Many people have come to appreciate the connections we can achieve with technology, but one area where it falls short is the enjoyment of dinner and the ambiance of sharing a meal with others.
Without preparation and some guidelines, attempts to host a virtual dinner party can seem like nothing more than web meetings that just happen to take place at dinner time and would have been better off as just a web meeting.
If you want to have something that resembles an actual dinner, here’s how to do it right.
For those of you who are new to web conferencing and hosting, some of these suggestions might be a little unusual, but there are a lot of things all of us notice when face-to-face that are difficult to pick up over a webcam such as non-verbal cues, surroundings, and communication patterns. These tips will help you make up for that.
If you are experienced with web conferencing and hosting, the picture above might be enough guidance for you, but you might still want to breeze through these highlights for any new tidbits.
How to host a virtual dinner party
There are six important elements to have a truly enjoyable digital dinner.
1) THE HOST
People who are familiar with web meetings at work understand the importance of hosting almost automatically. For those of you who are new to this, be aware that this role is important and goes beyond just inviting people.
The host sets the expectations, determines the tech platform, and most importantly, guides the conversation when necessary. If you’ve tried a multi-party web meeting before, you know that the audio can be a mess when people talk on top of each other.
The host gets people involved in the conversation, yet may also need to have people quiet down so that each person can be heard in turn.
The host lets everyone know that their table and food need to be fully ready by start time with all the people seated and ready to go. The noise of cooking and last-minute prepping will not create a good experience for anyone.
Related: Support a local restaurant and have them prepare dinner for you: Chicago restaurants offering curbside service and delivery.
To start things off, the host welcomes everyone. Some things for the host to try might be to have everyone open/pour their drinks right at the start, perhaps offer up a welcoming toast, and even go round-robin to have everyone show/explain their dinner.
2) THE TECH
The biggest dinner-impacting difference as of this writing is that Zoom’s free version is well known, but times out at 40 minutes and everyone will need to log out and log in again.
On the other hand, Webex’s free version is less well known but does not have a timeout. I’ve used both and both work well.
Lastly, have everyone use 12-17” laptops if possible. Laptop screens can show more space than just head shots, have pretty good cameras/mics, and most people have one. Other tech can require too much fiddling around to get it right.
3) NUMBER OF CONNECTIONS
Four video connections with no more than three people in each lead to the best result for everyone. The Host counts as one of the connections.
The four connections create a nice quadrant on that 12-17” laptop screen that gives each connection enough space to show people, table settings, facial expressions, and body gestures.
It’s that field of view that separates a true dinner experience from just a web meeting that happens to take place at dinner time.
The Host sets the theme, but everyone contributes to the vibe.
First, everyone should be on time and in place, ready to go at the start.
Second, set up that table for a nice dinner against an attractive yet simple background that doesn’t have a lot of reflection or bright light. Those things can interfere with the camera.
Keep it simple and easy… it doesn’t have to be complex unless you want to have fun with it.
5) CAMERA PLACEMENT
Placement is important as this will also distinguish this dinner from just another web meeting. Showing just the shoulders and head are not enough. With dinner, being able to see the table settings, food, and background is an important part of the experience.
Back up that camera enough to bring in a wider view. You might have to use a nearby counter or highchair if short on table space. Each connection should set up and test their own camera view before the dinner starts.
In a typical web meeting, participants are often muted so that background noise does not distract and interrupt attendees. But in digital dining, the clink of cutlery and the pouring of drinks are sounds that you want to hear. Stay unmuted.
The best approach is for each connection to manage their own environment so that other non-dinner sounds (e.g. phone calls, machinery) do not interfere.
And remember that the host asks connections to manage noise interference and guides the conversation if too much cross-talking confuses the laptop mics and clips people off.
Limiting the connections as explained previously improves the feel and flow of the conversation and ramps up the ambiance. And when it comes to background music, leave it off as it can easily get distorted and become a distraction.
Click the image below to get a larger version that you can print!
Bottom line? Experiment and have fun with this! If technology intimidates you, the above tips and explanations hopefully make it a bit easier to try this out.
A sit-down virtual dinner will never replace the in-person version, but it can be a heart-warming and rewarding event across distances when applied well.
Special thanks to Heidi Kohz for her editorial guidance.
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