Like it or not, developing relationships is one of the most important elements of getting work in Hollywood. And for most actors, working the room is the scariest part of the game. I hear actors say they’d like to avoid networking, hoping to “be a recluse” à la Johnny Depp. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you don’t get to skip schmoozefests, avoid the press, and live abroad until after you’re famous. Before that happens, you must work the room. Johnny Depp earned the right to indulge his natural desire to stay out of the Hollywood hype machine after he became a known commodity. Before he was doing 21 Jump Street (or the film and TV projects he did before scoring that gig), he had to work the room just like everyone else.
I’ve talked before about networking, and explained that I was once really bad at it but became really good at it. That wasn’t because I wanted to be good at it, but because it is a reality of living and working in show business. You cannot do it without some measure of networking. But as with most things in Hollywood, getting good at it has everything to do with setting yourself up for success, creating a plan of action, building strength through practice, and following through. So, let’s get to it, shall we? Here’s how to work the room.
Choose the Right Scene
There are far too many networking events and random Hollywood parties to make it easy to know which one is going to be the best investment of your time and energy. And until you’ve experienced some of all types of events, you might not know for sure which ones are your speed. (Note: This is not permission to find “your speed” and then stay only within your comfort zone. Got it?) But when you are learning how to network, it is vitally important that you find the types of events that suit you best. Targeting the right scene is going to put you in a room with others who may share your general vibe and business style. And that’ll be a good start.
Do Your Homework
If at all possible, find out who you’ll be meeting ahead of time. Do a little research about these people, their companies, their projects, their current client base, etc., and note what draws your interest. Consider this activity a bit like a casting director approaches an audition session with you. We’ve perused your headshot and resumé, and we may ask you to tell us a bit about your experience at a particular theatre or with a certain director. We’ve done a little homework about you, noted what drew us in, and are prepared to ask you to elaborate on something when we’re given the opportunity to speak with you one-on-one. In some networking situations, you have the opportunity to do the same sort of prep.
Alleviate any stress you might be feeling over the fact that you’re about to start talking to someone who could “do something for your career.” That anxiety bleeds through your chitchat and makes us all uncomfortable. It’s like a bad date with a desperate person we’d otherwise find attractive (if it weren’t for that cloak of NEEDY or OVER-EAGER). The spin on this that works for me is: “This producer and I are at the same event not because he can do something for my career, but because we obviously share a common interest (or else we wouldn’t be at the same place at the same time, having the opportunity to have this conversation). Maybe there’s some synergy to experience here. Let’s chat!” Approach the interaction as an opportunity to connect and then be open to what that might mean. Open. Not attached to anything going any particular way.
Get Over the Whole “Fake” Issue
Yes, some of this is going to occasionally feel “fake” (and by “fake,” I mean “surface-y”). But it’s actually good news that Hollywood operates so close to the surface. An actor friend of mine says he loves the shallowness of this town precisely because it means that a very casual introduction and round or two of drinks can absolutely lead to feelings of deep connection. And that level of instant intimacy — when properly harnessed and then followed up upon with professionalism — can yield many future career advancements. Case in point: A meeting over drinks at a showcase doesn’t have to conclude with an audition scheduled for the next day. Once I’ve seen your work and schmoozed with you enough to know that you’re someone I’d love to put on a set someday, you might not hear from me for a year or more. But you can bet that when the right role comes along, I’ll be calling you with a straight offer, since we have that “shallow” personal relationship.
Think about an iceberg. You may only be known by the very small bit of you that is exposed to the public (and have many, more complex and deep issues than we ever know). And when you’re a more public figure, you will find that ratio flips. Yes, the world will know a LOT about the very public person you are, but there will always be a wee tip of the whole you that you only show to your inner circle. Okay, so there’s always some bit of you that will go unexposed. Fine. Cool. So what? Networking is not about revealing your true self to anyone who will take you in. It’s about connecting with someone you didn’t know before, having some amount of genuine interest in one another (yes, even if it’s only genuinely an interest that about 2% of your personality really cares about), and developing a professional relationship from there. I think one of the biggest obstacles actors set up for themselves in networking is this feeling that they’re going to be required to let strangers in too far and too quickly.
Accepting the shallowness of Hollywood relationships should clear that right up. You can spend an entire evening bonding with someone over the topic of Beverly Hills, 90210: The Brenda Years and come away feeling totally connected with your new best friend… all the while keeping your soft underbelly safe from sharp pointy things.
Build Your Networking Skills
Confidence is attractive. See my column on Banishing Self-Doubt for more on that. But the point is: We like being around people who (seem to) feel comfortable in their own skin. Fake it if you have to.
Talk about things, not people. Things are better/safer topics. Things are easier topics. If someone insists on bringing the topic back around to people, always find a way to compliment others; never gossip.
It’s not about you even when it’s about you. Almost no one comes to a networking event with a singular agenda to become an expert on YOU. Even if you feel like the spotlight is right on you (and you’re feeling the heat), it probably isn’t… even if you’re the topic of conversation.
If compliments make you uncomfortable, do a totally covert type of deflection using responses like, “Isn’t this fun?” at a show reception or “Wasn’t that a great film?” after your big screening. If you EVER hear me speaking with people individually after I’ve spoken to a large group, you will hear me do this. Good Southern Girls are experts at the, “You gave such a good talk.” — “Doesn’t the SAG Foundation put on a great event?” turnaround. (It comes from the whole, “I love your dress.” — “I got it on sale.” root, which we belles are taught as soon as we learn how to speak.) It’s deflection that keeps us comfortable, matches the energy of the compliment, and doesn’t negate the original statement (which is the worst thing you can do. See: “What a cute haircut!” — “Oh, ugh! I hate my hair!” Way to make sure the person complimenting you feels like an idiot with bad taste).
