Eat, Drink and be Merry
Imagine your boss asks you to step in and take her place at a business dinner, entertaining your notoriously oversharing and inappropriate clients. Or maybe you’re at a rubber-chicken, formal dinner sitting with your new boss and coworkers, as well as other guests who’ve never met each other. No one is drinking. Or, in a moment of total insanity, you invite your team over on a Saturday night in an effort to boost morale following company-wide layoffs (with your famous chicken cacciatore, of course).
What now? Philosophy professor Marietta McCarty, whose new book “The Philosopher’s Table” is all about having productive discussions around food, weighs in on how to get the most out of a business dinner.
Get Yourself In the Right Mindset
First things first: Ask yourself why you’re having a business dinner in the first place. There must be a reason you are sitting around a table rather than exchanging emails. What does the group want to accomplish? Do you need to close a deal? Are you trying to establish a working relationship with an agency your company just hired? Think about how you can contribute — for example, presenting new ideas, facilitating introductions — to the discussion.
Let go of any other extraneous concerns. Banish negative thoughts (the fear of high-strung colleagues clashing, for example, or of dead silence and spontaneous perspiration). Worst-case scenarios we imagine usually don’t happen. Instead, focus your energy on preparing questions or thoughts to share.
A few years ago, I had to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with my new boss and her hand-picked staff and spouses — none of whom I had met. Before the night, I looked up their bios on LinkedIn and learned their partners’ names so I could ask each couple questions about their careers. We had a great conversation.
Customize the Experience
Make it evident that you put thought into the dinner, says McCarty. If you’re the event planner, serve food from a particular region of the world, using as many local ingredients as possible. Does a big client likes Brazilian food? Find a place that plays bossa nova. If your client loves the great outdoors arrange to dine al fresco and decorate with fresh greenery and herbs. If you’re entertaining clients from another country, go to a place where they can hear their native language. Is the boss constantly playing John Coltrane in the office? Make reservations at a jazz club that serves food.
If conversation does stall, turn to universal topics. “Music is always a winner,” says McCarty. “Ask the group what music they enjoy, or if anyone has seen a concert recently.” Culture, family, travel and sports are also safe bets if you have a lull.
Put Everyone at Ease
Thoughtful planning can really put others at ease. Know three positive facts about each diner you can share with the group to prompt conversation among people who don’t know each other well. “Mary’s son is also on the traveling soccer team ... George broke the sales record last year.”
Put diners’ names on both sides of the place card so those at the table can call each other by name and avoid awkward round-robin introductions.
Do you sense that paying the bill might be awkward? Arrange to pay it in advance. Do you suspect the client you’re hosting might order the $600 Chateau Latour? A polite email about your company’s belt-tightening prior to the dinner can help prevent the boss from blanching when the check arrives.
If you're hosting, let everyone know that smart phones and tablet devices are not invited. McCarty also advises that you set an example by taking your own phone out and deliberately turning it off. Say, "Now I can really focus." If no one follows, say, “I hope we can all agree to turn off our phones so we can have a productive conversation.” Otherwise, what’s the point of being face to face?
After the meal, close the loop. Debrief your staff or others who were at the dinner and talk about any action items that need attention. Follow up on any questions raised with an email or phone call within a day. If you were a guest, hand-write a thank you note on understated, classic stationery.
Finally, write down some of the personal information you learned about each guest and record it in your contacts. Do this soon after the dinner, so the conversations are fresh in your mind. At a future point, it will likely be beneficial to know your immediate supervisor has a morbid fear of snakes (note: do not suggest company hikes!), your new client has been divorced — and sued — three times or that your new boss has a beach house on the Eastern Shore (suggest a staff retreat!). Often, the details gleaned in unguarded moments are the most valuable of all.