Rock Your Cocktail Talk

Rock Your Cocktail Talk

Though fraught with awkwardness, cocktail gatherings can be great business opportunities.

Juggling cocktails, appetizers, and business-building conversation on an outdoor patio or rooftop takes skills they don’t teach you in college or grad school. Most of us learn through trial, and, unfortunately, error.

Map out a game plan

Job one is simple: Before the evening or afternoon event arrives, identify your intent. As an experienced professional, you could just tell yourself to wing it. But I suggest you be more proactive. Your goals could be general: Perhaps you want to greet as many people as possible. Or they could be more specific, such as introducing yourself to three people who could make a difference to your company long after this rooftop gathering.

Once you identify intent, you can create a game plan from which to work. No athlete goes into the game without one. Why should you? Some cocktail gatherings are more marathon than sprint. Proper planning will foster endurance and, ultimately, success.

Intelligence gathering

Find out as much as possible about others attending. You may not be able to gather specific names, but you can ask guests you know, as well as the host (who may be in your company), about the mix of guests. It’s always a good idea to ask yourself ahead of time how a room full of attorneys offers a different kind of communication opportunity from a mixed group of bankers, chefs, and marathon organizers.

Remember, no detail is too small. You never know when you can use the fact that someone went to the University of Minnesota Morris to make a memorable connection during an exchange. Or perhaps someone just got a promotion. Use this information to help you get acquainted or further connections.

You know you’ll also meet people you know nothing about. Relax. Rely on your own communication assets to make them and yourself comfortable. Your power of observation may even come into play—isn’t that the person I read about in the newspaper?

At the event

Taking your knowledge about people, general or detailed, and communicating in a way that’s meaningful to them will equal a powerful performance. But there are other details to consider:

Food and drink. What’s appropriate when meeting strangers at an event with alcoholic beverages and finger food? I asked etiquette expert Laura Barclay of the Minneapolis Civility and Etiquette Centre to share her tips. She says it’s most appropriate to use these events “to get to know people and not focus on food and drink.” That may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how often you hear comments to the contrary from otherwise savvy professionals.

Based on your game plan, you may choose to skip booze altogether. If you do plan to drink, Barclay suggests you limit it to one and then switch to non-alcoholic beverages. There are few bigger faux pas than becoming inebriated at professional events, yet you’ve probably seen many of your colleagues and peers in that state more than once.

Alcoholic beverages and some food can also affect your vocal behavior. If you don’t want to constantly clear your throat because of the sweet tonic in your mixed drink or the dairy in that appetizer, pulling back on food and drink may be a necessity. Remember, intent is your guide. If you intend to meet as many people as possible, perhaps eating is not even in the game plan. (Barclay also notes that you don’t want to get stuck with both hands full.)

Look for groups of three or more or for someone who is standing alone, says Barclay. The focus on three helps you integrate more easily or unhitch someone to converse with without leaving anyone standing alone.

Even better, she recommends you arrive early so you can easily find people you may know. This also gives you time to look at the table of name badges and study who’s attending; even if you’re not there early, check out name badges to identify several people you want to make sure you meet.

What to wear. Remember to be tasteful. Ladies, if you wouldn’t show that kind of cleavage at work, don’t bare it here. Depending on the scene, men can lose the tie but keep a suit or sport jacket, at least when you arrive. This is when good judgment, connected to analysis of your audience and setting, will determine your game plan.

Business cards. You want people to remember you after all the conversation, so business cards are part of your overall brand, an important leave-behind to think about ahead of time. Make sure they’re clean and look professional. Above all, make sure they’re current. Barclay cautions against using a card from a former employer and scribbling an update. She also says it’s a complete gaffe to write on someone’s business card in front of them. In fact, she equates that with writing on the person. If you believe you’ll forget vital information, go somewhere private to make back-of-the-card notes.

A graceful exit

All good things must come to an end. Now, what’s a good way to leave? Thanking your host is an easy way to depart. If you’re tucked into a conversation, share something you enjoyed learning about the person and then gracefully communicate you want to say hello to a colleague across the room before you go. Don’t feel you need to make excuses. A game plan for departure is never a bad idea.

Cheers to you as you rock your cocktail talk.

Roshini Rajkumar (on Twitter at @RoshiniR and Facebook at is a communication coach, host of News & Views on WCCO Radio, and author of Communicate That!


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