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Chapter 6: How to Orchestrate the Successful Business Lunch


A few years ago, I was watching the 11 o'clock news. The newscaster introduced the next story:

And now, a story about the evolution of the business lunch. Can we say times two? Many busy executives are now making room in their schedules for two business lunches, back to back. "Oh, my goodness," I thought to myself, "how could anyone pull that off? How do they get rid of the first lunch guest in time to welcome the second? Do they eat twice? Do they pretend that each lunch is their one and only?"

I sat there with more questions than the reporter covering the story could possibly have had. Were they making this all up, or was it true? I waited through the commercial break to hear the details.

It was true. A new wave had hit. Execs were doubling up the lunch window. Why? Productivity, they said: Lunch meetings are a way of saying thank you to business clients, to subordinates, to coworkers, to your boss, if you want! It's also a way for two people to lower the tension bar and build a better relationship. And, lest we forget, every now and then some important business is conducted at lunch!

The productivity crush of the 1990s embraced this time-tested tool in the excessive manner that characterized the era: "If one is good, maybe two would be better."

Using Lunch as a Business Tool

Happily, there is good news for those of us who were starting to picture a world of four-hundred-pound, over-lunched executives. The double lunch didn't make it. We are back to the world we know, the once-a-day business lunch, sandwiched in between your power breakfast and that important client dinner.

How do we use this great business tool so that our time is spent well and our objectives are accomplished? It doesn't happen automatically. A successful business meal takes a bit of planning ahead of time, and the planning will pay dividends.

The Most Important Factor: Acoustics

Two of our family members are deaf in one ear. Because of that, I am unusually sensitive to acoustics in restaurants. We went to one very popular Italian place recently with the whole family - ten of us. The décor was perfect; there was lots of room around the tables so you weren't being bumped into as the waiters walked by. Restless children could actually stand up and walk around the table to entertain themselves when they got antsy. The food was served family style, with a variety of pasta and sauce - plenty of food, which could easily be shared. Garlic bread was everywhere, and the scent permeated the air. It was all good.

But the overall experience was all bad. These two family members couldn't hear. And I had trouble too! Sound seemed to be bouncing in all directions. We talked louder, trying to fight through the decibel level. We sat there and looked at each other. We nodded and smiled and pretended, in that brainless empty way that people do when they can't hear. And we ate in the silence created by all that noise.

Because love and genetics bind our family together, the experience did not harm our relationship. If you were to find yourself in that circumstance at a business lunch, you wouldn't be so lucky. The lunch, as a relationship builder, would be a failure. As a business meeting, it would be a failure. As a way to use time more productively, it would be a failure.

If You Can't Hear, It Doesn't Work

Bad acoustics will kill a business lunch. You can't discuss an issue and reach an agreement if you can't hear the nuances clearly. And, if you and your guest are listening hard but missing pieces, neither of you will feel good about the meeting - or about the time you are spending together.

The experience becomes frustrating. The "meeting" part of the business lunch is unsuccessful. And an unsuccessful meeting always damages a relationship. Everyone ends up a loser.

Don't think you can overcome bad acoustics. You can't. Check out the acoustics first. Visit the restaurant with a friend. Have lunch at a busy time. If you have trouble carrying on a conversation, or if you have to speak loudly to be heard, cross that restaurant off your list. Don't ever give bad acoustics a second chance.

Second Consideration: Space

A while back, when I was working at Citibank, my boss, Frank, who was a group manager, took two of his direct reports (another manager, named Mary, and me) out to lunch. The purpose was to "recognize" the two of us for the great job we had done on an important project.

The restaurant had nice décor and wasn't noisy, but the tables were pretty tightly packed. As a matter of fact, I had to move my chair a little bit to the side so that it wasn't touching a chair from the next table. We constantly had to shift chairs to let the waiter get past. And Frank couldn't back up his chair without bumping into the person behind him.

The tables were also a little too small. We had a glass of wine as part of the celebration. Gradually the table was filled with the wine glasses, salad plates, main course plates, water glasses, coffee cups and saucers, butter plates, and table rolls. Fortunately, we didn't need to have any business papers on that table - there wouldn't have been room.

But back to the story. Mary and I were thrilled to be recognized in this way and to be the sole object of our boss's attention. And for half of the luncheon, that's the way it was. But, little by little, I noticed that Frank was being distracted by a conversation about football taking place behind him. The two men at the table were criticizing and making fun of the play of the New York Jets quarterback in the previous Sunday's game. It was the kind of banter you hear in a crowded restaurant. At first I thought that was typical Frank, being distracted, since he had been a college quarterback and constantly alluded to that fact in his conversations.

