Ditch the small talk and learn about how to host a dinner party with a storytelling twist.
Ditch the small talk and learn about how to host a dinner party with a storytelling twist.
While we all love to picture the consummate hostess as someone with a bottle of bubbly always chilled and at the ready, excellent flower arranging skills, and a killer flourless chocolate cake recipe, the ability to cultivate meaningful conversation among guests is oft-overlooked but nonetheless vital when bringing people together. That’s what Christina Herbach and Graham Garvie felt when they found themselves tiring of small talk and in search of meaningful conversation and deeper connections with their friends and peers.
Christina and Graham are the co-founders of Bring Your Own Story, a global supper club for innovators, creatives and curious minds. Over the past three years, they have hosted and facilitated over 300 dinner parties in 25+ cities globally with over 2,000 active community members. Each BYOS dinner is intentionally and artfully designed around a theme (think Faith, Loss, or Adventure) to help millennials skip the small talk, connect meaningfully, and create a world with more listening. We sat down with Christina and Graham to hear their story and learn about all of their tips and tricks for throwing a dinner party filled with deep conversation and meaningful connections all around.
Let’s start at the very beginning - how did you come up with the concept for Bring Your Own Story? How did it come to life? What was your very first event like?
BYOS began in 2015 with a simple question we kept asking each other in graduate school: We’re surrounded by all of these smart, interesting, and thoughtful people - so why is small talk so common and meaningful conversation so rare?
So as an experiment, Graham decided to host a dinner party with a twist. Instead of encouraging guests to bring a bottle of wine, he asked that each person bring a true, personal five-minute story to share inspired by a theme. Transition was the first theme. We weren’t sure if it would work - would people show up? Would they think the concept was way too hipster and weird? But to our surprise, something truly magical happened. For once, the group didn’t dwell on the dreaded three W’s of small talk - work, weather, and the weekend. Instead, we took turns sharing stories rife with emotion that were full of meaning and rooted in authenticity. We left that dinner feeling more connected to our classmates than we had after a half dozen happy hours.
How has the concept evolved and grown since then?
Over the last few years, this simple concept - telling stories over a shared dinner in a host’s home - grew into a global movement. Over 300 Bring Your Own Story dinners have been held in cities ranging from San Francisco to Singapore. The community has dreamed up light, medium, heavy, taboo and quirky themes, including adrenaline, sex, faith, family, loss and more. Our hosts have experimented along the way, holding dinners in the dark, exploring different cuisines, hosting male and female-identifying dinners, and partnering with nonprofits and brands of all stripes.
Now, we’re branching out, pushing the boundaries of what types of meaningful gatherings we can throw for our friends community, from 100+ person house concerts, art and poetry crawls, ‘No Small Talk’ socials, Burning Man camp experiences, multi-day wellness retreats, philosophy and life drawing salons, and immersive brunch parties. We’re always looking for an excuse to gather in new and interesting ways!
We’ve all attended a fair number of dinner parties in our lives. What makes a BYOS dinner party unique and memorable?
While every evening is unique, there are three guiding principles that we believe make BYOS dinners consistently magical.
First, we ask guests to be present. This includes the obvious - like showing up on time and putting away your phone - but also means actively listening. Ironically, it’s called a storytelling dinner party, but in reality, most of the time you are listening. So worry less about what witty thing you’re going to going to say next and instead focus on the person sharing their experience. Adam, a host in New York, sums it up nicely: “Listen as though the other person has the answer.”
Second, we ask guests to participate fully. A BYOS dinner, like most of our favorite events, is not a production designed for you to sit back and consume passively. Rather it works best when everyone is actively co-creating the evening. Everyone MUST share, there is no storytelling voyeurism. But don’t stop there - help the host chop the onions, or light the candles, or queue up your favourite playlist. Connection and contribution go hand in hand.
