I am terrified of nightclubs. I hate loud bars. And I get lost at concerts. This makes Friday and Saturday nights as a non-80 something difficult.
As soon as it was socially age appropriate, I began to shift people from raves and bar crawls into game nights and dinner parties.
My first dinner party was a quasi-disaster. There were a ton of appetizers and dessert, but not enough real food. People came really late and left early. My groups of friends did not mix well. And I ran around like a crazy person.
HOWEVER, there was a hint of goodness. I saw potential in the night and a few of my friends asked when I was going to do it again. BINGO! If even one person is into something you are doing, then you have something special.
It was time for an informal people experiment. I was going to run a number of different parties all with different variables. Test the outcomes, feel the vibe and learn how to throw the perfect dinner party.
There are some counter-intuitive things I discovered and some seemingly unimportant details that make all the difference.
Is it possible to throw the perfect dinner party? I think so. Here are my tricks.
The Secret Magic of Dinner Parties that People Rave About
You should know something about me: I am highly competitive. I don’t want to just throw a good dinner party. I want to throw the BEST dinner party people have ever been to. I also love observing patterns.
I learned that there are certain essential elements that make certain nights special, magical and extremely memorable.
Here’s what I learned:
#1: What People Remember
Look, lets take the pressure off throwing the perfect night. You actually do not have to make the whole night be a series of bangs and bings after another. In fact, people remember 3 things:
- The First 5 Minutes: What happens as people first arrive? This is something people remember most– just like an event first impression.
- The High or the Low: This one is odd, but your event has to have a high. Otherwise? People just remember the low or worse, nothing at all.
- The Last 5 Minutes: How people leave and what happens as they leave the night is the other thing that sticks with them – why? We typically evaluate the entire night right after we leave, so the recency effect sticks with us.
These are the three things you want to think about most for your event. If you nail them, your night will be awesome.
#2: Your Event First Impression
This is me right as I walk into almost every event:
I talk a lot about your first impression – how do you look, sound and express yourself in those first few seconds of meeting people. Now I want to talk about your event’s first impression. This is essential. Unlike a personal brand where your first impression goal might vary from powerful to funny to impressive, I think all events should have the same 2 first impression goals:
Comfort + Excitement = Buzz
When most people get to an event they are at worst: overwhelmed, awkward or anxious. At best: excited, energized and open-minded. We want to switch everyone into the positive state as quickly as possible. This is surprisingly logistical:
- Make it really easy for people to get into the party. Put up a sign that the door is unlocked. Put signs up on the gate of how to get in. Send instructions in an email. Remember people want to get inside as soon as possible. Make this easy.
- Start on a high. The best of all worlds is to greet people as they enter. I usually plant myself very close to the door so I can be a warm welcome. If not, you can also have a clear welcome area. Sometimes I put up a silly piece of paper that says, “Take off your shoes & coats and feel free to put on jammies. Grab a mint in the bowl below and come on in!”
- Comfort food + drink. Nothing makes people feel more at ease than a drink in their hand and food nearby. I always have drinks out and ready to be grabbed instantly. I also always offer people something fun to start. I usually have apple cider in the winter and a blended cocktail of some kind in the summer. It is a great opening question and gets people excited. You have no idea how happy people get when I say, “Would you like some spiced Apple cider or hot cocoa?!”
To make it easy, I am a big fan of chalkboard signs.
I use one when people come in with something fun or a quote and often have them by the food too.
#3: Peak or Valley?
The biggest mistake that hosts make is assuming people will have fun doing the same thing the entire night. Hours upon hours of mingling is torture for introverts and many ambiverts.
No matter how good the food, how cool the people, the idea of 3 hours of mingling around a party overwhelms most people.
It is better when you can break the party up into what I call highlights. You want to insert these into the typical breakdown of a night. Here is how that looks:
You actually want people to know these phases and then plan some programming for people to look forward to and break up the mingling. These should all be aimed at creating “Peak Moments.” People remember the worst or best moment of an event. If you do not have anything planned, this can often be the worst moment. Typical worst moments:
- Not knowing who to talk to.
- Having an awkward conversation with someone you barely know.
- Looking at your watch and wondering when it would be ok to leave.
- Not knowing where to sit or eat.
- Not having enough to eat or drink.
You want to focus on peak moments. Peak moments are the best when you reveal a surprise of some kind, when you have people laugh or when you teach something.
Here are the ones I go for:
- Revealing a special dessert or food item — surprise s’mores! Fondue! Flaming cake!
- Revealing a special or performance based cocktail – Buttery nipple shots! Flaming margaritas! Whiskey infused macaroons!
- We are playing a favorite game.
- We are playing a new game.
- We are going to do a fun new experiment.
- We are going to watch a funny video.
- We are going to hear a funny toast!