Frank Is Irritated By The Next Table's Conversation

Suddenly, Frank turned around and confronted the two men at the table behind him.

"Have you ever played quarterback in college or professional football?" he asked. The startled man at the next table said somewhat defensively, "No, of course I haven't." Frank responded, "Then I would suggest that you haven't earned the right to criticize someone who has. If you don't have the talent to stand in the other person's shoes, don't criticize the way he stands in them."

That was it. He turned back toward us, and we continued the luncheon. The other people didn't say another word. No yelling. No punches were thrown. We were lucky - and relieved.

Frank explained his outburst to us: He couldn't stand to hear professionals criticized by amateurs. "They are not football players. How do they know? Let either of them be hit by a three-hundred-pound charging lineman while trying to throw a pass and see how accurate he is." Frank continued, "I'm not saying the criticisms are invalid. I just think you have to earn the right through experience to criticize someone who is much better than you will ever be."

Frank's Outburst Ruined The Lunch

Well now! I admired Frank's philosophy, but this was supposed to be our luncheon. Mary and I were supposed to be the center of Frank's attention. Suddenly we were sharing him with the fellows at the next table. And those fellows didn't want him. At that point I wasn't sure I wanted him either. Frank settled down after a while, said a few more nice things about us, paid the check, and the recognition lunch was over.

Naturally, Mary and I talked about the luncheon later. We were grateful to be recognized, of course, but we kept going back to Frank's outburst. That unscheduled event upstaged our luncheon. And all because there wasn't enough space. The tables were too close together.

That restaurant gets a "D-minus, never again" rating. It doesn't work for a business luncheon meeting. Tables must be spaced so that accidental contact is almost impossible, and there is no threat of being overheard. And tabletop space must be ample so that materials can be referred to during the lunch.

Third Consideration: The Food

Thirty years ago, there was a restaurant in midtown New York called Jimmy's La Grange. It was a popular business luncheon place for the advertising agency set. The specialty was Chicken Kiev. The owner, Jimmy, would come to each table and draw the Chicken Kiev on the tablecloth with a dark pencil. Then he would give a short talk on how it was prepared and how it should be "attacked" with a knife and fork. It was popular because the food was good and there was a "special," which, despite its flashy name, was very simple.

Today, Chicken Kiev might not be simple enough for a business generation that prefers line-caught ahi tuna and bottled spring water. For a business lunch to be successful, the food must be good, but it doesn't have to be great. If we were talking about a business dinner, that would all change, and the quality and preparation of the food would be all-important. But as you have noticed, food is priority number three, behind acoustics and space at a business lunch. Simplicity is the key. If you want the gourmet dining experience, save it for after hours. Everything at a business lunch should be conducive to discussion. That's its purpose - to make conversation flow more easily, to improve the personal relationship, to discuss business issues, and, occasionally, to arrive at decisions. That's why space and acoustics are so much more important.

How to Pick the Right Restaurant

If you are going to make luncheons an integral part of the way you do business, select two restaurants, centrally located, that meet the above criteria. You'll need two if you plan to have business lunches three days a week or more. Have lunch at each with a cohort from work. Introduce yourself to the maitre d', or the owner, or the headwaiter, as the case may be. Let's say his name is Armando.

Tell Armando you'll be lunching there frequently and that you would like "that table" (pick the one that would seem to work best for you). Ask him how you should identify that table when you make a phone reservation. He will probably answer your question by saying, "Ask for table number twelve" (or some other identification). Thank him by name, hand him your business card, give him a generous tip, shake hands, and say you'll be seeing him next week.

Armando Will Greet You

Next week when you arrive with your guest, Armando will greet you by name. (You may think that's going too far, but it's not. Don't knock it until you've tried it.) You will sit at the table you selected. You will receive impeccable service. You will be much more relaxed because you now know the place; you have the "home field advantage." Your guest will be relaxed because the restaurant is perfect for the purpose. You will accomplish more than if you were scampering around town taking potluck at different restaurants.

When you leave, thank Armando and give him another tip: the same amount every time. Don't begrudge him the money; this is how a maitre d' makes a living. From your vantage point, think of it as though you were renting a very special office space. This real estate, with its amenities, is worth many times as much as the gratuity - you're really getting it for a song.

Timing - Start in the Office

If you intend to conduct some real business over the noon hour, schedule your luncheon meeting to begin at 11:30 a.m. at your office. Schedule the restaurant for 12:30 p.m., and don't worry too much about getting to the restaurant on time. Armando will know you are coming. Your table will be there.

