Making Business Dinners Less Painful and More Productive

When you send employees to a conference, meeting, or business lunch or dinner, one of their primary tasks is to represent your company well and to be a cheerleader for your organization. That takes training.

When you travel to conferences, business lunches and dinners often are part of the experience. The question is: What are safe, yet enjoyable topics to talk about? Conversation sometimes starts with how everyone got to wherever the conference is taking place. That’s a good start, but sort of drab and predictable. It reminds me of an awkward phone call in which the only thing the participants have in common is the weather.

At the other end of the spectrum are business dinner conversations that are never-ending—and not because everyone is having such a great time. Sometimes the conversation veers into rambling territory and no one knows how to gracefully access an escape hatch. My parents used to say they knew it was time to go home from a dinner party when people started talking about their pets. They said this in the 1970s, when most people didn’t focus on their pets the way they do today. So it usually would take until the after-dinner hour in the living room for pets to become the focus.

I found a Business Insider article by Jacquelyn Smith that offers 21 ideas for business dinner icebreakers. One suggestion is to talk about common events such as the conference everyone at the table is attending. “What does everyone think of the conference?” you could ask the table. I would note that you have to be careful to edit your own response and find ways to tone down negative comments from others.

“I’m finding it kind of disappointing,” one dining companion says.

“Yeah, it’s a joke this year,” another adds.

“Well, I’m enjoying myself,” another person at the table says. “Actually, I was part of the planning committee.”

In other words, a seemingly innocuous conversation topic can become impolitic. If you bring up the conference as a subject of conversation, you may want to say, “What do you think of the conference so far? I attended a really interesting session today.” That additional sentence allows you to direct the conversation in a positive direction.

“How long have you worked for your company?” is another question that can get the conversation going, according to Smith. It’s important to stay conscious of how you tell the story of your start at the company. As many of us have experienced, you may have started your job under duress, fleeing a bad situation or a layoff. You don’t want to leave the impression that you’re only doing what you’re doing because you were desperate. The conversation also could morph into badmouthing competitors or vendors you work with, which some at the table may previously have worked for. Be ready to quickly change the topic or offer a positive observation if the conversation starts turning into something you wouldn’t want other tables to overhear.

Speaking of which, I once had the embarrassment of bringing up the story of a scandal in the industry I was working in involving a particular individual—who unbeknownst to me was sitting at that very moment at the table directly behind where my colleagues and I were eating lunch. I was assured by one of those colleagues that the man I was talking about hadn’t heard me, but I’m not so sure. The danger of conversation at business events is not knowing who’s listening.

You also have to consider your future beyond the job you’re in. A business dinner at an industry event is your chance to softly pitch yourself for future opportunities. You can do that by asking questions about other companies and job roles that demonstrate how educated you are about the industry and how interested you are in learning more.

When you send employees to a conference or meeting, one of their primary tasks is to represent your company well and to be a cheerleader for your organization. That takes training. You may want to encourage managers to meet with employees, even those not in sales roles, prior to conferences or business dinners to review the message you want to send. “Here’s what I want to accomplish at this conference. How do you think we can do that? Let’s come up with some good conversation starters that get people talking about the things we want them to focus on.”

In the process of coming up with good questions to ask, and observations to make, employees also are doing an exercise in corporate branding and agenda-setting. They’re reviewing and reinforcing with you what is most important to your company.

Discussing and training on conversation starters, including how to redirect the conversation when necessary, can make business dinners and meetings productive—and maybe easier to wrap up before midnight.

Do you train and encourage your managers to have pre-business event meetings with employees?