Networking tends to be a bit of a bad word in my circle of friends. I frequently hear friends who can confidently strut their stuff on stage say things like, “I can’t go to that, it will just be a giant schmooze fest and I’m terrible at networking.” While this is true of my actor friends, I find it to be an even more common refrain of my tech & design friends, for whom putting yourself out there seems to be an even more frightening thing.
In their eyes, networking involves going up to people you don’t know, or don’t know well and introducing yourself. As Trisha Mead wrote over at 2amtheatre.com:
“I’m terrified of strangers with name badges.
I go to conferences and “networking events” scanning eyeballs and job titles desperate for something, anything, to latch onto that might be an excuse to start a conversation. But, what’s the right tone? The right opening line? How do I know I’ve found a useful connection? How do I know the nametag-attached-to-a-bundle-of-flesh I am currently talking to is not just standing there waiting for the next, more relevant person to talk to them?”
Sometimes these terrible events includes giving out a business card. Most of the time they are painful, even for the people who you think have it all together. Recently I have had friends comment on how “good” I am at networking and I wanted to laugh. I’m still as terrified as they are, I just have a little bit more practice and a new outlook on it all.
According to dictionary.com, networking is “a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest.”
Let me highlight two words for you from that sentence: common interest.
I am never going to go into a room of investment bankers where I don’t know people and and try to network. First of all, I’d have no reason to, but secondly, finding common interests would take substantially more time. In my experience, theatre people LIKE to share their knowledge and information, especially with people who are just starting their careers.
That said, I have still been known (you can ask Brittney about this) to get too scared of a party of people I don’t know and insist on leaving before we go inside. I’m still shy. Still scared.
So for those of you who are as shy & scared of networking as I am, here are three ways to begin building your network without the scary name-tags:
#1 – Volunteer with local theatre groups.
The easiest way to do this is to volunteer as an usher. All of the smaller theatre companies are using volunteer ushers, and some of the larger companies do too. It’s just about knowing who to contact. Do you have a friend in the cast? Ask them who is running front of house. In Vancouver you can check www.vancouverplays.com and they often list companies that are looking for volunteers and provide contact info. Other companies advertise their search for ushers through their facebook pages, blogs or mailing lists.
The great thing about volunteering as an usher is that you have a purpose. So you are meeting the people who work at the theatre, but you don’t have to come up with any sort of introduction or questions. If you have them, then that’s great, but you have a job to do. And people talk about people who do good jobs….not as much as they talk about people who do bad jobs, but trust me, if you do a good job you will be remembered.
#2 – Use Social Media
Once more I’m going to point you to the writing of Trisha Mead over at www.2amtheatre.com. She wrote recently about building relationships through social media, and you need to go RTWT because she says it a lot better than I was going to. She gives some really great advice on how to manage your online presence and although her focus is on relationship building for playwrights it applies across the board.
Through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, & LinkedIn I have gotten to know another whole group of theatre professionals both local to Vancouver and internationally. Sure, the first “off line” meeting still has that hint of “Are we really going to hit it off as well as we did online?!” but in my experience it tends to work out well. And heck, I’ve flown across the country to meet up with people I met online. I’ve also gotten job offers because someone I met online gave my name to someone.
The most important thing about each of these online media is that you use them to engage. Ask questions. Answer questions. Dialogue. Sure, there is room for self promotion, but if all you do is self-promote it is likely that you will be blocked out as noise. (If you are considering using Twitter, I highly recommend Dave Charest‘s FREE e-book called “The Beginner’s Guide to Twitter”. He has all the details you could possibly need to know about using Twitter effectively and he’s a hilarious, great, artistic type.)
But when you have the chance, take those online relationships offline. I’ve been privileged to get to know such folks as Rebecca Coleman, Simon Ogden, Kenji Maeda & Amanda Ballard. Do these relationships equal jobs? Not directly. However, I know that some of them have recommended me for positions that have come up and that their friendship has pushed me to step out of my comfort zones and try new things. What more can you ask of friends?
#3 – Go See Theatre
When I defined networking above, I highlighted the phrase “common interest” from it. One of the best ways to ensure common interests with the theatre folks you are about to meet at various events is to actually attend theatre. It always amazes me the number of theatre artists who don’t go and see anything that anyone else is doing. Last calendar year I saw about 70 shows. In the first six months of 2010 I have seen about 40. These excursions to the theatre do not always include an opportunity to make a connection there, but they provide the groundwork for future connections. They give you a chance to say, “Oh yeah, I saw you in XYZ and thought you were great” or “I thought your work in XYZ really took a new direction from ABC”. It also gives you a chance to meet the others in the audience. I don’t know how many times I have run into an acquaintance at a show and had a fantastic conversation about our shared experience there.
These networking opportunities do not lead directly to jobs. That is not the point. They lead to relationships, and in an industry as small as the theatre industry is, relationships matter.