Be more Don

Don is about 65, has an (almost) full head of hair and wears a silver grey suit and monogrammed shirt. His ring finger is swollen from the workout it gets from the weight of his gold ring. His old mechanical watch looks out of place next to his black plastic Fitbit on his wrist.

Don is not in this picture — it’s from an NHS Confederation conference in 2010. Some rights reserved.

Don is the guy who works the room at a conference, quietly and effectively making new friends. He does everything by the book and it works — the book being Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to make friends and influence people’.

Don is a nice guy. He’s learned his charisma and conference personality over many years. He approaches me confidently but not arrogantly. He holds my eye without being creepy. He introduces himself with a joke that sets me at ease. He tells me a little bit about himself — he’s from San Francisco, he runs a small investment fund. He asks about me and finds the things that link us professionally. He offers me an informational gift (there’s this cool company he came across that does something I might be interested in). He tells me he’s a great fan of London and lists off all the football stadiums he’s visited (Tottenham is his favourite team — he pronounces it with three syllables rather than two). I don’t have a business card but I write my contact details on a scrap of paper. He adds extra notes about what I do and how he might be able to help. As he does so I see the giant collection of cards of other friends he’s made.

I’m not a natural networker at events. While it feels like I’ve been fundraising for almost all my professional life, I’ve only intermittently enjoyed going along to conferences and trying to make new connections. I guess I’ve been burned a few times by the people who are almost territorial about particular events being their world. Then there are those who go to events with a mission and if you’re not on their list they’ll be dismissive at best and rude at worst. It’s also hard to butt into a group and introduce yourself. There’s always that existential risk of rejection. It’s like a teenage angst.

But over the years I’ve loosened up. I’ve learned that there are lots of people at conferences a bit like me. If you open up your body language, smile and say hello to the first person you make eye contact with, very little can go wrong. I still find big events stressful but I recognise that people like Don make those big events easier for people like me. Over the years I’d like to be more like Don.

(Don is not a real person, by the way)

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