January 22, 2018

Gotcha – A Sure-Fire Icebreaker


Step-by-step, this is an orientation ice-breaker that works every time.

Every semester you’re looking for a new icebreaker for student orientation. Asking around, you hear a lot of great ideas that either sound way too complicated or just aren’t the right fit. You Google, ‘icebreakers’ and it gives you about 1,080,000 results in .19 seconds. After spending forever and a day searching, you find an icebreaker that sounds simple and seems fun. How hard could it be?  After all hey describe the whole thing in 3 sentences? Come orientation day, the icebreaker flops.

This is an all too common story. Most icebreakers flop because the students don’t fully understand the directions or they feel corny or awkward doing it. It ends up being a lot of work and not a lot of play. Follow these instructions… This one’s never let me down.

I’ve used this hundreds of times with thousands of students since I learned it six years ago. . Being a professional speaker and student leadership trainer, I’m on college campuses and at leadership retreats and orientations a lot. This icebreaker has never failed me – no matter the situation or size of the group. I often do it before I even introduce myself! I’ve used it with 750 uncomfortable freshmen away from home for the first time and I’ve used it in a group of five student leaders to reenergize in the middle of an intense leadership workshop. IT WORKS! 

It’s all in the details.

Follow the script! I say the same thing, the say way, every time. Over the years I’ve found out the hard way which words work and which words don’t. Each word I say and the timing of each has a reason.

STEP 1 – “Everyone take your left hand and place it up like this. Make sure nothing is in your hands – hand flat, hand open.” (see picture)

If you are facing a large group then raise your right hand when you say “left hand.” That way everyone will raise their left hand. If you are in a circle with everyone, then raise your left hand along with everyone else.

STEP 2 – “Take your right index finger and place it in the palm of the person next to you. Make sure everyone is connected to someone. If you need to reach around or move over, go ahead and do that. Make sure everyone is connected.”

Scan the audience for people by themselves or not participating. Gesture to them to connect with someone next to them. Sometimes I even say, “It’s okay to do this” or “Make sure no one is left out.”

STEP 3 – “When I count to three you’ll do two things. The first thing you’ll do is grab the finger that is in your palm… ”

(NOTE: Avoid saying “I WANT you to do two things”. This can create resistance. Some people might say, “I don’t care what you WANT me to do.”)

“…and the other thing you’ll do is to take your finger out of their palm before they grab it. It’ll look something like this.” Demonstrate the movement in the air.

“Got it? If you don’t get it, you’ll understand it soon enough. Here we go, one… two… three!”

Model high energy, big smiles, a loud count and do it with them. Give them an extra moment to laugh and talk to their neighbors. You don’t want to cut their enjoyment off early.

“We’re going to do this 3 more times!” It’s important to say that so their expectations match the length of the activity.

STEP 4 – “Set it up again, left hand flat, right index finger in the palm of the person next to you. I see that some of you are very ready…” Demonstrate with your left hand almost closed. Look around at people doing that and gesture to them as you say, “Palm flat, palm open, no head starts. Here we go, on three. One…two…three!” Again, pause to let them laugh and comment to their partner.

STEP 5 – “Okay, this time we are going to switch hands. Now place your right hand flat and open and place your left index finger into the palm of the person next to you. We’ll see how ambidextrous you are.” Give them time to switch hands. This really throws some people off. Sometimes I look at people struggling and say, “Your other right,” with a smile, of course.

“On three, but this time I’m going to trick you. Don’t go until I say three. Only go on three. Ready…one…two…two and a half!” Do this with a hard count to throw them off. Let them laugh a couple seconds… “THREE!” Again, pause for laughter and such.

STEP 6 – “Okay, last time! This is the big one. You can stretch out if you want to.” Demonstrate stretching your fingers and have fun with it.  “It’s like the gold medal round of gotcha. Okay, set it up one more time – just like you were. Right hand up and open, left finger in the palm of the person next to you. Know that I’m going to trick you one more time. Not until I say three and only when I way three. One…two…FOUR!” Again with a hard count. This will get about 30% of them and they will laugh. Sometimes you need to mention for them to set their hands back up. Do this quickly. “FIVE!” (Hard count again)…”Six, seven, eight” (count that fast)…”TWO” (hard count)…”THREE!”

It really grabs ’em by the…

What I love about GOTCHA is it addresses so many different factors that help a group connect and function well.

  • It gets people laughing, giggling and having fun.
  • It doesn’t force people to do something uncomfortable. It’s a low gradient activity that most people don’t mind doing.
  • It breaks the touch barrier without making anyone uncomfortable. It’s as simple as shaking someone’s hand. Touch actually can help ease the situation and make people feel more comfortable and connected. It’s very subtle, yet powerful.
  • It gets the group synchronized. Everyone is doing and moving at the same time and that helps creates cohesion and alignment.
  • It gets people accustomed to following your directions. And since the first thing they did with you was enjoyable and they felt safe, they’re more likely to trust and listen to you.

So put this icebreaker in your pocket and be confident you have one that will never fail you.

Troy Stende uses experiential learning-based leadership programs to help schools develop student leaders and increase student retention. He believes those two things are inseparable and has been helping colleges and universities create connections and strengthen campus community since 1998. Check out his website, on Facebook, or email him.


  1. Great suggestions! One of the hardest things to do when meeting people initially is how to actually start a conversation. I usually compliment them in someway, if I can, or ask them a question such as, “Do you know where this is?” or something along those lines. This is a great idea and I will most definitely use it!

  2. Richa Verma says:

    An interesting ice breaker. I’m going to try this. Hope this works!!

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