Injured in Battle
I doubt there is anyone out there in the business world who hasn’t been scarred, at some point in their professional life, by a bad networking experience.
It happens to the very best of us. Unfortunately, it usually sticks with us for a long time afterwards too.
For me, it was during my year in LA. I was there as a mature student, at a school for professional Actors. One of the modules was all about the business of Acting; learning to see ourselves as Actorpreneurs, as we had been termed. At the time, there was nothing comparable in the UK. Having been educated at an all girls’ private school between the eighties and nineties, I was so used to the question: Well, couldn’t you join an amateur group to satisfy that side of you while you get a proper job? I mean, Acting is just so very hard to break into…’ that I could almost answer it without letting the offending questioner finish. So you see, even the notion of Acting being a respectable business seemed new.
I am aware that this may all seem strange, given that I do now have a proper job, and my early ambitions have changed. However, I am fortunate enough to have carved out a working life for myself in which I utilise my passions for Acting every single day. I must also add that working in the industry taught me some very valuable lessons; the most crucial of which, you are about to hear.
The course tutors had encouraged us to go to as many professional mixers as possible. That’s the American way of referring to a networking event, supposedly making it sound less threatening. I would love to paint a picture for you, to capture just how hideous the very first of these was.
In case anyone is wondering whether that’s too strong a word to use – trust me, it isn’t.
The venue was a Hollywood hot-spot, decked out beautifully, with equally beautiful serving staff and a free drink for everyone on arrival. I’m afraid the positives end there. Countless brief encounters followed; each one seemingly more fleeting than the last. People shamelessly trying to ascertain who could serve their own needs, whatever those might have been. As soon as hungry Actors discovered that I was merely another one of them, they had no use for me and their eyes began scanning the room, while they feigned interest in what had brought me across the pond.
I don’t want this to influence your view of the Entertainment Industry too negatively, and I urge you to remember that the focus here is networking, so I will sum up my LA Mixer tale by letting you know that it resulted in an invitation to an audition for a new film project for me – at 9pm the following night, at someone’s house!
Needless to say, I politely declined.
So what did this teach me? The first lesson is obvious – avoid networking events that are too glamorously dressed as something else. Networking should not be ashamed of what it is. It shouldn’t feel the need to hide behind cocktails, glitzy waitresses or decorations. Networking is a business exchange, and the more it feels like that, the more effective it is likely to be.
The second lesson is one I have learned cumulatively, with the seed sewn in that Hollywood bar all those years ago: the real key to successful networking, is being selective. I went along to that mixer because I felt like I had to. What if I missed out on something by not being there? My tutors said I should, so surely I should…
The pressure of expected duty does little more than pile on layer after layer of disappointment. If we go to an event simply because we think we should, we don’t take the time to consider our own goals while we are there. We will, more than likely, spend the duration of the event comparing ourselves to everyone there, wiping out the opportunity for effective networking.
Back Down To Earth
Returning to Leeds from Los Angeles wasn’t the most obvious, and it certainly shocked a number of people. That said, it was the move I had chosen to make. The one that was right for me at the time. I settled very quickly, finding a perfect flat and returning to my rhythm of freelance jobs punctuated with Acting jobs and with a scattering of supply teaching posts thrown in for good measure.
In the first three years after my return, I was my most prolific in terms of Acting. I bounced from one regional stage job to another, having a play commissioned for me as well. It was great, and meant I didn’t need to apply myself too wholeheartedly to networking. Things were happening on their own and I was gaining momentum and making contacts the more organic way, which I preferred.
Older and Wiser
It is only now, all these years on, that I find myself wanting to turn my work into a business, as opposed to being an eternal freelancer. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the networking I do, and pondering the opportunities at my disposal.
I suppose it comes, in part, from having the confidence to be selective about what I attend. I am at a point now, where I understand that I am not insulting anyone by not choosing their event. I don’t owe anyone anything in terms of appearing a certain number of times a month or accepting every invitation that comes my way.
Instead, it is my right to choose the events that best suit my purpose at the time. I have learned that there is little to be gained from simply showing my face at every event offered, regardless of the level of relevance. There is a common misconception among young entrepreneurs, that a sign of successful networking is a huge pile of business cards. Yet, if most of those are going to end up in the bin, you didn’t really get anything of value.
So How Do You Choose?
With so much on offer, it is daunting, and believe me when I say: I am still learning. However, there are a few key points to keep in mind. So, what I have picked up over the years, I will share.
- Always have a goal – when you attend any specific event, try and have an idea of how many people from a certain field you want to meet, whom you want to arrange a one-to-one with or to whom you want to give your flyer. Whatever you goal might be, it is important to have one. It is all too easy to find yourself overwhelmed otherwise, and that is never a productive place to be.
- Only attend events that have relevance to you and your business. There is no point in wasting a morning or an afternoon of your valuable time, just to hand cards out and get lost in a roomful of people who will never access your services – that one is common sense. That said, time invested in networking opportunities which may be of use, is always time well spent.
- Introductions are the best way in, even at the networking stage. Try to get yourself taken along to an established event as a guest. Someone else bringing you gives you an automatic seal of approval in other people’s eyes, simply by association.
- Consider who you know. If you know a certain speaker will be appearing somewhere and you really want the chance to meet them face to face, do your six degrees of separation until you find a common link. Then ask that link for an introduction. It might not work out to be quite so straightforward, but the only certainty is that if you don’t even ask, you definitely won’t get.
- Decide what version of you will attend networking events. That sounds like something superficial and calculating. It isn’t, in fact. We all have different versions of ourselves – the person at home is rarely the person hanging out with childhood friends who is almost never the person at the office. Find a way to be comfortable with selling yourself and your business with the right balance of confidence and humility. To do that, takes practice. It is well worth putting in the effort, as when you find the version of you that does well at networking events, you will be onto a winner.
- This penultimate one may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many people forget it. Networking, like everything else in life, is about give and take. You must be prepared to offer something in return for the introductions and referrals you hope to score from the networking events you attend. It is not fair to turn up with the expectation that others are waiting to help you grow your business, without wanting to return the favour. People derive pleasure from helping others. Like the giver of a gift who gets enjoyment seeing the recipient unwrap the parcel, so the person passing on your name finds satisfaction in knowing s/he could be helping nurture something great. Yet this charitable outlook can only be sustained if it is a two-way exchange. You don’t need to know the most influential people to be able to offer your help; just take the time to ask: what can I do for you?
- Finally, a lesson I learned in LA from one of my most inspirational tutors. She applied it auditions. Now I apply it to most things. Try not to see every networking session as a chance to succeed or fail; try, instead, to view each one as an opportunity to nurture a relationship that you might not otherwise have had the chance to develop. You never know when that relationship may come up trumps for you in business.
So there you have it: some thoughts on savvy networking as I return to the world of business, and realise I am finding some of the roads a whole lot easier to navigate this time around.