How can one prepare for business social settings?
July 12, 2005 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Cocktail parties, fundraisers, all the places where business and pleasure mix. What's a newbie to do? Need the insider perspective.

I am a mid-20s, serendipitously appointed executive of an up and coming performance group that is the featured event of a fundraiser. The guests at the event are prominent, though many of their names may elude me, and many are potential supporters of our group.

As the event draws near (4 weeks from now), I find myself googling corporate and executive etiquette about cocktails and dinners, two of four events for the evening (the others are a concert and live auction). Dress code is smart casual, setting is a private property which I have visited once before.

Feeling a bit "deer in headlights", but at the same time excited. How can I avoid making a fool of myself?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (13 answers total)
I have no idea, since I've never been in that situation, but here's what I do in any circumstance that I'm unfamiliar with.

1. Relax. No matter how famous/powerful/important/sexy/etc. these people are, they are still just people. They use the toilet, belch, and pick their noses just like everyone else does.

2. Brushing up on etiquette is good, but the best guide to etiquette is to pay attention to what other people are doing. This takes practice to be able to do it without being obvious, but it can be done.

3. Don't gush. Nod, smile, speak politely but with an air of confidence. Be careful not to overdo it - you don't want to look like a jackass.

4. Remember how I said relax? I mean it. Just be casual. Act like you go to these kinds of things all the time.

5. If you drink, do so in extreme moderation. Getting over the anxiety is hard enough without being plastered.

Good luck!
posted by staresbynight at 2:42 PM on July 12, 2005

hehe you said extreme moderation.

Buuut... just take it easy. Don't get smashed. Be cool. Don't kiss anyone'es ass. Ah, everyone says don't kiss anyone's ass, and everyone kisses everyone's ass.

So just don't drink too much.
posted by xmutex at 2:52 PM on July 12, 2005

I'd follow the lead of everyone else in terms of drinking.
I've worked at places where one drink a person, all night, was a lot.
I now work someplace where our fiscal-year end picnic is an overnight affair since everyone gets so sloshed they can't be trusted to drive.
posted by Kellydamnit at 2:53 PM on July 12, 2005

In terms of etiquette it seems that you wouldn't have gotten the job if you weren't somewhat versed in social graces. :^)

Therefore, you are in the delightful position of being able to concentrate on what might make a favorable impression on your guests as an executive representative of your group.

More or less imagine you are having a conversation with your grandmother (or other esteemed elder). Be polite, take it easy on the alcohol, avoid discussing politics, religion and sex (unless your group calls for discussions of such matters, I leave it to your judgement), take small bites and avoid overly messy foods (like finger foods with lots of sauce, no need to have cocktail sauce staining your shirt as you schmooze), try to remember people's names (and if you're bad at it like I am, make a joke out of it so folks don't feel so bad later), shake hands firmly and look them in the eye with a smile. You'll do fine, and you'll come off as confident and capable, two things a potential supporter might consider important.

I'd also try to find out the names and occupations of a few folks who will be attending. Nothing makes a better impression than being introduced to Mr. StuffyPants and his wife, and being able to follow up the introduction with a few questions such as, "So, Mr. StuffyPants I understand you are a lawyer. What kind of law do you practice?" Showing a personal interest in folks is a good way to be rememberd later on (and better for your career than drinking two mai tais and doing the electric slide in your underpants.) Knowing just a few facts about a few key people can go miles when it comes to making connections later on.

Best of luck!
posted by absquatulate at 3:27 PM on July 12, 2005

Just watch your more experienced colleagues, and copy what they do. Don't get a drink unless you see a coworker with a drink, etc.
posted by elisabeth r at 3:30 PM on July 12, 2005

I've been on both sides of this situation, and here is a small but key tip: be prepared to talk about yourself and your group in short, funny, charming sound bites. Chances are good that many of the people at the event know each other and are looking for a break from the typical circle small talk, so they may come up to you and say something like "I really enjoyed your performance. How did you get started [insert type of performing here]?" or "That was great. Have you guys been [insert type of performing here here] together for long?" If you have a dynamite answer all set to go, you'll avoid stammering or just expressing effusive thanks at the compliments. Also, if you can make them laugh and get a conversation going, you may well draw a crowd, and that's an awesome opportunity to get your "support us!" message out to a small group all at once.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by picopebbles at 4:16 PM on July 12, 2005

Always carry your drink, (alcohol or non), in your left hand so as you meet and shake hands your hand isn't cold and wet.

Good luck.
posted by geekyguy at 5:28 PM on July 12, 2005

Please do this:

Develop a short but generous "closer" for conversations that have run on too long. Make it definitive, promise yourself that you'll walk away. Your goal at this event is to give the important people their requisite measure of attention, while connecting with as many new people as possible. You are in a new position and for various political reasons, your face and your personality need to be seen and tasted.

