I read a Forbes article called “The Most Connected Man You Don’t Know In Silicon Valley” when I was 16 that changed my life.
In the article, the writer discusses the networking prowess and abilities of David Hassell, CEO of 15Five where I worked for two years in roles from unpaid intern all the way to helping our advisers at Upshift Partners build the company’s first outbound sales system and overall infrastructure that has helped 15Five scale its enterprise SaaS offering to over 1,000 happy customers. After learning over the past few years from David – and later from the #1 expert in the world of professional relationship-building, #1 NYT Bestselling Author Keith Ferrazzi – how to be an incredible connector of people, many lessons on relationship-building have been forcefully (and thankfully) been ingrained into my skull.
The one I’d like to focus on here is how to throw amazing personal/professional dinner parties.
One of the things focused on in that Forbes article above is David’s old dinner party series called “The Mansion Series” where he’d regularly have everyone from Tim Ferriss, Jeff Rosenthal of Summit Series, Warren Buffett’s former pilot, Michael S. Flint, PayPal and Farmville co-founders, pro athletes, and others join for a night of fun, connection, and – perhaps – business.
Keith Ferrazzi thought dinner parties, and the ability for people to connect over food in general, was so important that he named his bestselling classic on relationship-building “Never Eat Alone”.
Over the last couple of years, and particularly during The Gap Year Experiment, I’ve been trying out various different methods and ways of going about throwing dinner parties, picnics, and other events, and so far, here’s a short list of tips to share with you (a short list only because…1) my personal/professional dinner-party-series-throwing experiment is still in the works for the rest of the Gap Year Experiment!…and 2) more thoughts may come in later blog posts and most definitely in The Gap Year Experiment when these experiences, how-to’s, and big-time lessons are more thoughtfully organized and given to the world in book format).
Whatever event you want to throw, food should be a staple of the event. Here’s some quick thoughts why:
Psychology Behind Food And Sharing Meals:
Sharing meals is one of the great communication equalizers we have in today’s age. For one thing, if you’re eating with people, being on your phone is considered rude, so sharing a meal with someone (or a group of people in this case) makes everyone focus on the conversations and connections at hand rather than the virtual world evolving in their smart phones. Everyone needs to eat, so getting people to “buy into” joining your dinner party may be easier than trying to schedule one-off coffee meetings, and if you’re the host (or one of the hosts), you proliferate your connecting abilities and time-management proficiency by having all your new friends and connections come to one event where they can see you, spend quality time, and also get the value of meeting others who may be of camaraderie, joy, and help to them. When everyone leaves the dinner party, they will remember they met one another at your event, thus keeping you top of mind in dozens of people’s minds for a few hours of your time rather than getting a dizzying caffeine rush and losing valuable time to be productive by trying to meet everyone one-on-one for coffee or tea (and you still wouldn’t be providing the same value as being a connector of many brilliant minds in a dinner party scenario ). Be smart, savvy, and of more service to everyone, and focus your valuable time more on organizing group events every once in a while (or throw a dinner party series and take the guesswork out of it while letting events take on a life of their own (see more later on).
Food As A Theme:
Food makes everyone happy, and can be used as a theme-maker or fun-maker for an event. For example, in the 2 Billion Under 20 picnic above, I asked everyone to bring one item to the party, and we ended up with a cool assortment of goodies. Not only did it give everyone a bit of “ownership” in making the event great (which actually makes for an ever better event!), but it was a natural conversation-starter about what certain items people brought and why. If someone is a fantastic chef in the group, the dinner party gives them an avenue for showcasing their skills to a wide new group of people, and at the very least, hosting a dinner party at a great restaurant adds even more incentive for your guests to join! Feel free to “theme” your dinners (aka “Mexican night” or “Fusion Fridays” where you mix different cuisines), and different meals can provide for different vibes, creating new dinner party possibilities for creative connections to occur.
