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The Hard Work of “Hello My Name Is”

Effective icebreakers could be the most important element of many meetings. Here's why.

Icebreakers are contrived. There, I’ve said it. They can be awkward, superficial, and silly, and turn a perfectly relaxing date between you and your coffee at the morning breakout into an unexpected and stilted get-to-know-you event.

And yet, they might also be the most important moments of an entire conference.

Yes, icebreakers are contrived, but meetings aren’t exactly spontaneous. After months or even years of planning, people fly in from all corners to meet with others with related interests or jobs, learn, share ideas, and hear new ones. In a world where raw information is always just a click away, the analysis and networking that conferences provide are their value propositions. But the connections don’t just happen; if attendees aren’t well matched to the content or simply unwilling to engage, there’s not a lot you can do. Then again, most folks just need a nudge to relax and begin breaking down the walls between themselves and the strangers around them.

Almost universally, conference-goers want to meet one another, but that face-to-face, “hello, my name is,” glad-to-meet-you task isn’t easy for anyone except for the true extroverts in the crowd. Top executives might most value your venue negotiations, speaker selections, marketing strategies, or logistics coordination, but your bag of tricks to get attendees talking may be significantly under-appreciated tactics that actually bring your event to life. 

Our cover story this month has 13 ideas to get you started and help let your imagination fly. (Read the digital edition here.) A few years back, a colleague and I concocted an activity at our Pharma Forum conference that definitely boosted the energy in a room full of medical meeting planners. It was a take-off on MadLibs, the fill-in-the-blank stories where participants provide nouns, verbs, and adjectives without knowing what the story is about. We drafted three MadLibs; they were about traveling to the conference, planning a conference, and Pharma Forum itself—the three experiences we knew everyone in the room had in common. Based on the laughs and noisy chatter from the small groups of new attendees around the room, I like to think that many felt more comfortable walking into the opening reception a couple of hours later because they knew a few faces and had a better sense of the crowd.

Of course, we’ll never get metrics on the networking that our MadLibs set in motion, but it’s common sense. If our first-timers shuffled in to simply hear a hello from the conference chair and learn how to use the app, what’s the point? And beyond helping attendees to reach their goals, new conference relationships will pay off for your organization. Participants who feel comfortable and connected are far more likely to contribute ideas and join committees. For associations that are looking for members to take leadership roles, the first step is creating relationships. Loyalty will follow.

Meeting professionals chasing the holy grail of engagement might have no better tools than those that get people talking. Even as a card-carrying introvert, I find the benefits of an icebreaker far outweigh the potential negatives—as long as it’s after my morning coffee.

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