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Icebreaker: creative interviewing

Icebreaker for a strategic away day (staff team + board members, about 20 people).

  • Objective: get people to meet and connect, especially between board and team members who don’t see each other much (and also some new board members).
  • Based on: “Nosy Parkinson” in How to Run a Great Workshop by Nikki Highmore Sims (p.93)
(Photo of the page in the book) Nosy Parkinson Suitable for: groups of any size Outline: each person is given a clipboard (or improvise an equivalent) and has 5 minutes to come up with 20 innovative interview questions. They then have 10-15 minutes to "interview" the others in the room, asking one question per person and recording their name and answer. Prizes (small chocolate bars, etc.) are given at the end for the three (or any number) most unusual questions and the (three) most unusual answers. Facilitator prep. time: negligible Running time: 15-25 minutes in total Medium-high energy
  • What I did:
    • A4 template: space for creating 10 questions + names of attendees with space to record their responses (20 people).
    • Timings:
      • start off sitting in a U-shape (no tables)
      • 5 mins to come up with 10 questions (started them off with a few examples)
      • use the space inside the U shape to move about
      • 20 mins to interview others (I guesstimated 1 minute per person)
      • 5 mins for a debrief (“popcorn” around the room/group): favourite question to be asked, answer that most surprised you, answer that most delighted you, what did you notice?
  • What happened:
    • Not everyone came up with 10 questions (some needed more time, some had big handwriting!) but I said they could borrow anyone else’s questions that they liked when they were interviewed, and add them to their list. They would need to reuse their questions anyway (10 questions for 20 people) so it didn’t matter.
    • Interviewing: people started off seated, turning to the person next to them as their first interviewee. Then they crossed the room to sit next to someone else, and then they started to meet standing in the space and moving around more. The chairs were still available around the edges to sit down if needed.
    • It took way more time than I expected and I had to cut it short and move us on (so when we stopped people hadn’t got round to interviewing everyone else, I guesstimate they spoke to about a third to half of the room on average). They started sharing stories and spent several minutes with each person.
    • On the plus side – people loved it, the energy in the room was high, there was lots of laughter and excitement, and people moving round to find people they hadn’t spoken to yet, “queuing” with good humour to speak to someone who was in a conversation pair.
    • Unexpected bonus: people left their sheets behind so I have a great collection of creative questions as a result!
  • What I could do differently:
    • To focus on building connections: give people more time – we could have spent 45 minutes doing this. (As long as it’s in proportion with the rest of the programme.)
    • Instead of 10 questions, ask people to come up with 1 really good question (but define “really good”! What’s the criteria?), so they can focus on talking time. (This solution is average – it’s not the question setting that took the longest, and I might be making that harder by asking people to meet the “really good” criteria.)
    • Give people 1 question (that I come up with) that will create discussion and sharing, in line with the theme for the day; so then people focus on interviewing and recording the answers. We could do something with the answers as a group (e.g. a lineup in order of “x” that people have to find out about).
    • I’ve also seen it done where there are 3 rounds of conversation of a few minutes each with a signal when the time’s up, you’re invited to speak with someone you don’t know, and the facilitators set the questions in tune with the theme for the day.
  • Misc thoughts:
    • Generally speaking stories create connections but also they take time.
    • I like the “More than one story” card prompts, I’m sure I’ll cover that at some point.
    • My favourite icebreaker is “what’s one good thing that’s happened to you in the past year”: it always elicits a response (even when people have had a tough year), people can share as light or as deep as they want (holiday or overcoming cancer), listeners connect deeply to each others’ experiences, and it’s short and fast paced, but creates strong empathy and connection.
    • In another series of events I’m working on at the moment, the team vetoed my “one good thing” icebreaker and insisted on stories about an act of kindness (because it’s in keeping with the theme of the event). We consistently go over time (which is tricky so early in the day) even with a detailed briefing and setup that this is only one sentence, a micro-story and a light touch first conversation. Stories just take time.