- Trying out a new conversation starter.
These can actually be relatively small. It’s basically the moment where the entire group focuses on one game or announcement for a few moments and causes smiles, laughs or oohs and aahs. At small events this is actually pretty easy. At big events I have been known to plant bowls of conversation starters around the room to allow for smaller peak moments.
#4: The Recency Effect
This is a psychological phenomenon where we tend to remember the last item in a sequence. At an event, we are typically assessing our night as we drive home or talk to our spouse on the way out. So if the last thing we saw or did was great, it optimizes the whole night.
This is why wedding favors and party favors work really well. EXCEPT when they are given out at the beginning. Weddings that place favors at everyone’s chair are terrible—you basically waste the recency effect. You are much better off having them in a basket as people leave.
I have found that people typically want to leave at specific times:
- After the first hour – this is for introverts, people who have another event or are having a bad time. That’s ok! Prepare for this. It happens often.
- After the last item is served – if you are serving dinner / dessert. No matter what time, some people will leave after dessert. Prepare for this.
- On the hour. People often make deals with themselves or their spouses—we are leaving at 10pm! We are leaving right at 6pm!
How can you optimize those last moments? I have strong opinions about this after lots of testing. Here’s how I feel, let me know if you agree.
- Don’t encourage the trickle out. I actually want people to feel welcome to leave if they need to. In fact the WORST thing you can do is pressure someone into staying. This can often turn into their low moment. So I will often say at the beginning of the night: “We will do dinner and then dessert and then take it easy.” To let people know what’s coming.
- Phase Change: Let people know if you are playing games, serving food or having a surprise. This helps people know there are phases to the night and they can leave at a phase change.
- Permission Exits: At the end of each phase I usually say something like, “Hey everyone we are going to play a game next! You do not have to play, but wanted to give you a heads up!” Or “Let’s play one more game before having dessert.” This gives people an easy out and allows me to graciously say goodbye.
I like small parting gifts but this can be a bit much for a casual party. Sometimes if I have lots of leftovers I will quickly bag up some dessert and hand ziplocks to people leaving, “here are some munchies for the road!”
#5: The Perfect Host
If you want to be an awesome host this is the best thing you should be saying all night:
“Hey! Have you met ___? I would love to introduce you!”
The second best thing to be saying all night:
“Can I get you more food / drink?”
The best thing you can do as a host is give people peak moments and connect as many people as possible. Don’t worry about being in charge of everyone’s good time. The best you can do is give them comfort and excitement.
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#6: Group Think
I have noticed that when events have a ‘group think’ moment EVERYONE likes the event more. I think it is because it is a bonding moment—but I am not sure. Let me explain. What I call a group think moment is when the entire group does an activity together or everyone has a moment of enjoyment at the same time. I try to always have a group think moment as a potential peak moment if I can. Here’s how:
- Give a toast or encourage funny toasts.
- Play games. I am a huge fan of formal or casual game nights. I have a whole post on how to throw a game night here. Even at big house parties you can have games going on. For example, sometimes I will make a toast at a big party thanking everyone and then challenging people to try to find the one person at the party who just got a new tattoo / or just moved here from Ireland / or has a fake accent. This often generates some buzz.
- Food as bonding. There is a reason I really like serving s’mores and fondue at my parties. It encourages everyone to gather around and do the same activity at the same time.
- Use props. I have a couch guest book that my friends Stephen and Christine gave me and I will often ask everyone to sign it before they go and read from it. I also love wine charms that people can talk about and food people can use as conversation starters.
#7: Your Party Spot
You do not have to have the perfect party house to throw an awesome party, but you do want to take some time to optimize it. First, make it easy for people to find things:
- The bathroom. Put up signs, make it obvious, stock it with toilet paper and soap. Like lots more than you think.
- Location changes. This might sound odd, but I have found that people will often stay longer and have a better time if I encourage location changes. Often times I set-up appetizers in a different spot than dinner and a different spot than dessert. Then people kind of circulate and hover differently. We also have a porch and try to have that as a ‘stop’ in our party circuit.
- Food. Everyone has food sensitivities these days. Make it easy and tell gluten free peeps what is and what isn’t. Tell vegans what’s safe and what is not. This is just an optional step to be kind for those guests. I like to make everyone feel as welcome as possible!
I make mine with chalkboard signs:
#8: Bottom Line
I never thought being the source of fun and merriment could make ME so happy. It might sound like a lot of work to throw a great party – and it can be. But there is nothing better than providing a fun, comfortable, open setting for people in your life.
Bottom Line: Make your party work for you.
Are you not arts and craftsy? No worries! Hate cooking? Order in or do potluck! Hate games? Blast music and make a dance party.
If you have fun FIRST, others are much more likely to join in.
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About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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