A new calendar year often makes us think of beginning something – developing a new routine or habit, taking up a new interest or learning a new skill.


For the first RSVP Design posting of 2015, we explore an area that still generates lots of requests for advice and suggestions from our clients. This is also about beginning: beginning a workshop or training programme with an introductory activity.


In discussion groups and in general training enquiries these activities are often referred to as ‘icebreakers’ or ‘energisers’. These terms are frequently challenged because, in many people’s eyes, they diminish the importance of the first stage of a learning process because they have no connection to the main theme, or core material, to be addressed in the session.


Many of us have also experienced ill-thought out, embarrassing ice-breakers that have had a negative effect on our motivation and trust in the trainer. So, how do we ensure that we get the beginning of our training right?


Why use a practical, interactive introductory activity?

There are many reasons why using an early activity makes sense but there are three particularly important ones.


1. It is good practice to undertake a process of ‘contracting’ with a group at the start of any training session. A contract is the formal or informal agreement that is made between the trainer/facilitator and the learners about the expected way of working, the ‘operating guidelines’, the different roles that may be adopted and agreements about how to deal with concerns or questions. In many circumstances this is done as a discussion, with flip-chart recording of the points that are agreed. However, as many trainees have repeated this process so often, it often becomes formulaic and without meaning as learners list non-specific thoughts such as ‘open communication’ or ‘co-operation’. A well designed introductory activity encourages the trainer and learner to model the type of behaviours that are desirable within the training programme and sets the tone of the event without the need for formal agreements.

2. Adult learners benefit from cooperative and generative learning. This means working with others and using their own experience in the learning process. To support this, early introductions and an opportunity to establish working relationships are important. An experiential, introductory activity allows learners to share experiences, explore current interests and concerns and benchmark their own level of knowledge and understanding against that of other group members. This is the first step in enabling them to work together effectively during the training. It also encourages active participation from all learners, rather than from a confident and vocal minority.

3. Introductory activities can be used to ‘tune-in’ learners to the subject matter for the training, sensitising them to the key issues and also requiring them to use the type of thinking that will be helpful during the session. Therefore, an introductory activity that raises questions, illustrates points or demonstrates problems directly related to the training accelerates learning and engagement.


What type of activity do you recommend?

The best introductory activities allow everyone to contribute.

Ways of doing this can be:

  • Discussions in pairs, then four people, then building up to larger group activities

The type of discussion topic should relate the the theme of the training and should draw on personal experience. For example, in training about Customer Service, two individuals might be asked to share personal stories about some outstanding service that they have received and to identify the factors that made those customer experiences special and memorable. In Team-Building training, the discussion might be about a successful team that they participated in and the factors that contributed to team success. In a training about Change Management, the learners might be asked to line up in order of the length of time they have worked for the organisation. Each person should then be asked to think of a significant change that they have experienced whilst in the organisation and to describe to the person next to them what was involved, how it felt and how they dealt with it at the time. The trainer can then encourage sharing and summarise key learning points about personal responses to change.


  • Asking each person to contribute an idea or ideas (either verbally or in writing, such as on a large graffiti sheet or on a selection of post-it notes

This is a useful, and quick, way of generating a lot of ideas and material about a specific theme. For example, individuals might be asked to respond to a general question such as. “What comes into your mind when you think of the concept of ‘Leadership’?”

Individual ideas can be clustered and used to introduce some of the themes and assumptions that emerge.


  • Asking each person or small group to do a simple task individually then share the results with others

An example of this type of activity involves selecting imagery that represents ideas or concepts ( e.g. RSVP Design’s Images of Organisations, Images of Resilience or expresspack picture cards). Individuals choose a selection of images that have significance for them, then share these with others. Again, specific themes can be offered, such as, “Choose an image that represents this team when it is working at its best and an image that represents the team when it is under pressure….”


  • Offering a problem solving task that everyone attempts, then encouraging peer teaching until everyone can achieve the task

This type of activity includes practical group activities with a problem-solving element. The selection of these can be linked to the subject matter from the training. For example, in a session around creative problem-solving pairs of learners might work on the ‘Handcuffs’ exercise (see details in RSVP Design’s Free Experiential Learning Manual) or in a session on Communication Skills learners might be introduced to paired, back-to-back listening and speaking activities using component pieces and instructions from Colourblind Plus.

Leave a Reply