The Art of the Icebreaker Speech: Tips for Toastmasters and Real Life

Rock your Icebreaker, whether it’s your first or your twentieth!

Why care about Icebreakers?

People make an opinion about you the moment you enter the room. Giving an Icebreaker is your chance to influence that opinion.

Whether you’re joining a new company as a junior business analyst, team manager, or the Chief Technology Officer, you will benefit from introducing yourself in style.

Whether you are a brand new face to the audience or notoriously known, kicking your presentation off with a personal anecdote is a safe way to bring everyone on your side.

The art of the Icebreaker is so valuable that I dare to say that its importance is currently somewhat underestimated.

Last week, I attended a Toastmasters club meeting where one of the more experienced members was doing an Icebreaker because he was starting a new path. Before starting his speech, he expressed how annoyed he was about having to do the “rookie project” again.

But make no mistake – while the Icebreaker is the project rookies start with, it is no rookie project.

Breaking the ice is a vital skill in your professional life. And the Icebreaker project is an excellent opportunity to practice it.

Here, have a taste of it in Susan Cain’s famous TED Talk:

Susan Cain: The Power of Introverts

Even if this was the first time you’ve seen her, she’s no longer a stranger to you after the two-minute story about her first summer camp experience. Of course, executing an icebreaker with such brilliance is not an easy thing to do. But you can – if you master the art of the Icebreaker.

In Toastmasters, the format is four-to-six minutes, and the objective is as simple as to “introduce yourself.” It might seem that having very loose instructions could make things easier, but it makes them harder.

First: Avoid these five big mistakes

Let me help you from the start by pointing out some frequent mistakes people make:

  • Overthinking the topic
  • Speaking on a general topic
  • Trying to say too much
  • Rehearsing with notes
  • Starting with an apology

Overthinking

You might feel the urge to pick the most fantastic topic – or topics – to speak about. It should be something that speaks about you and you have only 6 minutes. It should be better good! If you’re like most people, anything you come up with won’t feel good enough. That will paralyze you, delay the moment you settle on a topic, and limit your time for preparation.

Instead: Quickly write down ten possible topics you could speak about. Then, pick the one you like best. Solved. Proceed to prepare the speech.

Speaking on a general topic

Many people feel like they should sound wise when speaking to a group. That’s why they often talk on general topics, such as “Me and animals.”

But here’s the thing: General topics are boring. Yes, even when you talk about animals.

Instead: Be specific! It’s examples and particular experiences that are interesting! Instead of Fauna of Australia, tell us about “How I saw a Platypus fight a Kangaroo.” Now we’re talking!

Specific beats generic. “Kangaroo” beats “Animals”. Not literally.

Trying to say too much

Have you ever thought of writing a book about your life? A typical novel can have some 60,000 words. Your Icebreaker will be It’s six minutes – about 600 words. That is 1%.

A frequent mistake is that speakers try to say “everything important” about themselves in an icebreaker. This way, they end up trying to squeeze in too much. That makes them need to rush AND only stay on the surface.

Instead: Accept that you won’t be able to say everything. Pick just a tiny slice and tell us more about it!

Rehearsing with notes

It’s better than no rehearsing at all! However, the risk is that it gives you false confidence about knowing your material. If you’re planning to give your Icebreaker WITHOUT notes, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. If the first time you ride without training wheels is in a race – that race won’t end up well for you!

Instead: Use different ways to rehearse without notes:

  • Talk to yourself
  • Have a conversation with your friend
  • Talk on video

If there is one speech where authenticity counts, it is the Icebreaker!

Starting with an apology

Avoiding this is especially important if you’re giving your FIRST Icebreaker. You might tend to endear yourself to your audience by admitting that you’re not feeling good enough (yet).

It is likely that yours is not the first Icebreaker they hear. And since many people have such a tendency to endear themselves, you will be saying something your audience has heard many times before. That is boring and won’t score you any plus points.

Instead: Skip the apology!

By skipping the apology, you give more space to what is uniquely yours and, therefore interesting – the content of your speech—the interesting things about you.

Dive into your content. Like Susan Cain in her TED Talk.

And about the fact that you’re still not feeling 100% confident? Let me tell you a secret: The audience can’t be 100% sure you’re not confident about your speaking UNLESS you confess it. So if there are doubts in your head, in your head they should stay!

Second: Choose your topic

I said, “don’t overthink it,” but that does not mean there are no considerations whatsoever.

The first one is to find common ground between yourself and your audience. For example, if you speak at a conference for vegans, you sharing your love for argentine beef steaks won’t make you popular, no matter how authentic you are in your delivery.

You don’t need to limit yourself to “what your audience wants to hear.” But you need to consider their view on your topic.

There is no “perfect” topic, but I thought I might share a handful of “Icebreaker prompts” to get you started. Here they are:

  • Your favorite pet
  • The city you were born in
  • An unorthodox belief you have
  • The things you have on your desk
  • What you learned from your first job
  • What you remember from your first day at school
  • The #1 lesson you learned from your mum or dad
What’s on your desk? Maybe an Icebreaker topic?

Speaking to any of those has the potential of having you share something uniquely yours. See, when you’re speaking to a new audience, this is the question on everyone’s mind: “Who is that person speaking? Are they dangerous? Can they cook? Could I date them?” Okay, maybe the last two are not on EVERYONE’S mind. But sharing something uniquely yours answers many of the questions your audience has on their minds.

When you answer your audience’s questions, you build trust. When you build trust, you make it easier for yourself to deliver your message.

Third: Relax

Your Icebreaker does not need to be perfect

If you want to deliver a brilliant Icebreaker, let me offer another perspective: The worse you perform in your Icebreaker, the easier it will be for you to impress everyone with your progress in your next speech!

Perfection is a lie. Don’t stress over something that you won’t achieve anyway. Being relaxed will help you perform better.

YOU don’t need to be perfect

This also means that you don’t need to paint yourself as a perfect character when telling stories about yourself! However, you should make sure you DON’T paint yourself that way.

Especially younger speakers make the mistake of trying too hard to impress. Most often, this backfires.

This may sound surprising to you, but it’s the truth: People tend to be jealous of those who are smarter, more successful, or better looking than themselves.

I’m not saying everyone IS jealous, but it’s a natural tendency for us to compare ourselves to others, be suspicious of those we don’t know, and appear to be better off than ourselves.

Therefore: Be careful with speaking about yourself as smart, successful, or good-looking especially when you are new to a group.

For me, this is relaxing! If I tried to paint myself in the best colors, I would be nervous about someone being able to “see-through” me and call me out as an impostor. When I describe myself as I am – including my flaws – it puts me at ease. Because when someone spots those flaws later, I can tell them: “I told you!”

Some of those strangers might be your close friends three or five years later

Presenting about yourself to a group of strangers is intimidating. But think about this – you will likely connect well with this group. Maybe you will be working and growing together for the next three or five years. Some of those people are your future best friends. So even if you fail terribly in your Icebreaker – further down the line, you will have a hearty laugh about it.

Relax, smile and enjoy. After all – you’re giving your Icebreaker only once. At least, THIS Icebreaker!

All these scary people may be your friends one day.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my other posts about Toastmasters.

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