If you're nervous, you'll be more likely to swim in comfortable circles, sticking with (or worse, clinging to) a set of people who make conversation easier for you. They might already know you, they might not have new questions, they might answer questions for you!

So plan now, to give everybody a piece of The Mango, but know, deep down, they cannot have The Mango.

Here are some ways to end conversations:

"Let me give you my card. I have to cut this conversation short, but I'd love to hear more from you about *."

"This has been great! Unfortunately, I'm feeling the need to get back to my boss's side to help with *. Here's my card, please call me. I'd like to hear more about *".

Use some mnemonic tricks or other memory games to keep everyone's name straight and be sure to follow up with them after the event. Events are celebrations, but many key issues are exposed outside of the traditional work setting. You'll be more effective and connected in your new position if you're able to make contact and exchange information with a broad base of your constituents as opposed to kissing the ass of the most important person in the room.

Unexpectedly useful, the Vice Guide to Everything has some nice conversation/behavior pointers.. though for these events I'd disregard #4.

Good luck!
posted by cior at 5:53 PM on July 12, 2005

Remembering people's names isn't such a big deal. I'm not sure why people make such a big deal about this, but I've never ever seen anybody--even Big Important People--get honestly offended because I forgot their name.

Having gone to several of these types of events, particularly fundraisers, all you have to do is stick to the basics. Look people straight in their eyes. Short, firm and crisp handshakes. Smile. Smiling is key. Don't be one of those people who don't smile as it's extremely key. Don't hesitate to flatter people. The places flattery will take you are infamous. Listen to people, let them do the hard part of talking. And, lastly, not every short introduction/conversation has to last forever. After enough awkard pauses just break it off with a 'It was a pleasure (or use 'honor' if you're dealing with an older person, they dig it) you, hopefully we'll meet again at X'. Since your young I'd also try to meet as many people as possible. I usually make it a point to meet every woman at these sorts of things since I go over pretty well with the ladies.

Lastly, have fun. Access to limitless fine alcohol and food is a joy relatively few get to experience. Spend some quality time at the bar and have a little bit of everything. Don't be so paranoid about drinking too much or getting your clothes dirty. Relax, have a good time, and most everything else will fall into place.
posted by nixerman at 7:26 PM on July 12, 2005

Who invited the prominent people? Could that person share the guest list with you? Maybe provide mini-bios? If they are prominent enough, perhaps you could Google the guests too.
posted by Cranberry at 11:11 PM on July 12, 2005

Compliment the host! And not just to her/his face either. Smalltalk can be hard, but you can get a few minutes and a lot of milage out of simply segueing to "what a wonderful job X did putting this together, everything's so lovely and blah blah." Linking that kind of support to the success of the group can be good too, but might be over the top. Doing so will get you a reputation as a gracious guest, and will go a long way.

Also, when someone is even a little bit intimidated by their surroundings it's really tempting at an almost subconscious level to "prove" to people that you belong. Resist this urge, which usually takes the shape of recounting a story about another large home you once visited or something.
posted by mikel at 4:20 AM on July 13, 2005

These things are supposed to be fun! Here's my answer as a Nonprofit Lady that goes to lots of this stuff.

You're there representing your group, so if the part of the even that's your gig goes off well, you'll look great. Since they will be performing, most of the conversation people will want to have with you is about your group. So be sure to have all the useful statistics at hand (budget, what the names of the composer or whatever is, when are you free, how much does it cost to book you, who are your major donors, etc. etc. etc.)

Definitely have a drink or two if you drink - nobody likes to see a teetotaller at such a thing if they're drinking - but nobody will notice or mind, really, if you don't.

Don't worry about it, really! Don't have any plan, really, just enjoy yourself. People will be coming to you! You're the star! Having the aforementioned information at hand, and knowing what names to remember for people you've got an objective about - major funders, venue owners, foundation people, etc - will be all you need.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:21 AM on July 13, 2005

I attend literally hundreds of fundraisers in a given year (mostly political).

My number one rule: do not drink at the event. Not unless you are comfortable with the crowd. It doesn't help you in any way. Drink club soda with lemon or lime.

My next rule is to know what the hell I am doing at the event. What is my purpose? Is this business or pleasure? If its business, who do I need to see, and what do I need to accomplish?

Finally and just as important as not drinking -- pay attention to whomever you are talking to. Make them feel as if they are the only person in the room you care about. There's nothing worse than talking to someone and their eyes are already looking for the next person to talk with.

Having said that, someone else mentioned that you do need to have some "closers" to move on. Remember my club soda from rule 1? "I am going to get a drink, do you need anything?"
posted by szg8 at 1:12 PM on July 13, 2005

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