If you’re an independent artist or small company, there are a lot of expectations to live up to at performances and events.

Not only do you have to give a dazzling performance or speech, you also need to ‘work the room’ – that terrible way of describing the networking that makes guests feel welcome and important to your practice.

Your VIPs, especially donors, need to be recognised, engaged in conversation and thanked.  But it can be hard to do that after you’ve spent yourself artistically and all you want to do is make a beeline to the bar!

If you’re new to this or find it hard (and you’re definitely not alone there) … here are some helpful ways to get in and out of conversations, keep yourself moving and share your presence with as many guests as possible.

Getting in:

If you’re meeting a guest for the first time, simply introducing yourself and explaining your what you do on and off stage is a great start. It doesn’t matter what that is because, to them, you play an integral role in making something they care about happen.

After the initial introduction, you can decide whether to keep control of the conversation by asking closed questions, or handing it over by asking an open question. Keeping control of the conversation allows you to fish for the right angle or topic to explore in more depth. Handing control to your guest enables them to answer you in detail and share more of their experiences and areas of interest.

  • A closed question might be ‘have you attended one of our productions before? Or ‘what do you do when you’re not busy attending our performances’? Or ‘do you play a musical instrument’? The answers will be short and factual – and your goal is to cue a response that will open up a great topic of conversation.
  • The open question version of the above might be ‘how did you first come to know our work’? Other helpful questions invite reflection upon your work. E.G ‘What aspects of tonight’s show did you enjoy the most?’ Or an important one… ‘what aspects of our work interest you the most?’ An open question asks your guest to provide a longer answer and helps you discover what makes them tick.

Getting out

Because your job is to make as many guests feel welcome as possible, it is important to be able to leave a conversation graciously.  Donors are usually very generous and recognise that you are doing an important job.  There are several ways to do it well however.

The introduction

  • Introducing guests to one another is a great way to bring group together and to take care of those standing on the perimeter of the room. If you know both parties – that’s excellent.  If you don’t, introducing yourself first and then the guests you have first spoken with is a classy way to break the ice.  Be prepared with an open follow up question once introductions have been made.  Once the conversation has started you can excuse yourself and repeat.

The thank you

  • If the event is short (such as interval drinks) and/or conversations are flowing, simply thanking people for their attendance and their support is a wonderful way to exit. ‘Thank you so much for joining us this evening – and for all your support.  I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening / see you soon’.

The pass on

  • When you have strength in numbers with colleagues, introducing donors to them is perfect. After swapping names, start with a short sentence about your colleague and graciously exit the conversation with a thank you, ‘it has been lovely to see you’ and ‘see you soon’.

And here are the things to avoid at all cost…

I call these the three cardinal sins of donor development:

  • looking over your guest’s shoulder or scanning the room while they are talking to you. If you really need to spot someone, please make sure you look around naturally while you’re the one talking.
  • say ‘I’ve just got to go over here and say hello to ‘x’. Your guests will immediately feel diminished and that they’re stopping you from doing more important things. Take them with you and execute a lovely introduction
  • use getting a top-up as an excuse to leave. We all hate feeling less important than someone’s need for more cabernet

Remember to keep an eye out for stranded guests, board members and colleagues.  And always be mindful of the fringe dwellers – those on the periphery of the room with nobody to talk to.  Harness your charm and introductory prowess and get things moving.

You will be remembered for your effort and care – as well as your incredible art and creativity.

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