Networking is a critical part of relationship building and there is no event more valuable to building relationships than the proverbial “breaking of bread” with people. As a small business owner, time is precious so how do you throw and effective networking dinner?  Here are a few do’s and don’ts to consider:

Do Get a Private Room

If you care about the quality of your discussion and meal together you should care about noise, distractions and the like.

For any group of 8 people or more, try to book private rooms in a restaurant and go out of your way to pick a restaurant that has a private room, which is infinitely more important than perfect food. Your goal is to have the best possible table discussions and to have time for everybody to get to know each other on a human level and that’s really hard if you can’t hear everybody speak. If you book in an open restaurant with a lot of noise what happens is each person talks mostly to the person to the right or left of them and a bit to the person across. This is sub-optimal — book a private room.

Don’t Wing it

It’s nice to get everyone together and catch up, but let’s get real….What are you going to talk about?  Having a topic for the event will allow everyone to stay on track and focus on one topic.  Take a survey and ask what topics are at top of mind for everyone. Send out the agenda and what the topic for the dinner will to allow everyone time to prepare for the conversation.

 Once there, you should allow a period for general networking, a chance to eat your first bites of food and some casual catch ups. After the initial socializing, lead a table-wide discussion where you’re the facilitator. You can jump in to talk as well but your primary goal is the ring master and to make sure you’re doing the following:

  • Including everybody in the discussion — so calling on people who have spoken less or should have an answer to this topic
  • Politely jumping in to stop the ball hogs from monopolizing the conversation
  • Making sure the conversation doesn’t drift too far out of the strike zone of the intended discussion topic
  • Moving to the next topic if the conversation goes stale

I recommend that you have several bullet points on notecards to remind you of the topics you want to discuss so that if it’s getting a bit dull you don’t have to think on the fly what to cover. You have to read the room and the mood of the conversation but usually at some point people are talked out. At the point — often around desserts / coffee — it’s ok to drift back to general networking if need be. Or if you need a break you can announce during the main course “Please go ahead and eat. We’ll come back to table topics after the main course.” Every time is different — you have to learn how to be a great meal host.