Best of TL: Four Ways to Rule the Company Holiday Party
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Best of TL: Four Ways to Rule the Company Holiday Party

Best of TL: Four Ways to Rule the Company Holiday Party

Many corporate holiday parties are among the weirdest hybrids of work and play that I have ever experienced. Few companies are able to blend the two seamlessly, so the parties become a veritable minefield in which no one will remember you if you perform well. Yet 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 latter, I offer this simple advice to avoid awkwardness and create a pleasant atmosphere, without excessive effort.

Question: I don’t like parties, and I have a lot of work to do before the year’s end. Do I really have to go?

As a 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. 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 me how let down they are when managers and executives skip the holiday party and other team-building events, even though I rarely ask the question specifically. Employees do all 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 employees, 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.

You may never fully know what they are going through in their personal lives. Resist any urge to be cynical. Remember, for some of them, this party is a very special event.

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.

In American culture, we behave as workaholic lemmings and instinctively ask the spouses (or “plus ones”), “What do you do?” and we ask coworkers, “What projects are you working on?” The truth is, though, that no one cares.

Become the greatest conversationalist they’ve ever met in their entire lives by not asking about work at all. Try asking, “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 VIP. With few exceptions, you’ll be laughed at not only by the people you abandon but also by the VIPs.

Speaking of VIPs, the holiday party is not the place to corner anyone with your great idea for the business. Say hello, engage in brief conversation, offer to introduce them to others, and move on. It’s OK 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. Include 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.

Another trick that works well for me is to associate the name immediately with a character in a movie, a famous person, or someone else with a similar name. The more absurd the connection, the better. If a woman introduces herself as Dorothy, for example, think, “Wizard of Oz, Wizard of Oz.” Every time you see her, the wacky connection will bring her name right to the front of your brain.

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 surefire conversation starter. For example, the person next you just might say, “Ah, I see you read Traveling Light.