When I moved to Los Angeles early this year, I was terrified of having to create a new social and professional network. So I started throwing dinner parties to not only meet new people but also to connect people to each other in a scattered city. Through these regular dinner parties, I have met so many people in small intimate settings and these people have become both my friends and my professional network. It's been so much fun meeting people from CEOs of local startups to the Creative Executive for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie to a woman who's a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. We all hit a stage in our lives where hitting the clubs and the bars get a little boring and want something where we can have authentic conversations with interesting people and dinner parties provide that alternative. I hope you throw your own dinner parties to expand your social circle and that my 9 tips below help you do it!
1. Have 2 co-hosts: I highly recommend having two co-hosts where each of you invites 2-3 people (no more than 10 total). Having co-hosts will allow you to expand beyond your social circle and divide up the labor of inviting people. I honestly prefer to use my allotted invites to invite people I want to get to know better (e.g. someone I met at a conference or someone at work who I don't interact much with) rather than someone I already know well. You and your co-hosts should also be honest with each other - if there's a specific industry or type of person you want to meet, you should tell each other so they can invite guests accordingly.
2. Each dinner should have a common bond: It helps build cohesiveness during the dinner to have a unifying bond among the invitees. Whether it's the industry they work in, gender, countries of origin, or university, having just ONE common bond really helps the group gel. For example, one dinner we had was with just filmmakers and it was really interesting how that unifying experience helped them bond more despite not talking much about work that much at all during the dinner.
3. Don't cook - cater: If you cook for all your dinners, you'll eventually wear out. Having 2 co-hosts will help split the cost 3 ways which makes it usually reasonable. I found a great restaurant in Los Angeles that caters for 10 people at around $130 which isn't bad split 3 ways with my co-hosts compared to a night out drinking at bars. If you're on a budget for alcohol, Two Buck Chucks from Trader Joe's will help the conversation flow without breaking the bank.
4. Use Tuesdays/Wednesdays: I find Tuesdays and Wednesdays to be the best days because you don't take up someone's precious Friday or Saturday night and you're also not usually competing against other events. At first, I didn't think many people would show up on a Tuesday or Wednesday but find that many people like the change of pace! Try it out!
Our Ideal Dinner Structure (you have to have structure!)
5. Kickoff- Drinks/mingling: I recommend starting the night off with drinks in the living room where everyone can mingle. My co-hosts and I usually let this go on for an hour or so depending on the atmosphere. As the host, your role is to make sure everyone is introduced to each other and the best way to do that is lead by example by not sitting down and walking around talking to everyone. The reason behind the mingling over drinks is that during the dinner, the guests will be locked in to talk to only the people near them; we want them to get a chance to (even if briefly) get to talk to everyone before we sit down for dinner.
6. Sit Down - Dinner/opening question: After the mingling, we then bring people to the dinner table. Rather than a stale "Tell us about yourself" (or worse, no opening intros by anyone at all), we kick it off by having everyone going around answering a question that my co-hosts and I have prepared. This helps everyone become acquainted to each other in an interesting way. One question that we've enjoyed is "What are you excited about in your life right now". But this part is KEY - the hosts set the tone by how the guests answer the question. I'm big on being very authentic and trust me, if you answer authentically, your guests will too and it'll be a lot more fun. For example, my recent answer to that question was that I'm excited to move back to New York City next year. Although I've absolutely loved my job in Los Angeles, I never thought I'd miss New York City so much and have made plans to be back. If you open up, so will everyone else because reciprocity is the most universal human trait.
7. Dinner table game - Table Topics: These things are AMAZING if used correctly. We usually pass around the Table Topics cards (each card has a thought provoking question on it) and each person takes turns asking one other person the question on the card. These questions range from deep "Is it more important to have the respect of your parents or your children" to funny "If you could be any celebrities' assistant, who would it be". It helps everyone (even the more reserved people) get a chance to speak and offer their thoughts. What's really surprising is how open people can get and how it helps you understand each other beyond the surface level. This game can easily take hours and what makes this so powerful is that it helps people open up and take the conversation from superficial to a deeper level.
Note: In case you didn't notice, we don't usually talk about work during the dinner. We've learned through trial and error that talking about work is the easiest way to make the dinner an absolute bore. We've found that talking about meaningful topics beyond work helps deepen bonds with new people while also making it fun and interesting. Just my 2 cents.
8. Post-dinner - Mingle again after dinner: Once dinner is done and we've had a couple rounds of Table Topics, we usually allow everyone to not be trapped into only talking to whoever is sitting next to them and place the desserts in the living room (we recommend cupcakes so you don't have more plates to clean up) and signify to everyone that they are welcomed to stick around as long as they want. I usually hate being at dinners where I'm stuck only talking to the people next to me the entire dinner so this frees everyone up to talk to other guests. As a host, I recommend you lead by example by standing up near the desserts and just mingle around. By this time, through Table Topics and the opening question, each person will want to talk to a specific person because they were interested by their responses. So let them!
9. Email everyone: After the dinner, I always send a group email cc'ing everyone so they have each other's contact information. I also send individual emails thanking them for coming. My co-host Natalie does a fantastic job helping to create an experiential bond by emailing the group from that dinner when she wants to invite them to social events (i.e. she responds on the group email). It makes the guests feel like they went through an experience together.
We never have to stop making new friends and expanding our network and I've found dinner parties a great way to do it. What's also amazing is that these people almost always respond in kind by inviting ME to social events (again, reciprocity is the most universal human trait) and it's been a fantastic tool for getting to know a lot of people. If you have any questions/comments, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love talking about this so don't be shy! And a BIG thank you to my CEO Keith Ferrazzi who inspired me to throw these dinner parties. Mine aren't as legendary as his, but hopefully they will be!