Do you hate waiting for most if not all of your group to arrive before you feel you can start your program?
Would you like to amplify the results of whatever you’re trying to get done without adding more time?
Are you interested in a strategy that flips responsibility for people turning up on time?
If you can answer “YES” to one or more of these questions, you’re in the right place.
I’m a big believer in the power of the ‘unofficial start.’ If this term is unfamiliar to you, click here to read more about what it is and how it can transform the results of your program in so many, many ways.
In short, an unofficial start is any strategy that facilitates early engagement & interaction and amplifies the productivity of your group and/or program.
My purpose here is to share a ton of fun, engaging and very simple unofficial starts which I have used successfully for many years all over the world with thousands of people.
These strategies not only invite people to turn up on time and be quickly engaged but also have fun, interact and begin to build relationships which positively impact on the rest of my program.
In my experience, the most powerful unofficial starts are those which:
Offer multiple choices to be engaged;
Honour people’s choice, no matter what they choose to do (or not;)
Require low or no supervision; and
Are immediately attractive and non-threatening.
When you look at the variety of ideas shared here, do not confuse unofficial starts with ‘playing games and activities.
Unashamedly, group games and activities are a powerful and attractive way to occupy idle time and help people connect, and they feature heavily in my programs. But… they are not the only way to achieve the objectives of a truly unofficial start.
Think in terms of principles. If you’re looking to leverage your time and that of your group, and also benefit from some cross-pollination (your choice of unofficial start may connect or reinforce the lesson of your program,) focus your efforts on presenting experiences that are engaging, non-threatening and invite opportunities for people to connect with one another.
If this sounds like you, then take a look at the Variations tab for tons of ideas to get you started.
Practical Leadership Tips
Click here to read more about why unofficial starts are so useful and powerful. You’ll also learn seven real-life examples, the principles of which you could apply to our own situation.
Wondering how long an unofficial start should run? This will always depend on a number of variables, including your program goals, the time available and the number of people you’re working with. In short, your unofficial start should aim to leverage that part of your program that is at risk of or is boring, tedious or unproductive.
The introduction of unofficial starts does not suggest that you need to fill every moment of your group’s idle time. This strategy may, in fact, prove counter-productive, not to mention, exhausting for everyone involved. Focus instead on this single principle – look for opportunities that would ordinarily be wasted, such as the start of your program or those moments when you are waiting for people to return from a break. If some or all of the members of your group do not know how to use this time productively, consider an unofficial start.
Pictures Tell A Thousand Words: Lay a set of cards such as Climer Cards, UBUNTU Cards or Emoji Cards on a table or the ground. Invite people to take one or more cards which reflect a particular topic you announce, eg an image that reflects your hopes and aspirations for this program, or captures the essence of how you’re feeling right now. Ask people to share their thoughts with those around them.
Rope Names: Supply a bunch of short ropes or webbing (approx 2-3 metres) to your group. Invite each person as they arrive to manipulate one of the ropes on a flat surface to write their name cursively, ie the letters all join. Award ‘bonus’ points to others who can identify the names.
Crossword Names: As above, supply a large number of cards or tiles which represent the letters of the alphabet. As people arrive, invite them to use these letters to spell their name on a flat surface. As more people join, invite them to intersect the letters of their name with those of others in a crossword-like pattern, eg M-A-R-K can criss-cross A-N-G-E-L-A in one of two places.
Video: Play an entertaining or relevant video as your group arrives. While not particularly interactive, this strategy will immediately engage those who are present and possibly cut down on the meaningless chatter that can sometimes stall an on-time start.
Story Reading: As above, but read a story. Be sure to choose a story that is not only entertaining but fun. People of all ages love to be read to and this experience occurs rarely for adults these days. Delight your next group with a short, yet fun story. Even better, pick a story that connects with the intent of your program.
Show & Tell: Everyone has something to show, tell or teach another person. When facilitated upfront, this exercise is a powerful way to inject some much-needed energy, not to mention leverage the opportunity for people to make connections with others. Take a look at Tiny Teach for some ideas.
Irony Questions: As presented by Christie Miga in one of her Playscape experiences in 2018, I was instantly captivated by the simplicity and engagement of this exercise. Post a series of (say ten) questions randomly on the walls of your space. Supply each person with a pen and paper as they arrive and invite them to wander randomly around the room in an effort to read and answer each and every question. Award prizes if necessary for those who get the most correct answers. In my experience, I was invited to read a unique scenario and then asked to identify which one of three types of irony was featured, ie the purpose was a lesson about irony. Sky’s the limit when it comes to content for this unofficial start strategy.
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Simple processing exercise using alphabet letter set.
Simple ice-breaker to connect group members to others.
Quick ice-breaker that seeks to find commonalities.
Useful Framing Ideas
Hi and welcome. My name is [ your name…] When you’re ready, come and join these folk and observe what they are doing. Dive in when the time feels right…
[ Write a series of simple, short instructions on the whiteboard, slide presentation or flip chart which invite people as they arrive to get busy with one or more activities or exercises. ]
Hi there, thanks for coming. We’re still waiting for a number of stragglers, but if you’re interested, have a look over here – we have a number of fun activities to keep you busy while we wait…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
In a general sense, it may not be necessary to invite your group to reflect on the experience of your unofficial start. However, here are a few thoughts which may be useful to you and your program:
Why do you think we started with [ enter the name of activity…? ]
How might this activity relate to the reason we have gathered today?
What did you notice during this part of our program?
Did anything surprise you about what we have just experienced? Why?
Can you describe the difference in how you felt when you first arrived and now?
The inspiration for the Unofficial Start was sourced from Mark Collard. Although, in truth, it was inspired by the grateful looks of many thousands of people across the world who valued the opportunity to be productively engaged and invited to interact in a fun, non-threatening way – when boredom and disengagement was ordinarily the only other option.