When you’re throwing a party, whether it’s a small gathering of friends or a blowout bash to celebrate a milestone, you want your guests to have a great time and truly connect with one another. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to get even the most articulate and friendly adults out of their comfort zones and interacting with new people. Icebreaker games can be cheesy, but a fun activity to start the party gets everyone laughing and at ease, setting a lighthearted mood that (hopefully) continues throughout the evening and makes it easier for guests to mingle.
“Everyone has a comfort zone and sometimes when an event brings together many people from different companies or friend and family groups, guests tend to stay within their bubbles,” says Jodi Fyfe, principal and founder of Paramount Events. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to get people talking—but it can be done!”
We spoke with Fyfe and a few of our other favorite local party planners to get their professional tips on breaking the ice.
You are your own best party starter.
Wendy Pashman of Chicago’s up-market caterer Entertaining Company says that it’s important to set the tone as soon as guests arrive. That means you need to be mixing and mingling—not hidden away in the kitchen. Before the party begins, think about commonalities that guests might have so you can make thoughtful introductions and integrate people from different circles.
“It’s the host’s responsibility to get the party started,” she says.
You can also get the night off to a good start by thinking about your guests’ comfort. Hand them a cocktail as they arrive, make sure there is plenty of food, and put on some upbeat music at a level that allows people to talk.
“If the room is too hot, cold or silent, that’s the worst mood killer,” Pashman says.
Try a fun-fact icebreaker.
You’ve probably tried a version of this one at the office, but Fyfe says it works just as well after hours.
“Have each guest write down a fun fact about themselves and put it into a bowl,” she recommends. “Once everyone arrives, have each person pick a fun fact out and try to match the fact to the guest. Once they do, they’ll have an instant conversation starter with someone new.”
Place cards are your friend.
For formal seated dinners, don’t be afraid to use place cards. Rather than appearing stuffy, place cards relieve guests of the awkward problem of choosing a seat. Plus, place cards are a behind-the-scenes way to ensure that conversation flows throughout dinner.
“Arranging interesting people who aren’t acquainted next to each other stimulates conversation,” she says.
Family-style food creates fast friends.
At a party, people find it easiest to talk about what’s right in front of them—usually food. Passing dishes around the table is the simplest way to get guests interacting.
“Combining an unfamiliar group with a plated dinner can be especially challenging,” says Hilary Saurer, the director of sales for private events at River Roast. “It doesn’t promote your guests talking to one another about what is in front of them. One way that we combat that problem at River Roast is through our communal, family-style dishes that encourage sharing and conversation amongst your guests.”
Saurer also recommends interactive food stations, like a s’mores or pie bar, for a more engaging dining experience.
Loosen them up with a fun theme or entertainment.
If your party has a theme or live entertainment, that gives people who don’t know each other an easy way to start a conversation. That’s why Saurer says she likes to plan events with lively themes.
“At one event we had a group dressed in 20s costumes carrying plastic machetes and wearing boas,” she says. “The whole time, guests were wondering what type of stunt they would pull. They suddenly broke out into a flash comedy routine based upon the ‘Roaring Twenties.'”
Saurer says the surprise theatrical element kept guests engaged until the end of the event, wondering what would happen next. “At the end of the day, the more you give your guests to talk about, the more they will engage and interact with each other,” she says.
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