"Let's go around and introduce ourselves": How to respond to this terrible ice breaker

There's a common ice breaker at conference breakout sessions. It's the dreaded "Let's go around the room and introduce ourselves" question.

What's supposed to happen

You learn that, in addition to being a sales manager, Tim likes wind-surfing on weekends.

You do too. You find him during the break and talk. You build rapport.

What actually happens

It’s too early in the morning. There are catered muffins on paper plates.

There are 25 people are in a room. The first person starts speaking.

24 people are not listening.

They’re too busy thinking, “What should I say when it’s my turn?” They are mentally rehearsing, preoccupied. (Also, this exercise will take a minimum of 30 minutes, so they might be getting another muffin.)

Despite the downsides, this ice breaker will be around for a while. It’s useful to have a few guidelines on how to answer when it’s your turn to speak.

Here are my thoughts on how to win at answering this question.

Being entertaining is the holy grail

I tend to stick with the prompt's guardrails if the organizer mentions them:

"Tell us two sentences about yourself," or "Tell us a quick 30 second introduction about who you are and why you're here."

However, I've seen some people completely ignore the prompt, and talk about whatever they want.

The interesting part is that the audience not only didn't object, they were even happy about it.

How could this be?

When you entertain the group, you are given a free pass.

It's like reading an article online, and realizing at the end that you learned absolutely nothing new. Surprisingly, you're not upset because the article was entertaining, and therefore added additional value for your time.

A similar principle applies here. The intro was only the surface of what they were delivering. It worked because they were charming, funny, genuine, or offbeat, and you liked listening to them speak. If you can woo the crowd like this, go for it. It will wake everyone up, and the organizer will probably thank you for it.

How nervous does the event organizer look

At a recent event, I was surprised by how many people spoke for longer than the suggested 30 seconds.

Some people gave a short bio, or talked about different projects, or described their passion, or mentioned the common thread throughout their career. The event organizer seemed comfortable with people taking their time though, and the atmosphere was relaxed.

The key is to notice clues that suggest how much leeway you have with timing and the type of content. It's like driving on the highway: you factor in the speed limit AND how fast the cars around you are driving. For example, if people bring in parts of their personal life in the intro, it's safe to assume that you can do so too.

Fight the urge to get it over with as fast as possible

Know whether you're rushing because you want to get it over with, or because you're genuinely concerned with keeping the pace of the event.

You might be nervous, and  simply want to get it over with. If so, try to fight that urge.

If the audience seems fairly accepting of each person sharing more about their story, take the opportunity to practice. It's a good opportunity to speak in a semi-public setting. It doesn't feel quite as high-stakes as being on stage, but it's more than a small group of friends. It's a good training ground to feel out what you might want to say.

Half the battle is getting used to finding the words to express what you want to say, and the more you do it, the more easily you'll be able to put thoughts into words.

The last thing people expect in a conference room setting is for you to be vulnerable...

So if you are even a little vulnerable with your introduction, you create a pattern break. You become instantly memorable.

I was at a small workshop where one of the attendees started by saying, "I came to keep my friend company. I don't know anything about this event, you (the organizer), or why I'm here."

The room got awkward. An intro like that could easily go south from there.

To everyone's surprise, the woman began talking about a project she was working on. She let her guard down completely and shared how she wasn't sure what to do, and was looking forward to the next few hours of the workshop possibly leading to some ideas.

This immediately and completely humanized her. Especially with her rough start which anchored everyone's expectations low, her vulnerable few sentences seemed even more poignant. This swung the pendulum from her being potentially crazy, to someone memorable and human and someone people wanted to talk to during the break.

Speak with genuine conviction

Do your eyes light up when you talk about what you do? If not, find a way to channel that kind of enthusiasm.

Why? Because you can get away with a lot if you sound passionate about what you do and how fortunate you are to be able to do it.

If you lift the energy of the room, people will be swept up with the increase in the pace. If the three people before you droned on with monotony, and you come in with zest, the room will perk up and think, Wait, what's going on? Who is this person?

Everyone expresses enthusiasm differently. Some people are effusive, others have a grounded vibe. Do what works for you.

Lastly, it's not just about what you want to say. It's about what people would find relevant to hear. The more you connect it to what people might care about, the more they'll listen to what you share.