(This is an updated version of an earlier post.)
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 knows me in life will know, I am not one of those people. At pretty much any event where I can meet ‘useful’ people, I tend to have one or two modes: hiding in a corner and sipping nervously on my drink, or being loud, clumsy and awkward (to be fair, the latter usually comes after too much of the former). Neither is a great look.
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.
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.
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 posh or 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. Many of my proper friends started off as nothing more than online pals, and I’ve made a ton of useful contacts just by answering questions on Twitter or Facebook. This is also a good way of keeping up contact without making every interaction about what you can get: pass on a compliment, comment on their Facebook post, share a link you think they might be interested in on their feed. Don’t be a stalker about it, obviously, but in moderation it helps keep you on their radar so you don’t become the person who is only ever in touch when you want something.
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 LGBTQ+ group, or something that supports young people, women, 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.
All in it together: And related – one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to treat people in the same field as you as your team, not your competition. Your fellow freelancers and creatives will be incredibly useful sources of support, information and assistance if you let them – and you can do the same for them in turn. It’s my experience that in most cases the world really isn’t as dog-eat-dog as it can appear, so don’t go into it expecting a battle.
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. One of the things I like about theatre press nights is 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’ (and, of course, 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.
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 tends to be 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: It’s a fact of life that, no matter how talented or hard-working you are, you likely owe your success to other people. Whether that’s due to professional contacts or the Bank of Mum and Dad, it’s a rare beast that makes it on their own. We all owe a debt to someone – and often we’ll never be able to pay it back. But we can pay it forward.
Plus, one of the things I have found that makes networking far 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 direct: Everyone is busy. Everyone is tired. If you want a favour from someone, ask them. Put them in a position to say yes or no and be done with it, rather than doing some kind of passive-aggressive ‘if only there was a solution to this problem! If only somebody could help’ where they feel guilty if they don’t help and resentful if they do. (Also: bear in mind, appearances can be deceptive – the reason people haven’t offered you contacts, work or tips about jobs might well be because they think you are thriving and don’t need them – they see the swan floating serenely, not the frantic paddling to stay afloat.)
Be grateful: If someone helps you, THANK them. It’s not hard, but it’s terrifyingly rare. If you can, buy them lunch or a drink or a coffee (or a Kofi, or Patreon, or throw some cash in their Kickstarter, or retweet their ads for their new show, or whatever.) Nothing burns bridges faster than accepting help from folk then pretending you got there all by your lonesome, leaving a string of seething people feeling forgotten in your wake.
Be reliable: Remember if someone connects you with someone, or recommends you for a job, it’s their reputation on the line as much as yours. Be reliable and professional, and you’ll reap more rewards. I can’t tell you how much work I get not because I’m good (I mean, I am good) but because I do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it. And it’s never just about this one gig: I have some lovely contacts who I like, but wouldn’t recommend for a single thing because they spend their lives having public meltdowns / rants about their current boss on Twitter, and that’s not an energy I want to be connected with.
Be thoughtful, be bold: One of the things that stops a lot of people successfully networking is a sort of shyness – a ‘who am I to help? Who am I to ask?’. Also, often it simply doesn’t occur to people (see above re: deceptive appearances, and everybody being busy and tired). But as someone who has got huge amounts of work, a ton of useful contacts and met some really beloved friends just because someone I knew once said ‘Oh, you like theatre? You should meet my friend X’, I’d say take a chance and if you think you can help, do. After all, who doesn’t want to be remembered as the person who set up a great partnership?
Don’t be a dick: A motto for life, and for networking. The late great Sir Terry Pratchett (paraphrasing the equally late but 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.
Don’t be that guy
I still remember clearly being snubbed at a party by a former colleague only for the same person, a mere week later when a promotion had rocketed me up the ‘useful to know’ list, to suddenly be extremely chummy and all ‘haven’t we always been besties?’ It’s obvious, and it’s horrible, and nothing will get you a bad rep faster.
I used to have an acquaintance – note the past tense – who was renowned as a spectacularly effective networker, and whose contacts brought him quite incredible rewards. 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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