Table-4-Eight: A human-centered approach to modern-day networking
When I was living and working in Seattle around 2005, I was looking for a way to expand my professional network.
I had met a lot of great people while working for Boeing, Razorfish, Microsoft and Amazon. Nearly everyone I met was enthusiastic about user centered design, usability, accessibility, analytics and/or informatics. We were all organically moving with a new wave of digital design that was going on at the time.
Yet, I felt like I was out of the loop.
I was struggling to find my ‘tribe’ there in the Puget Sound.
I looked into joining some online interest groups on Meetup and Yahoo, but everything seemed too disorganized or disconnected. Even the largest non-profit organization in the region (SIGCHI) was highly academic in nature and were more concerned about the advancement of research into human computer interaction and related disciplines than exploring other dimensions of design that I was interested in.
I was stuck.
If I were ever to find that group of individuals that I could explore similar interests with, I had to create something from scratch. Something which encompassed user experience, research, information architecture and other related topics.
After some reflection and discussion with some friends, I made a commitment to start a Usability Professionals Association (UPA) chapter and put in the best effort I could to make the community I was after a reality.
Building a community from scratch
To start a UPA chapter back then, the process was fairly straightforward. You needed officers, some initial investment to create the chapter, and verification from the main office. You also needed an active community of researchers, designers and human factor engineers to give their time and attention to events and activities.
More importantly, someone had to be at the center which drove everything together. There needed to be name on that line that said ‘Chapter President’, and … was I that? I was just a person that was looking to get some community going around a lot of cool things happening in design.
How do I start building that sort of community?
I had no idea how to do that.
Do I start emailing different people or posting on those aforementioned forums to generate some interest? How could I make a convincing argument for someone to sign on to a new usability chapter in the area? Would I start holding events for people to attend? In the evenings maybe?
I kept asking myself these questions for days. In the end, it came down to this:
What would draw people away from their everyday responsibilities and commitments for 60–90 minutes of professional networking?
The Thrill of Failure
As I started promoting the UPA Chapter, my worst fears were coming true.
I sucked at this.
I tried for six consecutive months to organize a number of small professional events and not a single person showed up. Not even someone who was lost and needed directions. Nada.
Then, in the seventh month towards the winder, two people did miraculously attend. They quickly asked if this was the event, and I enthusiastically said they had found it as my face reeked of desperation.
They stayed for 10 minutes during our introductions… all the while looking in different directions for an imaginary bus that was going to plow through a nearby wall and give them the escape route they needed.
I felt like an unwanted tourist attraction.
So, I took a break and started attending a few presentations in Seattle to educate myself on hosting a proper event.
Some of these events featured experienced and knowledgeable practitioners of design, showcasing their latest work for audience consideration. Others that were hosted at Google, Microsoft or the University of Washington shared updates on new tech advancements, ongoing research projects and other related endeavors.
Beyond having a headliner and a nice location to hold the event, all of them had some sort of catering. Most carried your standard fruit/vegetable plate with the hummus/naan bread as a compliment. Others would break out the adult beverages (marketing agencies mostly) and make a party of the whole affair.
At some point in this journey (I think it was during an evening bus ride home to the city of Redmond), a curious question popped into my head.
Why not get everyone together during dinner time?
Networking over Sushi?
Hmm… doing professional networking while having a meal?
Certainly doable.. but the devil was in the details.
First, I’d have to make arrangements at a restaurant for a certain number of people and hope they attend. If most of them didn’t show, I’d be hosting a really big table and a whole lot of awkward.
Plus, those who did show up to a table lacking attendees would definitely not show up again. No one wants to come to something that ends up being a huge waste of their time.
Like the popular networking events I had attended earlier, this sort of get-together would need a big name or person that would draw others to the table. Someone that would prompt a complete stranger I had never met to make a commitment and attend. Someone so compelling that they would take time out of their schedule, get coverage for other commitments and show up.
It had to be more than me just showing up and saying “Hey, let’s talk about the magic of wireframing in Visio and Balsamiq!”
So, I invented something I called the “Table-4-Eight” concept.
What is a Table-4-Eight?
The Table-4-Eight (T48) is a networking event for professionals and practitioners to meet with thought leaders, influencers and other professionals within a larger community… all while enjoying a meal in a relaxed environment.
