In both my professional and personal lives, I love bringing people together. Nothing makes me happier than connecting friends or colleagues who go on to make each other’s lives better in some way. In hosting many events, from networking breakfasts and panel discussions to dinner parties and social clubs, I’ve found that most people dread the very beginning of an event.

“Most people dread the very beginning of an event.”

Walking into a room where you don’t know anyone well, staying close to the hors d’oeuvres table to look busy, or not knowing how to walk away from a conversation that’s reached its natural end are all things that have probably happened to many of us.

My biggest tip as a host to avoid this discomfort for your guests is to kick the night off with organized activities. While it may feel a little unnatural at first to have organized activities or icebreakers, the structure will come as a relief to your shyer guests. And the more outgoing people will appreciate a break from being the ones responsible for keeping the conversation lively. (Trust me.)

Here are a few activities I’ve used and reused many times to ease tension and discomfort for my guests.

Bring a question

Ask your guests beforehand to prepare a question for which they’d like the group’s feedback. Depending on the nature of your group and event, you can choose to leave this prompt open-ended or focus the questions around a specific topic. The only real stipulation is that each guest feels comfortable discussing their question in a group setting. Encourage guests to ask something for which they genuinely want feedback, advice, or ideas. 

“The only real stipulation is that each guest feels comfortable discussing their question in a group setting.”

I’ve done this two ways: One example is a New Year’s Eve party. The prompt was to bring a question around a New Year’s goal or resolution. Questions included, “What can I do to motivate myself to do morning workouts?”, “How can I read more and limit my screen time in the evenings?”, and “What are some steps I can take if I want to start a business in 2024?” The conversation was wide-ranging and while not every question was relevant to each guest, it was fun to hear about what was weighing most heavily on everyone’s minds and try to problem-solve together. 

I recently used the “bring a question” prompt for a moms’ group get-together. We broke into two groups — one for moms of children ages 0–18 months, one for 18 months–3 years old. As you can imagine, the conversations tended to feel very specific and hyper-relevant to attendees in each group. Because they knew they were coming to a moms’ event (and because new moms are busy and tired!) it worked well to keep the conversation direct, concise, and focused. 

For both types of event, with a broad crowd or one that’s more specialized, everyone’s question gets 5–10 minutes of dedicated thought and conversation from the group. This works best if you have a moderator to keep time and ensure that everyone is heard. While everyone seemed to enjoy asking and receiving feedback on their own question, people love being able to help someone else by sharing their own experiences. The time limit ensures that no one topic or person dominates the conversation and that everyone gets to chat (at least for a few minutes!) about something they’re genuinely interested in. 

Two truths and a lie, place card-style

Several years ago, I hosted a large Friendsgiving for 20 people. Of the 20, there were 4–5 fractionated friend groups, so no one knew more than a handful of other guests. As the host, I was so excited to bring these friends together, but I wanted everyone to feel comfortable right away.

While I know that assigning seats can be controversial, I wanted to avoid people turning their chairs toward their friends and missing out on all the potential new friends in the room. So, I assigned seats with place cards. When it comes to assigning seats, make sure (if possible) that everyone is near at least one person they already know. From there, mix it up! 

“Make sure (if possible) that everyone is near at least one person they already know. From there, mix it up!”

Before the dinner, I solicited two truths and one lie from every attendee. I then wrote these on the back of a different person’s place card. For example, if Jen and James don’t know each other but are seated across the table, I would write James’ two truths and a lie on the back of Jen’s place card. The goal was then to encourage Jen to guess James’s two truths and a lie, starting a conversation between these two strangers. James, however, might have Rohit’s two truths and a lie on his place card, so the conversation would then include Rohit. The game created sub-conversations of groups made up of people who didn’t know each other well. A much more lively start to what could potentially feel like an awkward dinner arrangement! 

Show and tell 

One of the difficulties in hosting people who don’t know each other well is that it’s easy for the conversation to stay at surface level. And, if one line of conversation seems to resonate with a majority of the group, it can dominate the remainder of the discussion.

“One way to ensure that everyone gets to share a piece of who they are and mix up the conversation is to ask everyone to bring something to share with the group.”

One way to ensure that everyone gets to share a piece of who they are and mix up the conversation is to ask everyone to bring something to share with the group. This can be a physical item, a piece of content like a podcast, book, movie, or article, a question they’ve been thinking about, an exhibit or event they recently attended, a vacation spot they loved — the more random and different everyone’s ideas, the better! 

I used to co-host a “show and tell club” and what I loved about it in comparison to, say, a book club, is that every meeting was so different. And for a dinner party where guests are more or less strangers to one another, it’s a great way to dive into people’s passions. 

As I mentioned, it can feel a bit strange to ask adults to prepare something ahead of time for a dinner party, and maybe even annoying to get started. But when I think back to some of the more awkward social experiences I’ve had, I would’ve deeply appreciated a bit of structure and facilitation, even if just for a portion of the evening.

And if people go off-piste and don’t want to play along? Amazing! You’re still hosting a party that’s bringing people together, so much so that they don’t need any help in seeing how interesting and wonderful your other friends are.

Megan Lierley is a writer and editor based in Northern California. She currently leads content for Cora, the women’s wellness company. On any given day, there’s a good chance she’s talking tampons, practicing yoga, writing her weekly culture and current events newsletter, reading a historical fiction novel, or eating a burrito in Dolores Park.