An SA Pro’s Guide to Engaging Any Group of Students in 5 Minutes or Less

You never know when you might find yourself in an engagement emergency.

Perhaps the guest speaker is delayed and you need to cover for 10 minutes. Or you’re sitting around a conference room table with a new group of students waiting for the last participant to arrive. 

It’s the type of moment we’ve all experienced — when everyone looks around, avoids eye contact, and slowly pulls out their phones to kill time.

But what the leader does next can mean everything. It can flip an awkward silence into an unforgettable memory. It can make strangers feel like family. It can transform a phone scroll into a key connection.

gif of a woman saying 'that sounds fun'

Some people are naturally great at filling in these gaps. They are the game creators and masterful MCs. You give them a mic and they’ll shine. But, for most of us, turning an unexpected 10-minute gap into something meaningful takes effort. It takes planning. 

This brings me to one of my must-haves for every student affairs professional. I call it Your Back Pocket Philosophy. 

So what is it?

Your Back Pocket Philosophy involves having five go-to activities you can facilitate at any moment. You know they work well; they’ve been proven to be effective. So, if you find yourself in a room full of students or colleagues with some time to fill, no sweat. You just look in your back pocket, pick the most fitting option, and start the fun. 

The Strategy

Any professional back-pocket-holder will tell you that picking your five requires strategic decisions. You can’t just show up with five random questions or games. 

Instead, you must consider the following three factors. 

Timing

You could have the best crowd-unifying game in the world, but if it takes 10 minutes to explain and 15 minutes to do, it’ll be useless if you only have eight minutes to stall. 

My strategy when it comes to timing is this: 

I have two back pocket activities that take less than five minutes, two that take less than 15 minutes, and one that takes about 30 minutes. That way, I’ll be prepared, with the perfect activity ready to go, no matter what sort of jam I’m stuck in. 

Even if I need to stall for a full hour, I can utilize all of my back pocket activities and I’ll still have an extra 10 minutes worth of material. You might think I’m over-prepared, but if your van ever breaks down on the side of the road on the way to a student leadership conference, you (and your students) will thank me. 

Group Size

Having various activities based on group size will help save the day. When you’re deciding which activities to include in your back pocket, consider how many people can participate in each. Strive to have go-to’s befitting of all situations. 

For instance, what will be your go-to if you’re in a room with four students waiting for someone to show up? How about if you’re leading a retreat for 10 students and you have 20 minutes to create community? And what is your go-to if you are facilitating a training session with a hundred participants and you only have five minutes before the next session?

Being prepared for all group sizes allows you to stay calm, stress-free, and in control of any situation. 

Reading the Room

When making your back pocket selection, it’s important to get a good feel for what your particular group of participants most need to fill the awkward silence. 

gif from Mean Girl 'well this has been sufficiently awkward'

For example, let’s say you’re outside with a dozen students waiting for your transportation to arrive. These students have never met before and aren’t talking to each other. This is the perfect opportunity to throw out a simple get-to-know-you activity. Perhaps you pick one that breaks students into small groups of two or three.  

By picking an intentional community bonding back-pocket activity, you’ll shift the energy of the group. Instead of students being nervous and not knowing anyone, they’ll have a buddy or two for the trip.

Or, let’s say you have 10 minutes to fill before a meeting about hazing, diversity, or the conduct hearing process. In these cases, you probably shouldn’t go with a high energy activity. Instead, aim to create a comfortable space for everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable sharing. 

I’ve discovered that the 10 minutes before a session can determine the success (or failure) of the entire session. The 15 minutes in between speakers can make outsiders feel like they are on the inside. And the five minutes before your meeting can set the tone for the rest of it. 

So, be prepared. Make sure you have five go-to activities in your back pocket. Your team and your self-confidence will thank you later. 

Here are my five back-pocket activities in order to inspire your own list.

5 Examples

1. Best of the Best

  • Ideal for- 20-200 students
  • Takes 15-30 minutes 

Have students divide into groups of 3-10 people. Then throw out a topic, such as the most embarrassing moment, best prank, or most unread text messages. Give each group five minutes to talk it over and select the best story. Then, have the representative from each group come forward to share with everyone. Finally, have the crowd cheer for who they think gave the best response. 

2. Eat, Sleep, Shower

  • Ideal for any group size
  • Takes 3-10 minutes

Tell participants to imagine that they just got home after camping for 24 hours. Which would they do you first and in what order: Eat, sleep, or shower? Let participants discuss their answers with a friend, then call on a couple of volunteers to share their answers and reasonings. It is a great, quick discussion starter.

3. Movie Mania

  • Ideal for 8-30 students
  • Takes 10-20 minutes

Divide the group into two to four teams. Pick a letter and ask teams to go around naming movies that start with it. Each team gets 30 seconds to name a movie. If they can’t, they’ll lose the round. You can also do this game with song titles, TV shows, band names, or celebrities.

4. Matchy Matchy

  • Ideal for 4-12 students
  • Takes 5-20 minutes

Say a topic, such as restaurant chains. Have everyone write down ten things that fit that category on a piece of paper or on their phone. As the host, you’ll also write down ten. Whoever’s answers match most with your own wins. 

Want to get more people involved? Make it a team game. Divide people into teams of four and see how many matches one team can get with another.

5. Biggest Fan

  • Ideal for 30-200 students
  • Takes about 10 minutes

This crowd favorite is sure to bring the energy. Think of it as a massive Rock Paper Scissors tournament. Everyone pairs off for  a best-of-five battle. Whoever wins within each pair stays in the competition and whoever loses becomes the “biggest fan” of the person who took them down. They follow that person around and cheer them on as they battle other winners.

As the battles continue, the number of people in the competition gets smaller while the number of fans increases. Continue this on until you have crowned an ultimate Rock Paper Scissors champion. 

gif from Uncut Gems 'this is how I win'

Needing more ideas for your back pocket? Check out these 100 icebreaker questions

What activities do you have stashed in your back pocket? We’d LOVE to hear your ideas! Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.

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Ryan Holt

About the author: Ryan Holt is an experienced creator, educator, and writer currently serving as the Assistant Dean of Students & Director of New Student Orientation Programs at Belmont University. He drinks 2 cups of AeroPress coffee a day, wears the same five outfits a week, and prefers board games over the X Games. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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