How do you organize one?
It’s a pretty straightforward process, but it requires a certain level of customization. I’ve hosted a LOT of Table-4-Eights over the years, and nearly all of them had needed a bit of tweaking.
But no worries. If you’ve never done one before, here’s how I’d recommend going about it.
1. Find yourself a special guest
Everything pretty much revolves around that fascinating and interesting person you’ll be taking out to dinner. For the sake of example, let’s say you secured Gary Vaynerchuk for an upcoming Table-4-Eight. You just caught him on a day where he says “Yes, why not?” to everything he hears.
You work out the following with Mr. Vaynerchuk:
- What date/time works best for his schedule
- What restaurant he would like to dine at
- A headshot and 1–2 paragraphs outlining his/her professional background, interests, etc.
And as part of their participation, you’re going to be paying for their meal/drinks. Yes, you… the organizer, will be footing the bill for your special guest as an incentive for them to come out to dinner with you.
And for the record, I have yet to encounter a special guest who would turn down a free dinner AND the opportunity to meet an intimate, captive audience. A free meal at my favorite restaurant and a night out with admirers? “Yes” and “Yes”, thank you very much. 😁
2. Have your guest pick a date and time that’s convenient for them
Your special guest likely has a schedule that you can’t begin to fathom. Unless they’re documenting and posting their life online (like Gary Vee does) and you can see how busy they are, you have to respect the fact that they won’t be available for up to six months.
I’ve seen other people try to ask someone for their time the same week, and it never works out. It’s a mad rush to get something accomplished, and it’s neither enjoyable nor appreciated by anyone concerned.
3. Make a dinner reservation for eight people
Once you have an agreement with Gary to have dinner at one of his favorite restaurants (let’s say Wa’z on Cedar Street in downtown Seattle (https://www.wazseattle.com/), you make the call and place a reservation for eight people at the designated time of your event.
You’d be surprised at how often this step is forgotten.
If you forget to reserve, you’ll have to hope there’s an empty table available, or you’re parked at the restaurant bar waiting for a miracle. In those cases, everyone is standing around at the bar, checking their phones and occasionally peering at the exit. It’s a real hassle.
Don’t be that person who forgets.
Make that reservation and fulfill your destiny.
4. Spread the word
Once you have your dinner reservation secured, it’s time to promote and market this amazing event on social media.
Let’s start with the invite. What ever form it takes, it should contain the following information:
- The name and headshot picture of the special guest
- The date, time and location of the event
- The professional biography of the individual (that you captured earlier).
- An explanation of what a Table-4-Eight is
- Sign up links to a registration form (I prefer Typeform for mine).
- Your contact information in case something goes wrong.
Once you have that constructed, you’ll have a number of options to promote the event. Some of the ones I use are:
- Professional groups you belong to on Slack/Facebook Groups
- Social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.)
5. Get your registrations in order
Once your registrations start coming in, you’ll need to start paying attention to how fast they’re coming in. You’ll only need six people to sign up. The rest will go on a waiting list.
For extremely popular guests, I’d recommend waiting a certain length of time (say, 24 hours from the time of your announcement) to verify attendance. At the end of that time, you can randomly pick 6 people from the list and let them know they have a seat at the table. You can avoid the perception of favoritism by going down this route.
6. Manage communication and logistics
So let’s assume you have six attendees and a huge waiting list for Gary Vaynerchuk. Fantastic! You’re all set for the event AND created interest through your amazing effective social media marketing campaign.
But your job is not done.
Not by a longshot.
Before your Table-4-Eight event…
- You’ll be managing everyone’s questions and communications… especially with your special guest.
- You’ll be moving late arrivals to a waiting list
- You’ll be managing last minute cancellations, backfilling those spots with waiting list members
- You’ll be over-communicating updates as they happen (who’s attending w/their LinkedIn profiles, directions to the restaurant, updates to the guest list, etc.) and reassuring everyone that Gary Vee is indeed going to come to dinner that evening.
- You’ll be taking phone calls from guests who can’t find the restaurant after you sent them directions. (It happens from time to time)
- You’ll be guiding guests who show up late to their table.
7. Check Yo’ Self
The most important thing you’ll be managing at the Table-4-Eight event is your own attitude.
