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A Guide to Eatiquette: Surmounting Food and Drink Challenges at Events

by guest contributor, Rachel Antman *

How can you best improve your ability to network effectively at business events? Should you A) hone your elevator pitch, B) introduce yourself to as many people as possible, or C) take a juggling class?

I vote for answer C. Throughout my career, I’ve attended many networking events, but I’ve yet to master the skill of eating and drinking while networking. How can you make a good first impression if your business card has grease stains from pigs in a blanket, or if you’ve spilled food or drink on yourself – or, worse – on someone else?

Since I don’t have time for juggling lessons, I decided to ask for advice from the woman I call The Networkqueen – Deena Baikowitz, chief networking officer of Fireball Network, a boutique coaching, training and consulting firm. Deena offered several tactics for navigating the problem of two hands needed for four disparate uses – eating, drinking, shaking hands and exchanging business cards. Networkers, she says, have the following options:

1. Don’t eat. If your time and energy are limited, skip the food completely. Of course, it’s hard to justify abstinence if you’ve paid anywhere from $20-$120 to attend an event. And networking can be tiring – you need sustenance to keep your energy levels up. That said, you can always eat before the event or make dinner plans after the event. For added value, invite a few colleagues and/or prospective clients to dinner.

2. Eat quickly, network slowly. Arrive on time, grab a quick bite at the buffet, then wash your hands and check your teeth for stray salad pieces.  Then get to the main course: making strategic new connections.

3. Choose food or drink and switch as needed. Always leave one hand free for greetings.

4. Enjoy the combo platter: nourishment + networking. Take a plate, stand in the buffet line, strike up a conversation with the person next to you, and take your plates together to continue the conversation.

5. If the event features a panel discussion or speaker, fill up a plate just before the presentation portion begins. Some presentations have tables for the audience; and other event organizers make it clear that it’s OK to eat in your seat (sans table). This option allows you to use the networking time to shake hands and trade business cards, and still get your money’s worth and enjoy the food.

Deena also has a plea for event organizers: For the sake of your clients, members, sponsors, and all attendees, think carefully about the purpose of the event when you order food. Ideally, food should be bite-sized. Please provide utensils or toothpicks, single servings, pre-cut portions, and food that’s not messy. Save the 12-inch stacked subs for weekends with friends and family.

I’ll add my own plea to organizers: Consider the logical solution of setting up tables throughout the networking area. This would allow us networkers to set our food and drink down while introducing ourselves and exchanging business cards.  We’d even have our hands free to applaud your thoughtful planning.

* Rachel Antman is a public relations and communications expert based in New York City. She landed a fabulous full-page article for Fireball Network in The New York Post!  We highly recommend Rachel’s services.