The wit and wis­dom of George Smith — Let’s be conventional

We con­tin­ue our series cel­e­brat­ing the late, great George Smith with his irrev­er­ent and fun­ny take on fundrais­ing conventions.

Written by
George Smith
January 16, 2020

There used to be conferences. Now there are workshops, conventions and heaven help us – symposia. This week I actually did a symposium. Long words were acquired to be deployed with great gravitas. You want to know what ‘disinter-mediation’ is or who the ‘category killers’ are? It'll cost you – I charge significant coin for consulting in such language. 

A Greek symposium - very unlike fundraising ones.

But all such gatherings enjoy a certain symmetry, however they are titled or whatever the price tag. And you need modest familiarity with special verbal and physical body languages to cope.

There is the Conference Downglance for a start. This enables you to demonstrate proper courtesy to the unknown person who just greeted you with unnerving intimacy (a particular problem for middle aged men who've haunted the conference circuit for years). The Conference Downglance enables you to briefly clock the fellow-delegate's name badge without being seen to do so, a gracious facial swoop that will have you responding in seconds. ‘Damien, by all that's wonderful! And how are things at Phallic Software?’

You need to practice this at home. The Downglance needs to be the merest movement of shoulder and eye. I have seen flustered out-of-practice delegates resort to the old untied shoelaces gambit and pretty pathetic they looked. Two words of advice though: if your enthusiastic greeter is female and you are male, do check that she is wearing a badge before applying the Glance. If she is not, your zeal for etiquette could be misconstrued. And do look out for the later stages in any conference where delegates start to swap badges. Just apply common sense in this situation. Otherwise you will get a response like, ‘do I look like Damien from Phallic Software? Surely you remember me, Gloria Mundi from the Bewildered Fund?’ 

Also invaluable is the Beady-Eyed Room Scan.

This is a great boon for those many occasions when you are merely hanging out at a conference. You are knackered, you half want to go back to your room but you want to stay a dutiful delegate. You stumble into a room (probably a bar) that looks full of people who want to sell you fleet insurance or personalised balloons. They half-turn to you, sizing you up as interesting person/reasonable prospect. A balloon man begins to make towards you... it is time for the Beady-Eyed Room Scan. Just narrow the eyes and pretend to be looking for someone. Small up and down gestures of the head and a growing frown will help make the point that you are a person with a mission, not idly to be interrupted with talk of balloons or fleet insurance. 

You can try the Beady-eyed room scan from the podium.

This is of course first cousin to the Brisk Clipboard Walk. Whichever conference you go to, you will spend most of your time walking down corridors. And corridors are dangerous places. Personalised balloon salesmen and fleet insurance wallahs live there, lurking behind columns, ready to entrap the unwary delegate. I met Damien from Phallic Software in a conference corridor.

You enhance your chances of corridor survival with the Brisk Clipboard Walk. Stride, don't ramble. Perhaps apply the Beady Eyed Scan (see above). Always affect a clipboard on the basis that it suggests not just power but local, vital and confidential power. Get it right and Balloon Man will stay lurking, in the belief that your purposeful walk suggests that you have just be warned by security that terrorists have seized the keynote speaker. And that you are looking for David Ford to help you start negotiations. 

All of which brings us to Smith's First Law of Conference Networking – You Will Never Find the Person You are Looking For. But You Will Meet this Other Person Every Five Minutes. Thus, the hot prospect, genuinely interesting speaker or otherwise beautiful person will apparently be vaporised. But that scrofulous old git who always comes to this conference, who supports London football club Arsenal, sings Carpenters songs in the bar, shows you a photograph of himself with TV presenter Noel Edmonds (famed for his hideous multicoloured jumpers and childish sense of humour) and probably sells personalised balloons... you will meet him in every room at any hour of the day. 

Noel Edmonds wearing a vest instead of his trademark gaudy jumpers. It’s not an improvement.

Which is why you have to fall back on Conference Banter, a sub-language which permits verbal courtesy while stopping short of meaning. ‘How's Business?’ or ‘How's Things?’ or ’Enjoying the Conference?’ are the classic openings of Conference Banter. Its characteristics are that you either cannot hear or cannot give a toss about what the other herbert is saying, but you can still manage the Knowing Nod or the Fawning Smile, the facial accoutrements of Conference Banter. Sometimes, in a playful or surrealist mood, I punctuate the dutiful verbals with something like ‘Of course, you can never have too many coat hangers’ or ‘That girl's looking up my trousers’. I still get the Knowing Nod, the Fawning Smile, even on occasion something like ‘You're dead right there’.

That is why video conferencing is a dead duck already. It just doesn't offer the fun component of interface with fellow-delegates. And you never get to meet personalised balloon salesmen.

This article originally appeared in Professional Fundraising in July 1997.

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

The late George Smith (he/him) wrote his first fundraising ad for Oxfam in 1962. In his twenties he was appointed European coordinator for a major-league American advertising agency and, in contrast, was elected as a local councillor in an inner-London borough. He formed the Smith Bundy direct marketing agency in 1973 and served as chief executive for 20 years. During those two decades his copywriting skills were applied to many diverse commercial direct marketing clients, yet fundraising was always a specialism. In 1990 he was awarded the UK’s DMA Gold Award for work on Greenpeace.

Between 1987 and 1993 George was chief executive of the International Fund Raising Group, responsible for the celebrated Noordwijkerhout conference and a growing number of events around the world. He was also a director of Burnett Associates Limited. His monthly articles in Britain’s Direct Response magazine were published in 1987 as a collection called By George. He became chairman of the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) in 1997 and is an honorary fellow both of the IDM and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

George Smith also wrote Asking ProperlyTiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising and Up Smith Creek.

A note from SOFII: These articles were first published in a different era. They may contain words or themes that today we find inappropriate. SOFII has preserved the copy in our archive, without editing, in order to offer a true representation of the author’s contributions at the time.

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