A young man was about to attend his first business dinner with potential clients. Although his boss would be the host, the young man was nervous about handling himself professionally during the meal.
I suggested that he think of the meal as a three-act play. The restaurant is the stage and he is an actor, playing the role of the guest.
But, I told him, preparation for the show starts before he leaves home. It is important that he dress appropriately. The dinner is a business activity, and he needs to project a professional image. He should know the route to the restaurant, anticipate traffic, and arrive a few minutes early. He needs to greet and shake hands with the other people in his group. Although he is not the official host, it is still his job to help others have a good time.
Here are the three acts that can help anyone feel more comfortable when dining for business:
During the First Act, you are setting the stage for the meal. Subtly review the place setting and remember the mnemonic BMW, which in this case stands not for the car but for Bread-Meal-Water. This way you will know that your bread-and-butter plate is to the left, water glass to the right. Place your napkin on your lap when you sit down. (The waiter may do this for you, or, if there is an official host, wait until she puts the napkin on her lap, and then do the same.)
Look at the menu and quickly decide what you want to eat. You will appear indecisive if you can’t make up your mind. My mantra is: Order what you know how to eat, what you like to eat, and what is easy to eat. A business meal is not the time for sloppy or difficult-to-eat dishes – stay away from spaghetti, big juicy hamburgers, and lobsters. Your selection should be in the mid-price range.
Business talk can occur after the order is taken and before the food is served.
You begin eating in the first act if an appetizer, soup or salad is served. Each course should have its own utensils and, generally, you use the utensil farthest from the plate and work your way towards the plate during the course of the meal. Hold and maneuver your utensils correctly. (No pitchfork grips.)
During the Second Act, your main course is served. (At a very formal meal, a fish course may be served immediately before the main course.) Make only pleasant comments about your food. Do not send your food back unless it really is inedible. To do so would disrupt the flow of the meal, and potentially embarrass the host. Drink any wine served cautiously and stay sober.
This is the time to talk about topics other than work. Participate in the small talk. Get to know the other people at the dinner, and let them get to know you.
In a real play, the Third Act is the most important, as this is when everything is resolved. I think it is the most important because it’s when dessert is served! Coffee is usually served, also, and this is a nice time to tie up any loose ends about business. The host takes care of paying the bill.
Shake hands with, and say goodbye to, the other guests and your host. Thank all of them for a pleasant evening. Make sure you follow up promptly on any business-related promises you made to the potential clients.
There is a lot more information on dining. Read more about business meals in When The Little Things Count.