Other Food DOs and DON’Ts:
DO know your guests, and offer healthier, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc options if need be. Hungry guests, hospitalized guests due to food allergy encounters, or disappointed guests are not happy guests, and at a personal/professional dinner party, you don’t want negativity looming because it will quickly impact your entire group.
DON’T feel like you need to shoulder the burden of all the prep work or costs. If you throw a picnic-style event like my picture above, or one in your home, try doing a potluck dinner where everyone brings one dish. See “Psychology Behind Food And Sharing Meals” above for more reasons why this may be a good option. If you don’t want to cook or clean, go out to a restaurant. Easy…
DO make sure that the restaurant will 1) allow you in; 2) have enough room; and 3) serve food relatively quickly. One of my dinner parties for 2 Billion Under 20 was at the Social Bar & Grill in New York back in late 2013. We almost weren’t allowed in because we forgot to mention beforehand that our party would comprise of a good portion of underage persons, and when we did finally get in (and score a free private room!) the appetizers didn’t come for 45 minutes and everyone got grumpy…sorry!!! One idea is to go to a restaurant that allows everyone to order individually in a large, cafeteria-like setting, or to go to a large space that has multiple restaurant offerings if you have a large group (which has been much more successful in our recent “This Connected NYC Dinner Party” Series I’ve been organizing lately. It will ensure people can get the food they want, when they want it, and it also alleviates the issue I’ll mention next.
DON’T leave the decision on how to pay until the last minute. If you go to a type of restaurant mentioned above, you’re set since everyone will pay for themselves at point of purchase. If you decide to go to a restaurant and order as a group, decide beforehand how many people will be splitting the bill, and perhaps ask everyone to chip in before the event starts via Venmo or Eventbrite so you’re covered. At the dinner party at the Social Bar & Grill, we collected payments via Venmo, but it quickly became a mess, and we spent the last half hour of dinner trying to go from person to person in a loud setting asking them to Venmo my co-founder so we could pay rather than enjoying our company. Handle this earlier, especially as your group gets larger, and relax.
The people make the party. You want to surround yourself with amazing people that will make the night fun, provide value to one another both personally and professionally, and come from varying backgrounds. Over the course of the various dinner parties and events I’ve thrown, I’ve had my age cohort and industry’s equivalent of David’s guest list previously mentioned show up to my events, from Thiel Fellows to published authors, TEDx speakers, top collegiate athletes, interns and team members of some of the world’s top companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, etc, editors of nationally-syndicated online and offline magazines, Forbes 30 Under 30 honorees, and others to dating consultants, other community leaders, athletic and business coaches, and even just good friends who I knew would make everyone laugh and contribute something unique to the hundreds of conversations that ensue at events like this.
As mentioned previously, you DO NOT want negative people at your events, nor do you want high maintenance folks, selfish folks, or others of the type of people that will adversely effect others at your table(s). You have to consider group dynamics when throwing events like this and craft an atmosphere where everyone is in bewilderment and awe of others’ passions, accomplishments, and lessons to share. One book I’d suggest reading if you’re a leader of any organization, be it CEO, dinner party host, charity leader, school club leader, teacher, or any other leader of people is called “Tribal Leadership”. Essentially, the highest form of community culture is one where people are in complete awe of those they are surrounded by, which boosts their own confidence as well and leads to the personal fun, valuable professional connections (notice how I hate the term “networking”…I prefer “connecting”), and value that everyone is seeking by joining you for an evening.
When it comes to organizing the event itself, it can be a very good idea to partner with other connected people in slightly different fields of interest to co-host the event. I’ve done that over the last few months with the recent “This Connected NYC Dinner Salon” dinner party series that will have its fourth event in early February. By partnering up with a few highly-connected friends of mine (a couple of whom are members of my personal “connectors” mastermind group…meaning they are indeed highly connected and, by me, highly trusted), the dinner parties have grown 3X to 4X in size, and I get access to interesting, unique, and value-adding people for my personal and professional life that I would otherwise not have met so easily and naturally. Co-hosting events can also make splitting costs, organizing time, and logistical concerns easier to manage. Win-win-win.
