Networking for the nervous

When it comes to networking, there are those who seem born to it, working any room like a pro and coming away from any meeting with a ton of contacts and useful leads. As anyone who follows this blog will know, I am not one of those people. This was rammed home to me when I went to the Open Clasp Archive Symposium yesterday and literally spent the first half hour hiding in a screening room so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.

Unfortunately, when you’re a freelancer, some degree of networking is essential – especially if any part of your career is in the arts, where ‘who you know’ is almost always more important than what you know, and the easiest way to open any door to opportunity is to have someone you know holding it open for you.

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It often surprises people when I say how networking terrifies me. I’m a social person, I have lots of friends, and I am often quite spectacularly loud and gobby. But put me in a ‘business’ socialising situation and I invariably go to pieces. I’m the person who spends a morning meeting trying to talk to people who still haven’t had coffee then realises when I go home I was covered in croissant crumbs the whole time, or the idiot who downs one too many glasses of wine to try and calm my nerves then ends up babbling nonsense to the nearest stranger, leaving each event with a vague sense of embarrassment and missed opportunities.

In a former job, where attending social events was an almost daily occurrence, my faux pas include breaking the stem of a champagne glass (then being so embarrassed I carried around the glass all night holding the two bits together, making me look rather desperate to hold onto my drink), or inadvertently insulting a major client with a spectacular foot in mouth moment. I’d like to pretend I was better now, but only the other night I met one half of A Successful Theatre Couple (who I’ve had coffee with individually a few months back), chatted for a few minutes then left telling them to say hello to their partner for me, only to realise said partner was literally sitting at the same table, talking to other people, and I just hadn’t noticed. (Not quite as bad as the nervous former colleague who, laughing overly-hard at a client’s joke at a dinner party, tossed her hair into the candle behind her and set herself on fire, but still, not my finest hour.)

Part of this, of course, comes from things I have talked about a lot before – imposter syndrome, feeling like an outsider in circles where most people are middle class, richer and more polished than I am (many of whom know one another). Some of it comes from my personal hang ups and, let’s face it, the fact that I often find groups a strain in any context (one of the questions I get asked most about working from home is ‘don’t you miss working in an office with other people?’ to which I can emphatically answer: No. No, I most certainly do not.)

So if, like me, you find networking a strain but you have to do it, here are some tips that might make it easier.

Pave your way online: It’s far easier to introduce yourself in person to someone you already have some connection with, however tenuous. Make a habit of seeking out people you admire, want to work with or might be useful contacts on social media, and interact with them if you can. I recently went up and introduced myself to a director I’d never met but who was in the same theatre café as me, emboldened by an earlier Twitter convo. Sure, I was nervous – I basically spent about 5 minutes thinking ‘is that actually her?” then another 5 debating whether I would look like a stalker if I introduced myself, but she was lovely.

Build your village: I guarantee that no matter how much of an outsider you feel, there will be others who feel the same. Seek out people and groups with which you have an affinity – maybe that’s working-class or disabled creatives, Black or Asian artists, an LGBT+ group, or something that supports women, or carers, or parents in your field. These might be formal / semi-formal organisations, online forums or even just group chats. Don’t necessarily think of networking as a way to get more work: the opportunity just to talk to people who face similar issues to you can be invaluable.

Find what works for you: If you’re not a morning person, there’s no point in signing up to a breakfast event (I’ve been to a few of these and, as someone who can’t bear conversation before my third cup of coffee, found them hellish), but for some people they’re perfect – short, targeted and they don’t impinge on the rest of your day. If you are so nervous that a glass of wine will have you trashed, avoid evening events where drinking is part of the deal.

