The business dinner is one of the most important functions I attend. Sometimes these dinners happen following a long day of meetings, sometimes they happen the day before the important meetings, and other times they are stand-alone events.
Of course, there are some tips for setting up a good business dinner. Things like – if you’re booking the restaurant, only go somewhere that you’ve been before and that has a wide range of types of food and a quiet enough atmosphere to allow for conversation to happen easily. And other suggestions such as – pick a place that has parking because you don’t want to frustrate people by making them drive around one-way streets looking for a meter spot for a half hour (I live in Boston, this is VERY important!) But these three tips are about getting the most out of the business dinner.
1 – Listen first, ask questions and keep it brief. People love to talk. And they particularly love to talk about themselves. If you’re at a business dinner, this also applies to people loving to talk about their work, the company that they work for or the business that they started. Before you start talking, let them tell you about themselves. If they don’t do it naturally, ask them some questions. If question-asking doesn’t come easily to you, plan the questions ahead of time. “Tell me about what you do” is a good starting point. Ask questions about the history of the company, the role that they play there, big contracts, their areas of growth and their plans for the future. Ask questions about their family, where they live, when they mention their hobbies, ask about those. Be interested in the people who you are dining with – that will go a long way. On the other hand, don’t talk too much. If there are two of you, you should talk less than 30% of the time. If there are more than two of you, the percentage should drop to less than 15%. And most of that time should be asking questions and talking about topics that your dining companions bring up first.
2 – Find common ground (aka don’t get on your soapbox & don’t take offense). When you do talk, make sure that your topics are neutral or related to something that they brought up first. It’s totally OK to talk about your business (you’re at a work dinner, after all) and anything related to work that you are passionate about, but you don’t want to offend your dining companion. You’re not out to dinner with friends, so you don’t know what these people think – about anything. It’s better to leave the debate for conversations between friends – you are trying to find commonalities, not differences.
If someone that you’re dining with says something with which you would normally take offense, let it go. A business dinner is not the place to correct or educate your dining companion on the places that they are wrong or that their opinions differ from yours. Of course, you should take everything that is said into consideration when you’re trying to decide whether to do business going forward – but getting your guard up is not going to help anything in the middle of a social dinner.
3 – Be likeable. This is probably the most important point of all. Even if you violate the first and second tips here, and talk too much and about controversial topics, but people like you, you’re going to be OK. Being likeable is a challenging thing to quantify, though, because everyone thinks that they are likeable. So to be sure that you can accomplish this, you’ll probably have to enlist the help of a partner, co-worker or trustworthy friend. Ask them to help you. Find out from your co-workers what part of your job that you talk about too much. Ask them what aspects of the job they think are most interesting – focus on those things. Check with your friends – the ones that you think are the most likeable – and ask them what stories you tell that are their favorites. What stories do you tell that make people laugh? What are some interesting things about you? What are some pieces of trivia about the place that you’re visiting (you can look these things up ahead of time!) What’s a quirky but interesting story that you read in the news recently? What’s something interesting about the town that you’re from? These types of stories are things that you can think of ahead of time – so when there is a lull in the conversation, you can pull them out and be likeable with your good stories, your interesting anecdotes and your fun tales.
At the end of the day, the business dinner is all about relationships. And they are often the difference between signing the contract across the conference table when the meeting moves from dinner to the board room.
Photo by swami stream
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