If you’re really struggling with remembering names, employ kinesthetic remembering and repetition to help with that. The simple act of physically connecting with someone else while saying their name does wonders for cementing that person’s name in your memory. Handshakes, touches of the arm, hugs (when appropriate, of course) all work. And if you’re in an environment where that’s not possible, repeat the person’s name a few times within a few moments (once or twice aloud, early in the conversation; the rest of the time in your head, as the conversation is just getting started and you’re unlikely to miss more than early pleasantries).
Develop talking points and fun facts as backup. For example, think of three to five bullet-point items you would have your publicist hand to David Letterman, before you appeared on his show. Even though you won’t be prepping a host for interview topics, the fact that you have a couple of fun facts in your back pocket could yield some great conversation starters — especially if you have done your homework and know where your fun facts intersect with the fun facts of those with whom you’re meeting!
Use a Wingman
Any time you’re attending an event with someone you know (which I strongly recommend), have a plan in place to help one another through the schmoozefest. If you are shy, you should avoid teaming up with another shy person. You’ll just stand off in a corner together instead of alone.
You probably shouldn’t choose to network with the same wingman every time. If the only association someone has of you is that you’re “that guy’s wingman,” you may be losing out on strengthening your potential individual relationship with that member of the industry. (When my husband and I attend functions together, we are rarely found near one another. It’s far better use of our networking skills to have him talking me up to a producer who may want to hire me to cast a project while I’m across the room talking Keith up to a theatrical agent who may want to sign him.)
Also, avoid staying in the team you’re most known for being a member of. For instance, if two of you have just done a scene together and are working the room after your showcase, spread out! You should each buddy up with a wingman from another scene and take the opportunity to talk about how much you each enjoyed that other person’s scene, when you’re chatting with agents or CDs. This combines the “local wingman” and the “partner across the room” tactic. Very powerful networking tools! Combine THOSE things with the talking points/fun facts and you have a real marketing blitz going on… but one that doesn’t FEEL like a marketing blitz to anyone. Bonus!
If you see someone you know not talking to anyone, make it a point to head over to that person. Not because you want to chat them up, but because you can take advantage of the opportunity to create a wingman situation and then connect with a new person by doing an introduction together. You become a host of sorts (rather than a guest, waiting for someone else to pimp you out) and that’s a power position. It’s also far easier to introduce someone to a new person than to introduce yourself to a new person. If that seems too scary at first, then start by introducing two people you know (but who don’t know one another). Then have your new wingman do the same for you and someone that she already knows (but that you don’t know).
This is one of the primary reasons my networking skills began to flourish. I made it a goal to constantly surround myself with the best people I knew, whether they knew one another or not. And then any time I stood in a room where two of the best people I knew didn’t know each other, I’d make sure to introduce them and get them talking. It may seem as though I’m being a good host, by behaving this way. Okay, sure. That’s happening. But what is ALSO happening is: I am networking. Suddenly, I’m the one who hooked two people up who may happen to go on to work together in the near future. “Gosh, we’ve been working together for a while now. How did we first get together? Oh, right! Bonnie Gillespie introduced us,” becomes a refrain. And if you think that kind of conversation going on when I’m not around is not helping with my networking, you’re missing the point.
Let Yourself off the Hook When It Doesn’t Go Well
Working a room is all about building a muscle. It will get stronger the more you use it. Even so, you must forgive yourself when it’s hard to do your top-level workout. Most of us don’t have a gift for working the room. We just work at it more, and it makes the workout look easier. Believe me.
If you have trouble remembering names, let yourself off the hook when you forget one. Think about how you feel when someone forgets your name. It’s no big deal, right? The anxiety is the obstacle — not your ability to remember someone’s name. So once you remove the obstacle of that anxiety over “how bad” you are at remembering names, you’ll find it’s actually a lot easier to get better at it!
Meanwhile, be okay with saying, “I’m sorry. I know we’ve met, but I’ve suddenly forgotten your name.” Especially when you’re introducing your contact to someone else, this is a great time to get this admission off your chest (again, remove the anxiety), since the person is now so focused on meeting the other new person, they’re not at all troubled by the fact that you’ve forgotten their name. Your flub will be glossed over and you’ll get a chance to hear their name again and employ a memory tactic that can help you seal their name into your mind. (Plus, now you can always go back and ask that friend you just introduced to the industry contact to remind you what her name was, in case he did a better job of remembering it. Whoopee! Another ally! Another wingman!)
Bottom line with working the room: People don’t remember you. They remember how they feel when they’re around you. Think about it! Who do you LOVE spending time with (socially, professionally, whenever)? It’s someone who makes you FEEL great, right? So, remember that it’s not about making an impression (which is another anxiety-laden goal, in professional settings and personal ones alike). Instead, make your goal in setting out on any networking endeavor to create a positive environment. Don’t try to impress anyone or to be anything in particular. That’s too much pressure and it really yields low returns in the end.
Relax. Breathe. Don’t drink too much.
Good luck and happy networking! Let me know how it goes for you.
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000704.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.