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If I Can Just Make it to the First Break

Imagine you’ve been to a wedding ceremony. You’ve come alone. Now you find yourself at the cocktail hour of the wedding reception. You’re chatting with the person you’re standing next to. You both agree it was a lovely wedding. The bride was beautiful. The groom was appropriately nervous. The music was an intriguing blend of traditional and new wave. You spend the next 45 minutes being as interesting and as charming as it is humanly possible for you to be. You have pulled out not only your business card but all the stops. There is nothing left for you to say. The doors to the dining room are opened and you both reach into your pockets to pull out your table assignment cards. Surprise! You are both at TABLE 19. Summoning your charm and energy, you realize that for you and your new friend, the evening has just begun.

The first minutes of a full-day seminar are similar in many ways. You need to be personable and charming and set the stage and the climate, yet also build a solid platform for the day—a platform of credibility for the topic and for yourself. You’re in the race, not just for the sprint, but for the long-distance run. In developing and presenting a new seminar, I still spend the most time on the first 90 minutes. I find myself thinking “If I can just make it to the first break…,” the rest of the day will come together.
There are three essentials that I call part of my “Oreo theory” because it takes all of them to make it work, just as you need all three parts of the Oreo for the incredible taste.

  • Warm up the participants to you.
  • Warm up the participants to each other.
  • Warm up the participants to the topic.

Warm up the participants to you.
We’ve known about credibility for a long time. Aristotle talked about this 2300 years ago. “The character of the speaker is the most potent of all the means to persuasion.” Participants are guessing a lot more about you than they are about each other in the beginning moments. Aristotle talked about ethos. Modern day studies show ethos is made of three things: competence, trustworthiness, and dynamism.

What do these mean? Competence refers to being trained, qualified, skilled, informed, intelligent. A trustworthy presenter is kind, congenial, friendly, forgiving, hospitable. A dynamic presenter is frank, emphatic, bold, forceful, energetic, and active. Our task as seminar leaders is to be sure we are communicating some combination of the above—at best in the first four minutes.

Donna Robbin’s article TRAINEES KNOW ABOUT TRAINERS, Training and Development, October 1990, shows that effective learning is tied to specific learning leader behaviors. In a positive learning experience, the trainer is remembered as…

  • Kind
  • Fair
  • Knowledgeable
  • “Human” (humor, encouragement)

In negative experiences the leader is remembered as judgmental, dogmatic, insensitive, disorganized, and lacking knowledge.

How to achieve credibility

One idea is to creatively reference your extensive research. This goes beyond a boring recitation of numbers, instead tying the statistics into the group’s situation. For example, in leading a workshop on Effective Orientations, you could ask the group to think of you as Jane (or Joe) Newcomer, a new person in their department. Then in Jane’s character, add, “I’m one of 80,000 other Americans for whom today is the first day on the job. Overnight I have gone from being a respected member of one group to an utterly unknown quantity—a rookie—in another. It cost you an average of $6,000 to hire me. I will probably leave in 7 months; I may last 3-4 years.” The character of Jane creatively sets the stage for workplace 2000 statistics to come.

A second way to achieve credibility is to refer to the situation and to the audience. Apart from ethos, we also believe a presenter whom we take to be one of us. This is called “the assimilation effect,” and basically it says that audiences who perceive a presenter as possessing similar values to their own will exaggerate the similarity. For example, once when I was in traffic school (illegal right on red) the presenter, as a part of her opening, said, “I’m not a policeman; I’ve taught driver’s education for 25 years, and I’ve learned the rules through constant study. Most of you don’t have the opportunity to do that.” She endeared me to her with that comment. Personally, when I present my telephone workshops, I always include the 8 years I spent drumming up business on the phone 50 calls a day.

Speaking repeatedly before the same group does not necessarily give you instant credibility. You need to take every opportunity to share your credentials with the group, preferably before you appear.

Warm up the participants to each other.
Have you ever been a seminar participant where people weren’t warmed up at the beginning? Do you recall the effect? Most likely, that seminar got off to a slow start. It’s always important to do a brief warm-up. Learning is not lecture. It is based in interaction. To return to my experience in traffic school, the school presenter’s first warm-up was, “We’ll go around and tell your first name and why you’re here. At first I was reluctant, but the people in the front row were good sports and I was in the back, and by the time it got to me, I felt a part of the crowd. I clearly declared, “Right on red!”

There are many ways to warm up participants to each other, from the popular partner introduction exercise to more risk-taking opportunities such as having them compare their jobs to an item in the room and explaining why.

Timing the warm-up
It’s important to match the warm-up to the total session time. In general, the longer the session, the longer the warm-up. Fifteen minutes is about right for a day-long program; over 30 minutes and participants will begin to wonder when the program will begin.

