Many professionals are intrigued by the idea of hosting their own networking event. After all, there are clear professional benefits to becoming known as a connector, and if you’re an introvert, you can create events optimized for how you prefer to socialize. But various facets of the process can be stressful: Where should you hold a networking event? Who pays for it? How can you avoid awkward silences? Here are four key logistical points to ensure your gathering is a success: First, decide where to hold your event. Next, determine how to handle payment. Then you want to consider sharing information about the guest list in advance. Finally, know how to direct the conversation.
Many professionals are intrigued by the idea of hosting their own networking event. After all, there are clear professional benefits to becoming known as a connector, and if you’re an introvert, you can create events optimized for how you prefer to socialize.
Over the past five years, I’ve hosted nearly 80 networking dinners — and have opined about various facets of the process, including how to create the right guest list. But often, it’s the little details that get in the way: Where should you hold a networking event? Who pays for it? How can you avoid awkward silences? Here are four key logistical points to ensure your gathering is a success.
First, decide where to hold your event. If you’re a fantastic cook, you may love the thought of inviting people over to your home. Indeed, you can often have a much more intimate experience there, since you won’t be competing with the din of a crowd or being rushed out by a testy waiter. But the logistics can be difficult.
I was mortified to discover that the first dinner I cooked at my place — for only six people — didn’t jibe with the dietary needs of two attendees. I hardly had time to network because I was busy making last minute adjustments in the kitchen. If you’d truly prefer to host your events at home, consider hiring a chef or at least recruiting servers, so you actually have time to socialize with your guests — and make sure you provide a variety of entrée options.
I now host all my events at a restaurant where they’re used to accommodating dietary restrictions. Pro tip: hold your events early in the workweek so the restaurant is less likely to be crowded and noisy.
Next, determine how to handle payment. If you’re dining out, the most awkward part of any dinner gathering is when the check arrives. It’s a chivalrous gesture for the host to pay for everyone’s meal — but if you plan to organize gatherings frequently, it can get expensive fast. Alternately, it’s a logistical nightmare to break down each person’s order on a complicated check (“Who had the artichoke penne?”), and splitting the bill evenly risks being unfair to light eaters.
In some cities, it can be a challenge to find restaurants that will accommodate separate checks for large parties — my assistant called nearly 100 restaurants and found four that would — but it’s my favorite option. I let my invitees know in advance that “we’ll be going dutch, and the restaurant makes it easy by providing separate checks.” It’s an option that strikes most people as fair. After all, they’re not joining your gathering to cadge a free meal; they’re attending to converse with great people, and that’s where you should focus your energy as host.
You and Your Team Series
Opinions vary, but I’m also a fan of sharing information about the guest list in advance. Some networking dinners are predicated on the idea that you shouldn’t talk about work in order for others to get to know the “real you.” That’s a valid philosophy, but it’s not mine: I believe that for self-actualized people, work can and should be a central part of their identity, and not talking about it seems artificial. Also, as an introvert, I feel more comfortable when I know in advance who will be in a crowd so I can think about what to discuss with them.
To that end, and in the spirit of helping fellow introverts, I send out a reminder email to attendees about a week in advance, along with links to everyone’s website or LinkedIn profile. That enables them to connect afterward and — if they choose — research their dining companions in advance. If people prefer to be surprised at the gathering, they can simply ignore the links.
Finally, as host, it’s crucial for you to step up and direct the conversation. Too many hosts don’t understand their convening power; they stay passive and assume that when they bring people together in a room, their job is done. However, that’s only half the battle. Mingling with strangers is awkward, and you can’t expect great conversations to spontaneously arise. Instead, use your power for good and take the reins. After everyone has ordered, I forcibly interrupt the individual conversations going on — even to the point of waving my arms and saying, “Sorry, I just want to grab everyone’s attention for a moment.”
I explain that taking a few moments to do group introductions will give everyone a better sense of who is at the table, so that later in the evening, they’ll know who they’d like to talk with further. I’ll then kick off the intros myself, or invite a “ringer” who has been to a previous dinner to begin. I have people state their name, where they live, some basic professional information, and then ask a bonus question that can uncover common interests among the guests. This could be anything from “What are you most excited about in your life right now?” to “Tell us about a time you took an action you felt was brave” to “What is a charity you support, and why?” That enables participants to connect on a deeper level and, once the “official” part of the evening is over, to enjoy more nuanced conversations with each other.
Hosting networking events can be rewarding, both personally and professionally. By following these strategies, you can make sure your events are a success and that participants are eager to be invited to the next one.