I’ve attended many company and client holiday events over the years and have firsthand experience in making and, later, avoiding common missteps capable of thwarting that ever-important opportunity to make a good first impression.
Whether you look forward to or dread holiday parties, here are some do’s and don’ts that can help you put your best foot forward:
Set a goal: Notice the first word in “business holiday party” is business. Your goal is to earn a business opportunity not “win the party.”
Bring business cards: It happens way more than you might expect.
Arrive early /leave early: The host or keynote speaker will be accessible early in the evening – connect with them before it gets too crowded. Leave when there’s a lull, or when the volume of the conversation starts to lower.
No devices: Leave the cell phone/Blue Tooth/iPad/Blackberry/iPhone/
Bring your own name badge: Yes, this sounds a little weird, but your name sloppily handwritten with a heavy black sharpie does not make a good first impression. Also, if the adhesive or clamp on the back of your name badge has ever ruined your clothes, you know what I mean.
Talk to strangers: Forget what your mother told you and engage the first person you make eye contact with in a conversation to see where it takes you. There’s nothing worse than hovering around “Mr./Ms. Big” and waiting to lay your witty line on them, along with everyone else.
Look your prospect in the eye: Don’t let your eyes wander around the room looking for a “better” prospect. Have the courtesy to give your undivided attention to the person you are engaged with. Politely excuse yourself by saying, “I’m going to circulate,” if the conversation is strained or if this individual is not a suitable prospect for business.
You are not funny: Unless you are Kevin Hart or Will Ferrell, don’t try to be funny. You are at a business meeting trying to make a professional connection that can help grow your business.
Active listening: Be a good listener and give positive non-verbals (head nods etc.). People are often more impressed and will open up when you pay attention to what they have to say (feign attention if they are boring the bejesus out of you).
Topics to avoid: My mom always said to stay away from religion, cars and politics when trying to be a good conversationalist, and my mother was always right. Quoting Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow will not win you many friends.
Watch the drinks: No one does business with the life of the party and they are rarely amused by them. If it’s cocktails-only, drink ginger ale or club soda and let ’em wonder what’s really in your glass.
Recap instantly: Because your device is in the car, find a quiet place to write down as many details from your conversation as you can on the back of the prospect’s business card or an index card. Sound crazy? It works. I guarantee that if you do not recap the conversation at that moment you will mess it up the next morning when you try to remember what you discussed with whom.
Identify all attendees: Ask your host for a list of attendees so you know who to connect with afterwards. The worst they can say is no and half the time they will provide it. One follow-up question for an important prospect you missed could be “I missed you at ______’s gig. Can you take a quick call to catch up?”
Put it in writing: Drop everyone you spoke to a handwritten note (not an email) the next day and include your business card. Assume they forgot who you are, and lost or pitched your business card “by mistake.”
Editor’s Note: Doug Brown is the director of development at ASTI, an environmental services firm. Brown has received numerous awards for excellence in economic development and real estate, including Commercial Inc. Magazine’s “Elite Eight,” the Michigan Economic Developers Association President’s Award and the Horizon Award Trophy from Detroit Fusion – The Detroit Regional Chamber’s Young Leader’s Organization.
If you need counsel following your holiday faux pas, contact Brown. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (We’ve gotta have some holiday fun, right?)