. Thoughts and hopes

Share your screen, and using an online collaboration tool such as www. to get your delegates interacting straightaway by asking them to give feedback on fun and / or serious questions relating to your sessions.

I’ve written more about in my article on Virtual Facilitation here. Essentially, it’s a fantastic tool that enables you, as the facilitator, to pose a question easily and within a minute or two, have aggregated responses from every participant showing in real-time on screen for all to see. Once your Mentimeter presentation is over, you can share and export your results and even compare responses over time to measure the progress of your delegates.

Here are some examples of icebreaker questions I’ve used with my delegates and how the results look when they are displayed in Mentimeter.

Mentimeter word cloud example.
Mentimeter word cloud example 2.
Mentimeter multiple choice example.

There are loads of options inside the Mentimeter app that you can use to ask delegates to enter their thoughts and hopes and show the results in different ways in real-time. And you honestly need zero tech skills to use the app. It’s all set up and ready for you to just type in your questions. I’m a big fan, as you can probably tell, and also want to say that I have no commercial or any other sort of relationship with Mentimeter, I just really, really like the tool!

Some Mentimeter response capture templates.

#2. Sketch your neighbour

Sketch your neighbour is a really fun and quick online meeting icebreaker that works whether people know each other or not. There are a couple of variations on this, depending on your group size.

Make sure you make it clear that this is for fun and that artistic ability isn’t important.

For a small group, simply ask people to quickly sketch their on-screen neighbour and then hold their handiwork up to the camera. It’s nice to get everyone to hold their work up at the same time as well as individually to grab a quick screenshot that you can share with delegates after the event.

For larger groups, I’m inclined to put them into smaller teams via the breakout rooms function. For a bit more collaboration and deliberate challenge, I ask them to create a sketch gallery of everyone in the breakout room using the instructions in this slide here.

Alternative Sketch Your Neighbour for larger groups – split into smaller teams via breakout rooms.

#3. Team treasure hunt

For a small group, run this activity as a single team challenge. If you have a larger group, split them into smaller teams using the breakout room function.

This is so easy and fun – and sometimes gets competitive too!

Give delegates a list of items to find and bring back so that the team can get a screenshot featuring as many of the items as possible. Every item found earns a point – so the objective is to get as many points as possible, plus you get a fun screenshot as a bonus!

Here’s the slide I use to brief delegates. When I know that I am going to be dividing the group into breakouts, I also email this out to everyone present – pre-set to be sent just a few minutes before the activity is due to start. The loo roll is a coronavirus lockdown themed item, and of course technically every photo you have of yourself is of the younger you!

Treasure hunt team photo instruction slide.

#4. “One thing”

This activity is really simple and punches above its weight in getting people to know each other better, both in online meetings and at in-person sessions. You can use it whether people know each other well, a bit or not at all.

Use the breakout room function to put delegates into smaller groups of two or three people, ask them to introduce themselves if necessary and then to share the “one thing” that they’d like their colleagues to know about them and why.

This leads to some cracking conversations and connections, even between people who have never met before.

#5. Guilty pleasure

This is really easy and often results in some memorable responses, that helps delegates to have fun and get to know each other as humans as well as colleagues, and settle into your online meetings too.

I have to confess that I have “borrowed” this one from my friend and colleague, Morgan Price.

When you’re doing introductions, ask people to share a guilty pleasure. Previous delegate responses that have stayed with me include pot noodle sandwiches, an obsession with late night B-movies and a penchant for Mr. Kipling Bakewell Tarts!

#6. Two truths and a lie

I use this icebreaker in an in-person setting as well as in online meetings. This icebreaker works as well for groups who know each other as it does for groups who’ve never met.

Each delegate has a few minutes to think of two true, interesting facts about themselves that others don’t know about them, and one plausible lie. They share their three things with each other and try to guess which one’s false and which ones are true.

You could also switch this up to Two Lies and a Truth instead.

Slide showing how to run two truths and a lie activity in online meetings

#7. Quick quiz

A quick quiz that’s fun and that relates to your topic is a great way to warm people up.

You can use a tool such as Mentimeter for your quiz (I’ve said more about Mentimeter in #1 Thoughts and hopes, above.

You could also use a special quiz app such as Slido, using the screen share function in your online meetings. It includes features such as a leaderboard, timer and scoring.

Slido website homepage showing the quiz function for online meetings
Slido website homepage.

You could also send out a quiz on email to your participants a few minutes before you’re due to start. Here’s one I used for a Time Management online session using a simple Excel worksheet. Delegates worked in small teams in breakout rooms to complete the quiz.

Online meeting time management quiz example on an Excel spreadsheet
Example of a quiz on a simple Excel spreadsheet, emailed at the start of the session.

#8. “I spy” bingo

Create and email delegates an “I spy” bingo card that they can use to cross off the things they can see in the video tiles of their colleagues on screen. Whoever spots the most, wins! You can still do this when some people are using a green screen or virtual background. “I spy” bingo can be played an an individual or team game, and of course you can change the items on the card to whatever is appropriate for your own online meetings.

Example of one of my I Spy Bingo cards

#9. Random “speed dating” pairs

Set delegates a question (e.g. “Why did you come to this business innovation session?” or whatever works for you) and then ask them to discuss that question in “speed dating” style pairs as follows:

  1. Allocate delegates to breakout rooms in pairs, for a couple of minutes.
  2. When the time is up, switch up the pairs by reallocating people to different partners in breakout rooms.
  3. Do this as many times as you need, then bring people back into the main room.

A big part of the fun is the surprise of delegates seeing who they’re paired with at the start of each round. You also need to be pretty nimble and practised in using the breakout room function in your online meeting software!

#10. Week in three words

Either by just speaking out in turn for a tech-free option, or using a word cloud function in a tool such as Mentimeter or Slido, ask delegates to describe their week so far in just three words.

#11. Something that represents you

Ask delegates to dash off and find an object from another room in their house that represents them. Give them a time limit.

When everyone has returned, each delegate shows their item and explains why it represents them. You can also do a fun screenshot with everyone holding up their items and waving to camera.

#12. Create a masterpiece

If you’re looking for a fun and creative online meeting icebreaker, use a painting of a group of people, such as this one, Portrait of a Family, by Coxcie, 1694, split your delegates into virtual breakout rooms and ask them to recreate the painting by posing, using accessories and taking a screenshot in a 10 minute time limit.

Portrait of a Family, by Coxcie, 1694

I used this one very recently with a corporate client I’m working with. It was such good fun and they did a brilliant job with it. Each group approached it differently, which was fab. Even Alfie the dog was involved, plus a green curly wig and variety of blankets and towels on heads!

Next steps

If you’re interested in facilitation and developing your professional practice as a facilitator, I’d love you to come and join me in my free, private Facebook Group, Idea Time for Workshop Facilitators.

As well as a fantastic community of likeminded people, you will get access to free facilitation trainings, tools, techniques and time savers.

If you’d like to book us to deliver some professional virtual facilitation for you and your team, or would like a one-to-one virtual facilitation training and coaching session, you can find out more about what we do here, or contact me direct using the form below and I’ll get straight back to you.

Hope to hear from you in so that we can chat about all things virtual facilitation! x

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