Make networking your secondary purpose: I discovered this trick a while back, and BOY does it work for me. Basically, while I avoid formal networking events like the plague, I regularly go to events where people in my field gather: but, crucially, where meeting them isn’t the main purpose of the event. The theatre symposium yesterday was a great example: even if no one spoke to me, I was learning about a company I was interested in and wanted to write about. Press nights are the same: I’m there to review a show, so any social aspect is a bonus. When I was in London, I started out going to Byte the Book events in great part because they had interesting speakers and were held in the Ivy, a place I had always wanted to visit – so even if I didn’t meet anyone ‘useful’, the night was a ‘success’ (I actually ended up meeting loads of great people!)

The advantage of this approach is on those occasions your night resembles a tragic Smiths song – you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own – it hasn’t been a complete write off, and you are less likely to beat yourself up for your failure and decide never to go anywhere again.

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Use your contacts wisely: Sometimes networking isn’t about new people, but about being smart with the connections you already have. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell makes the observation that your immediate network is the least useful to you – you are likely to have a lot of overlapping connections, so you already have access to the people and information they do. However, more distant contacts will move in wider circles, so by tapping that network, you can potentially reach a greater audience.

One of the first things I did when I started freelancing was to get in touch with ALL my friends and close acquaintances and not only tell them about my new business, but ask them to pass on my details to anyone who they thought might be able to use me: within a week, two people I didn’t know that well put me in touch with friends of theirs who then offered me work. (I’ve returned the favour for people, too, often with significant success). Provided you’re not pushy – and you have enough proven skills so that people don’t worry they are damaging their own reputation by recommending you – no one will mind you at least putting it out there that you are looking for work. For the time it takes to send a few emails, the returns can be significant.

Pay it forward: One of the things I have found that makes networking easier is approaching it with the idea of how I can help other people, not the other way around. I’m not wildly successful or anything, but I’ve been in this game a long time, and I know a lot of people (more successful than me, generally!), so I make a point of thinking, is there any way I can help this person? Not in a twatty, big-headed ‘let me be your SAVIOUR!’ way (hopefully!) but, you know, if someone mentions they are looking for work in a field I know a lot about or have useful connections in, I’ll always be sure to offer a hand. Not only do you never know when they might be in a position to pay it back – I can’t tell you the amount of work I have had from formerly junior colleagues who moved into roles where they could use my skills and, clearly, remembered me at least relatively fondly – but also, it’s just a nice thing to do, and god knows the world needs more of that.

Be open, be authentic – and don’t be a dick: A motto for life, and for networking. The late great Terry Pratchett (paraphrasing the late and slightly less beloved Emmanuel Kant) said that the basis of all evil was treating people like things, and that’s a good principle to be guided by. The best reason to connect with new people, is you get to connect with new people – folk who are as unique as you, with as many ambitions and dreams and insecurities and hang ups as you have. No one should ever just be the means to an end.

Sure, some people are just arseholes who should be avoided. (Nothing will make you feel grubbier than trying to cosy up to someone you think will be good for your career when you know they are a horrible person, and it almost always backfires at some stage. Steer clear of the wankers – or at least avoid them as much as you can – and your life and career will be a happier place.)

Remember that most people are nice, most people are approachable, and even if you do get rejected/snubbed/a snotty reception, it’s likely not even about you anyway (I mean, maybe don’t try to walk up to Lady Gaga and swap fashion tips or anything, but in most normal interactions). Go into any situation thinking of it as a chance to connect with someone interesting – even if it’s only for the few minutes you chat over bad canapes – rather than someone useful, and you’ll get so much more out of it.

Years back, I used to have an acquaintance – note the past tense – who was renowned as a spectacularly effective networker. But he was also famed for always looking over the shoulder of whoever he was talking to in case someone more important walked in, and  dropping people like a hot coal as soon as they were of no use. (This of course more than once came back to bite him when the wheel turned, as it inevitably does, and a former discard became someone who could be handy again – people remember!). So be a klutz, be a nervous gabbler, go home with croissant crumbs on your jacket – but for feck’s sake, don’t be that guy.

(My friend Zoe Cunningham – who I met at Byte the Book, natch – wrote a very user-friendly guide to networking, for those who want to read more about it.)

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