Lastly, we ask guests to be open minded. Our storytellers often share stories you might not hear anywhere else. Across the table from you might be someone with wildly different political or religious beliefs. Chances are high that they hold a different passport or speak a different language than you. The beauty of a BYOS dinner is that it’s not about debating opinions but rather sharing experiences. So reserve judgement and respect the confidentiality of your fellow guests. In creating that safe space, you’re actually giving permission to others to share their truth. That in turn triggers your own conscious and subconscious reflection, which continues long after the last slice of dessert is finished.
Walk us through a BYOS event, from start to finish. What goes into it, both before, during, and afterwards?
It’s 7:00pm on Friday night and you’re standing by yourself on the steps of a townhouse in the East Village of New York City. You glance down at your phone to confirm the address, then slide it into airplane mode for the evening. Buzz the door, and you’re welcomed inside by a friendly host with a broad smile and a drink of your choice.
As the guests arrive, your host invites you to roll up your sleeves and get involved assembling the cheeseboard and sharing how you first heard about BYOS. Once all eight guests have arrived; dinner is served, the group moves to the table where conversation and wine will flow in earnest.
To kick off, the host introduces the three BYOS principles and reminds everyone of the night’s theme - perhaps Adrenaline, or High School, or Grit. Then the host goes first - guests might be too shy to kick off. The five minute story is deeply intimate, but also funny and remarkably relatable. Everyone takes a sigh of relief. See, that wasn’t that hard, was it?
Guests then take turns sharing, going around the table while taking time for questions and reactions in between each story. With just a couple stories remaining, the group might take a break for dessert and move to the couch for the end of the evening. As you clean up and prepare to head home everyone can share contact information or the podcasts, articles or books that were mentioned. And we’d be lying if we said quite a few dates weren’t sparked at a BYOS as well!
What has the reception been like for your BYOS experiences? What feedback do you get from folks who have attended these events?
In joining a BYOS, a guest is being intentional and choosing to do something a little different from their average Friday night. Almost always the reactions are thoughtful and appreciative. People often talk about the intellectual and emotional ‘buzz’ they feel at dinner, and the sense of newfound connection that lingers long after the candles have been blown out. More often than not, we also have people say, “This was so special! Can I host my own dinner?”
At first we were quite surprised - why were people asking us permission to host their friends for dinner and to tell stories? We didn’t patent sharing stories over food and flame - that’s our species’ oldest art form.
We have found that in today’s busy world the best way to re-build community is to revive the ritual our ancestors created thousands of years ago. The world has changed so much around us, but our internal worlds really haven’t. We all want to connect, to love, to grow, to contribute, and ultimately to belong.
And so, that’s become one of our favorite parts of BYOS - giving others that permission, as well as the encouragement, framework and tools, to create their own meaningful experiences, for themselves, their friends, and their family.
How do you help hosts and hostesses to facilitate the experience - what they serve, the decor, the flow of the evening?
Our main role in facilitating BYOS, or any experience for that matter, is to reduce intimidation and foster connection. People cite a LOT of reasons for why they can’t host. They lack the time, money, or both. The apartment isn’t big enough or there aren’t enough dining room chairs. They don’t know how to cook. The list goes on.
We want to gently encourage people to realise that these are often just excuses. Ultimately, creating an amazing experience has little to do with matching place settings and everything to do with connecting people.
Where do you see the BYOS concept growing and evolving into? What’s next for the community?
We’re most energized by the idea of providing guidance and tools for people and organizations around the world to create meaningful gatherings. This started with BYOS - creating hosting and storytelling guides, helping plan and host dinners, and coordinating events and ticketing through the global calendar we used to host on our website.
Now our ambitions have grown! We’re thrilled to be working on a book about hosting meaningful gatherings more broadly, based on everything we’ve learned and drawing upon the experiences of dozens of other Gathering Gurus, from friends running community at WeWork and Facebook to the minds behind social movements like Burning Man, SoFar Sounds, and Secret Cinema. Stay tuned for more!
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Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you know other Gathering Gurus (or are one yourself!) and think we should interview for our forthcoming book
Chocolate chip cookies are my spirit animal.
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