How you conduct yourself in front of others is amplified ten-fold in the form of perception. Your anxiety, frustration and anger that you may have when adverse situations arise (long wait times, bad server, bad food, rude attendees, someone getting sick and vomiting on the way to the bathroom (it really happened)) will be amplified by the rest of the table.
If you lose your cool anytime before, during or after the event, you’ll be sending the wrong message to attendees that can easily find something else to do with their time.
The Table-4-Eight begins!
Once everyone’s seated and small talk is being exchanged, you can call everyone’s attention and get your Table-4-Eight started.
Here’s how I would recommend guiding the initial engagement.
- Briefly introduce yourself, thank everyone for coming, and briefly introduce your special guest.
- Your special guest takes the queue to elaborate on who they are.
- Once your special guest is done, have the person to their left:
- Introduce themselves (who they are, what they do)
- Ask the special guest a question they’d like to have answered.
- The special guest (Gary Vee) answers the question.
- Repeat step 3 for every person sitting at the table until it comes back around to the special guest.
- Finally, have the special guest ask a question to the group to start overall discussion amongst everyone.
After that, you’ll be moderating your Table-4-Eight and taking care of situations as they occur.
Managing Your Table-4-Eight
Here are a few tips when managing your own Table-4-Eight event.
- When conversation slows down, have a question ready.
You don’t have to artificially keep conversation going when it isn’t necessary. You are there to each some food, and the special guest needs time to get through theirs. Still, have a default question ready to ask the guest in case everyone is staring at each other, waiting for someone to speak up.
- Keep individual responses under the 5 minute mark.
You will attract people that like to hear themselves talk. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless they’re unaware that everyone at the table has lost interest and is privately watching the clock tick away. Deviate the flow of conversation with a bridge question to another participant (i.e. “That’s really interesting Carol. George, what do you think of what Carol said?”)
- Proactively manage the waitstaff.
The person you spoke to when you made your reservation at the restaurant will probably not be your waiter/waitress. They’ll need to know who’s covering the cost of the appetizers (you), your tab (of course it’s you) and your special guests’ tab (you again!). The best time to work that out is when conversation is flowing at the table, the food’s been served, and you’re not guiding conversation at the table.
- Be the events’ official time keeper.
Everyone has family and friends to get back to and/or a workday to prepare for. Let everyone know when there’s fifteen minutes left so folks can wrap up their meal, get their check, and start closing it down. You’ll also need to set alarms on your smartphone for people that need to leave early. Either way, the group will take their cue from you when the event is ending.
- Send any follow-up emails the night of the event.
If you want to get candid, timely feedback from your attendees, take 30 minutes to draft a survey and send it out. Don’t make the mistake of waiting till tomorrow morning to thank everyone… take 30 minutes to send out a thank-you email.
I’d also recommend asking the following in your ‘thank you’ email:
- What they liked/appreciated about the Table-4-Eight event
- What they wished could have happened but didn’t.
- What they would recommend for future Table-4-Eight events.
While the above represents a time-tested approach to the event, I’ve seen a number of variations crop up over the years. Some of these are:
- Each person pays a fee in advance to attend.
Proceeds go to the organization sponsoring the event, but you still have to pay for your dinner. Personally, it’s a bit too pay-for-play for me. 😁
- No special guest
Gather 8 professionals of similar interest together for a meal. This one made the rounds for several years at UPA/UXPA for their annual conference.
- Happy Hour
For those that have extra time and are adult-beverage inclined, meet up well in advance of the event for some pre-networking.
- Invitation only
With this model, you get together seven other special guests through private invitations. I’ve seen this type of event primarily in entrepreneurial and investing circles where there’s a mutual interest in discussing business, sharing ideas and exploring new growth opportunities.
- Business Pitches
One angel investor, six elevator pitches. I’ve done a couple of these and they are fascinating. While it’s wonderful to see ideas and passions validated, you may have to help console those that are devastated by harsh criticism.
Give it a try!
Now that you know the general process, I’d encourage you to try this kind of event out yourself. Whether it’s lunch, dinner or a potluck, you can reap the benefits of quality, professional networking and break bread with someone you admire or would really enjoy talking to.
Good luck, and be sure to send me an invitation to yours!