Many corporate holiday parties are among the weirdest hybrids of work and play that I have ever experienced. Few companies are able to seamlessly blend the two, so the parties become a veritable minefield in which if you perform well, absolutely no one will remember you, and if you perform poorly, everyone will remember you for years to come – for all the wrong reasons.
In the spirit of ensuring the former and not the later, I offer this simple advice to avoid awkwardness and create a pleasant atmosphere, without excess effort.
Question: I don’t really like parties, and I have a lot of work to do before year-end. Do I really have to go?
As my fantastic former boss used to deadpan: “Folks, this event is optional-mandatory.”
Yes, you have to go and you have to stay for the whole thing, or at least until 60 minutes before the scheduled end time. No one may ever tell you that, but read between the lines and RSVP with enthusiasm, even if you hate parties.
Why am I so unyielding in this advice? When I interview employees about their work experiences, they tell my how let down they were when managers and executives skipped the holiday party and other optional team-building events, even though I don’t ever ask the question specifically. Employees do all of the work to make this party happen, in addition to their regular duties, and it’s more trouble than you think.
It’s also often the case that while this particular party may or may not be important to you, for some of your staff, it will be the nicest, kindest, and most festive thing they do through the whole holiday season, so step up with a smile and do your bit to make it a great experience for them.
Question: I’m no good at small talk. What should I say?
Here’s the good news: it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you ask.
Nobody really cares what you do for a living or what projects you’re working on. Yet, in American culture, like work-a-holic lemmings, we instinctively ask the spouses (or “plus one’s”), “What do you do?” and we ask co-workers, “What projects are you working on?”
Become the greatest conversationalist they’ve ever met in their entire lives by not asking about work at all. Try, “What interests you outside of work?”, “What are you doing these days for fun?”, “What are your kids up to?”, or anything else that invites conversation on a subject of interest other than work.
Follow-up questions help, too. (“You do scrapbooking with your friends. I didn’t realize that was a group hobby. How did you become interested in it?” “So your teenagers are budding Oaklandish t-shirt designers. I’ve never heard of that. Tell me more.”)
Don’t bolt from conversations with lower-ranking employees the minute you see a prospect, E-suite executive, or other prestigious individual. With few exceptions, you’ll not only be laughed at by the people you abandon, but you’ll be laughed at by the VIP’s, too.
Speaking of VIP’s, the holiday party is not the place to corner VIP’s with your great idea for the business. Say hello, engage in brief conversation, offer to introduce them to others, and move on. It’s o.k. to follow up with your business ideas after the party, but during the party, leave it alone.
If the event involves sitting down to eat, introduce yourself to every person at your table, and talk with each of them at some point during dinner, including the spouses and guests, who will speak highly of you forever simply because you steered the conversation away from endless droning on about the office.
Question: These events are embarrassing because I can’t remember names. Can I get better at this?
You get major bonus points if you remember names and introduce people to each other. It’s worth putting in the extra effort to learn how.
Here’s a great trick for remembering names. Kirk and I swear by it. As soon as you’re introduced, say the individual’s name, as in, “Pleased to meet you, Kate.” Then use it two more times early in the conversation. The repetition makes it stick in your head like glue.
And Now, my Favorite Tip for a Sit-Down Meal….
When you sit down next to the CEO, avoid eating his or her food by remembering that your bread plate is to the left and your drink is to the right. Cue yourself by forming an “o” with your index finger and thumb. On the left hand, this forms the letter “b” for bread, and on the right hand, the letter “d” for drink.
Try it now. See? Nifty, huh?
Don’t worry about getting caught doing this. It’s a sure-fire conversation starter. For example, the person next you just might say, “Ah, I see you read Traveling Light…”
Let me know how it goes in the comments!