But you have done two things. You have the perfect environment for holding a productive meeting - your own conference room. All the materials, all the people you need, are there. You have also created an interesting psychological advantage. You and your client will both be working toward a 12:30 p.m. deadline. A subtle pressure has been created. Chances are you will accomplish more in that hour than in a normal three-hour meeting.

Timing - Finish at Lunch

Don't expect to finish all of your business before leaving the conference room for the restaurant. It doesn't happen that way. You will both decide you can't do everything in that hour, and certain subjects will have to be addressed over lunch. Nothing to worry about. That's the way it should be. The beauty of the follow-up lunch is that it obviates the delay that normally comes from needing to schedule another meeting on another day, yet it still provides a bit of a break between sessions.

The restaurant meeting becomes more productive than ever because it has a running start. The food will be good. Armando will make sure the setting and the service are exceptional. You will both be feeling good about what has been accomplished so far. The acoustics are good, so you can hear one another. You have plenty of space. It's a setting that is most conducive to making decisions or reaching important agreements.

Who Pays?

The answer, as they say, depends on the circumstances. Let's examine some of them:

Supplier takes client to lunch

This is simple. The supplier is expected to handle the check unless there is an overriding reason (anniversary, birthday, etc.) to do otherwise, or unless the client states that his company's code of ethics does not allow it.

Senior executive takes juniors out to lunch

As the title implies, it's the senior's show, unless prior agreement states otherwise. The juniors expect to be treated. "After all," they think, "the senior exec is making a bundle and can probably expense it anyway." If you don't want it that way, you have to discuss it first. Otherwise it's automatic.

Business acquaintances have lunch

A simple predialogue takes care of this. Agreement should be reached on the restaurant (pricey or not), on who else will be there, and on who pays. Asking the restaurant to split the bill between two credit cards is now a widely accepted practice. If it's a male and female, it's essential that the issue of who pays is agreed on beforehand.

Forget the old thought that the man automatically pays. Chivalry doesn't apply when the woman and the man are equals. Work it out first, and then enjoy the meal and the company.

If the situation is a sticky one and you want the treat to be on you, consider borrowing a process from many private clubs. They don't deliver a bill to the table. That way the whole process is invisible. The member pays.

You can make a similar agreement with "your" restaurant. If this is helpful (and many women in business have told me it is), all you have to do is make arrangements with Armando to charge the meal to your credit card, which you gave him when you entered. He'll return the card to you as you go out the door. All will be handled professionally and gracefully.

Your guest may still put up a mock fight and feign displeasure, but this will vanish as soon as you go out the restaurant door and the fresh air hits the both of you.

To Drink or Not to Drink?

If the boss takes you out to lunch and he or she asks what would you like to drink, the answer is, "iced tea."

There is an exception. If you are being celebrated and the boss has a glass of wine or beer, you can do the same. Drink it slowly and refuse seconds, even if the boss has another - or a few more.

That may seem overly stringent but consider this: The lunch is an opportunity to score points. There is nothing wrong with a glass of wine, but why press it? In Europe it would be different. But in this country stay with the iced tea at lunch. Do your heavy drinking later.

Another Consideration - Breakfast Meetings

Bankers invented these. Think about it. They're not as functional as the business luncheon described above, but they are sometimes easier to arrange, and they have a lot of value.

Breakfast tends to be shorter, with fewer interruptions for various courses and such. There is less on the table, so you can more easily carve a workspace. The duration is shorter, so you will both feel you are using your time wisely. And no major crises have yet arisen to cloud your focus and ruin the day. No wonder they're called power breakfasts.

The IceBreaker

We always wonder what the "icebreaker" conversation should be about when we are out with a client or with senior people in our own company.

The New York Times, with the help of BBDO advertising agency, had a great advertising campaign years ago that encouraged folks to read the New York Times to aid them in their business discussions. The headline was: "Did you pay your share during lunch yesterday?"

The campaign was a play on words. The point was that a good lunch partner (or breakfast partner) contributes to the content of the discussions. So make sure you "pay your share" and are well-read on the day's events, especially in the areas of interest to your lunch guest.

Tom Hall, a director at a communications company, says, "A well-read individual will add value to any encounter, if you have the ability to express yourself clearly and persuasively. You will always be sought after as a breakfast, lunch, or dinner companion."

You will be considered interesting. People will seek you out. Now, isn't that a nice way to stand apart from the crowd?

Key Learnings for Orchestrating the Successful Business Lunch



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