Warm-up characters I have known
Most participants enjoy the warm-up and play along well. However, anyone who has presented for a while knows there are a lot of warm-up characters out there. Here are some common ones you may cite:

Fun and games—The person who likes to have fun
Solution: Laugh with the person, and quickly corral the behavior. An easy approach is to say something like this in front of the group: “I appreciate your sense of humor, Joe, but could you save it for the break?” My favorite responses when an someone makes an inappropriate comment early in the session are: “I’m not going to touch that one.” and “That’s another workshop.” You can find a later opportunity to separate the joker from his audience and ask him or her to quiet down.
Overtalker—The person who over explains everything
Solution: Interrupt if you have to, saying, “Thanks, and now we need to move on….”
Don’t need this—The person who give negative nonverbals
Solution: Ignore the negativity during the warm-up if it’s not harming the rest of the group. Chances are this person will change behaviors as the day progresses.
Strong and silent—The person who gives a minimum response to everything
Solution: Say, “Thank you, Joe,” and move on. Don’t force it or embarrass a quiet type, especially early in the day.

Once I was leading a warm-up in a healthcare setting that was going through a massive change; the instructions were for each participant to share their name and someone whom they worked with that they admired. The warm-up was progressing well—as it usually did—until Judy, an RN, answered, “My name is Judy and I don’t really have anyone I admire; my unit has been through this training and it hasn’t worked anyway.” This comment surprised me; I knew I had to handle it right away. The key in handling most warm-up characters is to do it right away. It’s important not to lose your credibility this early in the day; the whole group is watching.

Sure-bet warm-up ideas
Presenters may agonize over which warm-up to use, since the warm-up sends such an important first impression. These “sure bets” are warm-ups that are not necessarily the most creative but they always work:

  • Partner introductions. They are overused, but they are easy and they work. No one feels intimidated and everyone gets a chance to talk with a partner first before reporting out to a large group.
  • Self-introductions.
  • Self-introduction and expectation for the course.
  • Self-introduction and one challenge related to the course.

Three creative partner warm-ups

  • Three things about each other—one is false
  • An accomplishment you’re proud of
  • Something very few people know about you


Warming up to each other and to the topic

I prefer to combine the two. Here are six simple ideas on how to do that.

In partners, ask participants to share:

  1. One sentence that describes how they feel about the topic (write it down first)
  2. What happened in the past week with respect to the topic
  3. Their most recent success with respect to the topic
  4. Why they are a good team player
  5. Their strengths and weaknesses related to the topic
  6. Where each would prioritize this topic in their work life on a scale of 1-10

Once partners have shared that information, what should you do with it? Some ideas would be to flipchart it. When participants have arrived from across the nation, you can record their names, cities, and job titles, placing charts on the wall for the remainder of the workshop.

Here are some additional considerations for selecting an appropriate warm-up: Do they need to know each other’s names? Will there be any ill feelings about each other?  Will there be hesitancies to speak out?

In my experience, strangers are easier to engage in warm-ups than employees who’ve known each other for some time.

Sometimes the best activities are the simplest. At a recent neighborhood wine-tasting event, 90 people had a great time finding five other people who had their type of grape listed on their nametag. Here are some other simple get-acquainted/icebreakers:

  1. What would you bring to a picnic? I’m Cyndi and I’ll be sure it’s windy. I’m Larry and I’ll bring the berries.
  2. Complete a treasure hunt or a bingo sheet.
  3. Complete a puzzle piece to form a group.
  4. Find an object in the room that is most like you and explain why.
  5. Exchange name tags with a partner and introduce yourself to the next person as the name tag you’re wearing. Continue until you meet yourself again.

Here are some great warm-ups for any time in the day

  1. Form a group back massage circle.
  2. Have group raise right arm, cross over left shoulder, and give yourself a pat on the back.
  3. Throw out small prizes for participation.
  4. Stand and stretch.
  5. Throw out the ball to spur discussion—”Round Robin.”
  6. Yell out the best and worst examples of a topic, a la “The Way We Were.”
  7. Meet on the commons. Grab a partner and list all the things you have in common. The team with the longest list wins.
  8. Name six. Pass a small object in one direction around the circle and name six when the music stops.

Perhaps your warm-up supply is getting stale. Where should you look for games and new ideas? Shower guides, Tupperware parties, theatre games, kid’s game books, all sports events, all card games, TV game shows, and parlor game books like (charades) are sources you may not have considered.

There are two other criteria that are important for the first 90 minutes:

  1. Set objectives for the day. It’s important to let people know where they’re headed. Most likely, your learning objectives have been determined in advance, so this is just a matter of communicating them to the group. The objectives should tie in to the previous warm-up, and concerns and issues should be allowed to surface at this time.
  2. Start working toward the first objective. Participants need a sense of getting started—getting something accomplished. You don’t want them all in the washroom at the first break wondering when you’re ever going to get to the point.

To review, if you follow the three warm-ups: to you, to each other, and to the topic, and if you outline and start on the first objective, you are off to a great start. The planning you’ve put into the rest of the seminar will follow your successful start.

Remember the Oreo. It’s been a cookie for over 75 years in many different formats from Double Stuff to Big Stuff. The three essentials just have to be there or it wouldn’t be the same.