I could go on and on about the “people” aspect of your events, but I’m trying to keep this a short guide :).
If you take care of the food and people, you shouldn’t need this part. Consider my advice on activities and interaction catalysts as the candle atop the birthday cake, but some of these ideas or suggestions may take your event over-the-top and create extremely meaningful suggestions.
Perhaps my favorite “activity” to-date that I’ve ran at a dinner party consisted of writing various “Questions To Spark Authenticity”, courtesy of my NYC Dinner Party Series co-host and good friend Steve Dean (with help from another good friend Tara Byrne), on Post-It notes, handing them out to our friends and guests who joined us for our last dinner party I helped host the first week of December, 2014, and asking them to ask each other the questions, and then swap question cards when they were finished, giving each a new conversation starter to try out with a different conversation partner. These questions, ranging from, “What is something you would happily fail at?” to “What does your inner child want?” are designed to cut through the BS we get in most networking situations, where “How can we work together?” and (my least favorite question of all-time, not because I’m not proud of what I do, but rather how impersonal, overused, and money-focused the question is) “So, what do you do?”, and instead get us quickly to the stuff that matters…the stuff that creates deep, meaningful personal and professional relationships that last for lengthy periods of time and set the foundation for amazing partnerships (both personally and professionally, again) moving forward.
When we did this at our last event, the depth of conversation was the highest I’d ever seen at one of my events, and it shows. When I posted an invitation to our next event in NYC upon my return to the U.S. in February, over 50 people RSVP’d or replied “Maybe” on Facebook within a day or two of the posting. People are getting tremendous value, fun, and connections out of these events, and it is in part due to our care in creating conversations and activities like this.
My second favorite activity was a variation of speed-dating where, with 30 or so people at an event in November, we split the group up on two sides of a very long table, and gave each partnership about three minutes to connect before yelling “switch!” to indicate that one side of the table was to move to the next partnership. We did this after everyone finished eating, and although there was a certain level of cheesiness to it (I’ve actually gone speed-dating, where I was easily the youngest person in the room, and actually had a wonderful time since you find out immediately if there’s chemistry or not within just 5 minutes of talking to someone in person….beats Tinder for sure!), everyone seemed to love the fact that they were able to get a quick sample of all the diverse personalities, professional offerings, and types of people at that dinner, with which they were able to follow up with those they connected with most for the last couple hours of the night either at the dinner venue or during our after-dinner-party plans. This activity would work best in a secluded part of a restaurant or at someone’s personal home/venue, and I’d recommend trying it once if your dinner party group is about 20-40 people and few people know one another.
There are so many unique, fun things you can make a group of people do to interact with one another and walk away more connected, fulfilled, and excited than they were when they began dinner. I can honestly say that both romantic relationships and powerhouse business connections, deals, and partnerships have been created due to collisions at the dinner parties I’ve hosted or help co-host, so be creative and try new things out each time you host an event! Make it your own experiment.
One thing I would do, however, is know your people. Know what they will go for, and know the circumstances from which they are joining you (Are they coming from work and need adequate time to get to the venue? Are you at a conference and certain events or other dinner parties are going on? What do these people like to do for fun, and what type of projects do they generally work on?). One time, I hosted a morning run at the last Thiel Foundation conference, to be held the morning of the conference’s first talks and official activities. While 50+ people RSVP’d to join for an easy, 3 mile morning run, I attempted to look past the fact that we were in Las Vegas, and that the night before was a Friday night, meaning everyone was going to go out the night before and require the extra hour or two of sleep before festivities began. We ended up with a decent group of 8-10 runners in the morning anyways, but like last Summits, a dinner party the night before would have yielded a better turnout.
Use these tips, tricks, and ideas to begin hosting some personal/professional dinner parties of your own, and let me know the results! I think you’ll find that everyone will walk away with a new friend, a great intro or two for their business, and a big smile on their face.