Published: November 26, 2010
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Itís the Most Awkward-ful Time of the Year

Toast!We have very few traditions here at Selby Group, but one is our annual advice for making the most of the company holiday party. Far be it from us to disappoint, so I now share with you this year’s update.

The good news for those who dislike company parties in general is that full-blown corporate holiday parties are slowly trending down, replaced by either nothing at all or simpler workday events with no alcohol. Still, the vast majority of companies will offer some sort of event, and it’s best to be prepared so you can remain at ease and make the most of it.

Corporate holiday parties and their sibling, the corporate-sponsored charity event, remain one of the weirdest hybrids of work and play that I have ever experienced. They’re 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.

As my fantastic former boss, Phil, used to joke: “This event is optional-mandatory.” You have to be there. No one may ever tell you that, but read between the lines and RSVP as enthusiastically as you can manage. When conducting organizational assessments, I hear employees express their disappointment if managers and executives skip the holiday party, even though I’m not asking the question.

Once at the event, remember that 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, “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. 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. Wow. I’ve never heard of that. Tell me more.”)

Don’t bolt from conversations with lower-ranking employees the minute you see a prospect, C-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 or product. Say hello, engage in brief conversation, offer to introduce them to others, and move on.

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, who will speak highly of you forever simply because you steered the conversation away from endless droning on about the office.

Bonus points if you remember names and introduce people to each other. Here’s a great trick for remembering names. Kirk and I swear by it, and we both do much better with names now that we’re using this trick. As soon as you are 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.

And Now for 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, too…”

 

 



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