Nonprofit Pro Ernesto Paredes Explains How To Work A Room

by | Apr 18, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

When you attend a nonprofit fundraising event, do you notice that some people make a point of speaking with lots of folks, while others talk to the same people for a long time or even just sit at their table?

There is an art and a skill to interacting with people in this type of setting. It comes naturally to some, not so much to others. I have noticed that Ernesto Paredes, Executive Director of Easy Lift Transportation, is a master at meeting others and making them feel welcome at these events. So, I sat down with Ernesto recently and asked him to share his secrets.

“When I go to an event, I always have a plan. I know who will be there and I know I will connect with those individuals, and it will be a successful night. I always know who I want to talk to before I go. Every event has sponsors and I want to talk to them. Why? Because I want to be a connector. I find that connecting people to each other enhances our community.

“For example, I don’t want to have a memorandum of understanding with another organization, I want to be able to pick up the phone and call someone with whom I have a relationship. That’s why I want them to know who I am. It’s always about community for me. I want to maintain corporate history so we can get things done. I want Easy Lift to be at the table to be a community solver and idea generator.

“But I wasn’t always so outgoing and confident.

“I remember when Tom Roberts, the previous Executive Director of Easy Lift, took me to my first event. I walked into the Red Lion dining room, found my space, sat down, and waited for the program to start. Tom came over and said, ‘what are you doing? Get up and mingle with the guests!’ I couldn’t understand why I had to leave my safe space. I was comfortable sitting there.

“Why would someone want to talk to me? I was so new to the community. I think a lot of people feel the same way I did. They are more comfortable in their safe space.

“Tom continued to push me out of my comfort zone. So, I decided to pretend I was a confident person. Of course, there was no Internet or Google back then so all I could do was lean on my fraternity experiences when I was at USC. Back then you had to learn to experience person to person rejection. If I asked a girl to dance, she either said yes or no and I kept moving on.

“I learned to just put myself out there and understand that not every person will care about connecting with me. I would say hello to one person, and they would give me five minutes of their life; others gave me two seconds. I learned to read my audience. That is where relationships begin. I never close any door on relationships. If I don’t connect at one event, I’ll pick it up at another one and build on the relationship during the second or third events.

“I rarely eat at events.

“I remember seeing a community hero of mine who had poor table manners. It took a little luster off that person for me. So, I reduce the risk of someone judging me by the way I eat or seeing that I have food in my teeth. I’ll just eat later. Instead, I take the opportunity to table hop.

“I peruse the seated audience to identify who is sitting at which table. Then I introduce myself to each of my table mates and spend a few minutes with each one. I excuse myself, saying that there are a few people I want to greet. In 10-15 minutes, I can work that room. I don’t overstay my welcome. Then I return to my table and have further conversations with my table mates.

“There’s nothing like having a conversation with an interesting person. I like to be a traveler. I want to be really good at what I do, and I am willing to be a little vulnerable.

“Some people are overly optimistic; I prefer to be real. One goal I have is to close the learning gap for the younger executives, so the school of hard knocks doesn’t take longer than it needs to.

“I did not maximize my opportunities for the first seven of my over 30 years in the nonprofit sector. I was just getting the job done and focusing on my own professional goals. I noticed I had no sense of personal fulfillment. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference.

“As I did more networking, I discovered there were certain people I had a sixth sense about. I could feel their energy. I now rely on my sixth sense. As soon as I enter a room, in an instant, I know who I should meet. There is an attraction that I can feel. I love drawing energy from other people.

“So, my advice is to always have a plan, be authentic, smile, and be approachable. No one wants to meet a sourpuss. Apply the 80/20 rule. Pretend there’s a spotlight on the other person. It’s not about you. Other people will have a better impression of you if you ask them questions and then listen to their answers.

“I notice that some people do a sort of over-the-shoulder glance around the room. Don’t do that. It gives others the impression you are not interested in them. Have a 30-second strategy with each person so you can really be present with each one. And then have a good exit strategy so you can go talk to others. A subtle touch on the elbow can be powerful, but you must be careful with that.

“I always acknowledge and thank the host of the event, even if I don’t know them.

“The executive director and staff should not be standing around talking to each other. This is a missed opportunity to mingle with people who care about your mission. Working a room is not a guarantee of your professional success, but it suits me. I never claim to be the smartest person in the room, but I have fun being the connector.

“Here’s something to be aware of — some wines promote halitosis. Carry small mints or breath spray when you’re near others. You want people to be aware of your words, not your breath. So, if you’re at an event and need a mint, I’ve got you covered.

“I always have a good supply of business cards in my pocket so I can quickly give them out. I don’t want to be fumbling in my wallet for a card. Some may think business cards are antiquated. But they are a great way to connect. You can have the electronic version handy as well; but many people prefer the old-fashioned business card.

“It is always a show of strength and confidence to look someone in the eyes. It is a sign of respect and a way of being present, even if just for an instant.

“In my experience, there are three masters of this technique—President Bill Clinton, Pete Carrol (football coach for USC and currently Seattle Seahawks), and Ron Werft, CEO of Cottage Health.

“When you speak to them, you are truly the only person in the room, no matter who you are. They lock eyes and they listen. Then the questions come naturally. You can’t be present with someone when you are looking over your shoulder to see who you want to talk to next.

“I call this “netgiving” rather than “networking” because you are helping others have a better experience at the event. Of course, there is a skill and an art to working a room.

“Once you are in the community for a while, there is an attraction to you because of your longevity in the sector. You want to be in the sector as a difference-maker.”