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Ask the Expert: 13 Tips to Networking Success

Question: What are the best practices for successful networking?

I hate networking.

That’s right, I said it. I hate it. I always have. Perhaps this is TMI, but I don’t enjoy being in strange, new social situations unless I’m in charge. If I’m speaking, teaching, being pitched to, or in a room full of people I know, I’m a social butterfly. But I find walking alone into a room full of strangers where no one knows or cares who you are, to be one of the most unpleasant feelings in the world.

It takes a certain kind of personality to truly enjoy and be successful at networking. For some, it comes naturally. Me, not so much. How many of you feel the same?

If you’re bubbly, happy, outspoken, always smiling and decently attractive, then networking should be right up your alley. But for those who hate small talk, are a bit more introverted, socially awkward, or subscribe to the Larry David school of people skills, networking can be a painful experience.

It took me a long time and dozens upon dozens of similarly structured meetings, lunches, coffees and conferences to learn how to get through it with a smile. But whether you enjoy it or not, it’s one of the most necessary parts of the entertainment industry (and really, almost any industry), so you better be able to suck it up and learn how to fake it! The key is learning how to make it SEEM like you love it.

You’ve heard it before – being successful in this business is all about “who you know.” And it’s true. An executive or agent is only as good as his Rolodex. And as soon as I got my first promotion years ago, my boss told me to get out there and meet as many people as I could. And this was before the invention of Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and even MySpace. So, I started cold calling. I opened up the Hollywood Creative Directory and asked my friends who were also in the industry to recommend some nice people to meet with. And I lined up drinks and lunches for three months in advance. And I did that for years. And I still do, though now it’s coffee instead of lunch because I no longer have that nifty expense account.

So what’s networking in Hollywood really like? Well, with few exceptions, every meeting is exactly the same. We meet at a bar or restaurant, we say hello, we trade some inane comment about how rough the day was or how nice the weather is, or how shitty the parking is in L.A., we order a 10-dollar drink, and the friendly investigation begins.

We trade questions – what’s your story? Where are you from? What school did you go to? How long have you been in L.A.? How long have you been at your company? How’d you land there? What are you working on now? What do you want to do? And if there’s a good vibe and some nice chemistry, perhaps you even talk about more personal things – relationships, hobbies, drug preference, etc. And then you get to projects and whatever material you wanted to pitch or talk about. And then 60 or 90 minutes, and 2 or 3 drinks later, we leave with a business card and someone who has agreed to read one of our projects and take our call.

Then lather, rinse, and repeat.

So if you’re ever at a loss of what to say or ask – the questions above are always popular.

There’s even a pretty widely accepted etiquette for paying the bill – a lovely dance you learn pretty quick. If you’re an agent, you almost always pay. If you are a manager, it depends on if you have an expense account and who is courting whom. Whoever is doing the courting, pays. If you’re an exec or assistant and have an expense account, and you’re meeting with another exec that doesn’t, you pay. If you both have expense accounts, you split it (or the person at the bigger company pays). And if neither of you have expense accounts, then you also split it (unless one party is specifically trying to sell something to the other, then the seller pays).

If you’re a writer, it depends on who asked whom to drinks/coffee. If you asked to take an exec or assistant to coffee – it’s on your dime. If an exec asks to meet you because they loved your script – they pay. Either way, no matter who you are and who you are meeting with – always offer to pay even if you don’t mean it at all. And if you DON’T pay, a great way to ensure a second meeting and continued contact, is by saying, “Okay, but let’s do this again soon and next time will be on me.”

As you can tell, after a while, networking just gets old. And everyone’s stories seem to blend together. So one great tip I learned is after a meeting, quickly write down EVERYTHING you can remember about the person and put them in your database – all those little things like where they are from, what they are looking for, their school, their birthday, etc. The more intel you have, the better you can use that connection in the future, and they will be impressed that you remember so much about them. However, these days you can probably just add them as a friend on Facebook and you’ll find out all you need.

And I always ask the people I meet with who else they like that I should know or meet. And that is how I built a network. Because whomever they recommend, I can now call and instead of it being a cold call to a stranger, it’s “Hey, So and So is a friend of mine and said you and I need to know each other.” Instant contact. But again, today, you can just look at their friend list on a social networking site, but it is less personal.

Social networking websites have really changed the face of networking, especially in Hollywood. It started during the writer’s strike when no one had anything to do and no one had use of their expense accounts. Sites like FB and LinkedIn made networking less expensive, but it also made it less personal and much, much creepier. It’s like, “Hi, we’ve never met, but I know all of your favorite movies, your phone number, and what your mother looks like. Add me.” I’m sorry, but as a first introduction, Facebook is creepy.

Many executives (and I use this term to include execs, producers, agents and managers) will not add random writers to their personal Facebook account. I usually don’t add writers I have never met or spoken to because I don’t know what they are going to use my friend list for. And as a general rule, I don’t care what someone I don’t know is doing on a Tuesday afternoon.

These sites can be a good networking tool, but usually it’s not the way to MAKE connections – it’s the way to KEEP connections and keep up with connections you’ve already made.

A great way to network is attending writers’ conferences. As you know, I have been to a TON of pitchfests. You’re in a room with 20-80 other companies. For me, if I work the room right, I can get three months worth of networking done in one day. And it can be the same for you. The only difference is – writers have to pay to network at these events, while these events PAY executives to do it. But it’s a way to meet someone personally instead of sending a query by mail or email, where there is no interaction, chemistry, etc.

No matter where the networking occurs, I want to give you all some more specific tips on how to network, especially when you truly hate it. And specifically, how to network with executives and agents, because the rules are slightly different than when networking with other writers.

Executives and agents know when writers try to network with them, they have the upper hand. They have the power in that situation. Some consultants like to say writers have the power because agents need writers. Well, that’s crap. They have writers. You NEED an agent. It’s like being a nice looking woman at a bar – it’s their world, it’s their rules, you’re just paying to live in it for a few minutes. So here are some tips to successful networking:

1. If you really hate networking, one tip I suggest is setting a realistic goal and making a game out of it. If you’re attending an event, set a goal to speak to a certain amount of people, give out or get cards from a certain amount of people, and see how quickly you can do it (while obviously not seeming rude). I always set a time goal to accomplish this so I don’t find myself standing in the corner not speaking to anyone and wasting time. If you set a goal of 7-10 people, and you give yourself an hour or so to do it, this will seem a more easily accomplishable task than wanting to meet everyone.

And even better, after an hour, you’ve accomplished your goal, made contacts, and you haven’t had to waste your whole night on small talk you can’t stand.

2. If you know who you are meeting with beforehand (or who might be attending the event), do your research. Look up what they have worked on, what they are working on, see if they have worked with anyone you already know, etc. It will only give you more to talk about and a natural entry point to a conversation.

3. Much like when pitching, networking is about seeming professional, normal, and confident - but not overpowering or cocky. Don’t use wild hand gestures and beware the volume of your voice. I can’t tell you how many people I need to walk away from because they are screaming at me even though we are only two feet away from each other.

4. Never EVER be a close talker. It’s not just a Seinfeld episode – it’s an epidemic. If we are meeting for the first time, pretend there is an invisible wall 12 inches in front of my face. This is going to sound horribly sexist and superficial, but if you’re a good looking girl, you can disregard that wall and get as up close and personal as you want. That’s not my rule – it’s every guy's.

5. Find a personal connection (without seeming like a stalker) – same college, hometown, same-aged kids, same sports team, etc. Chatting about personal stuff first will open doors to talk business later. However, do NOT get embarrassingly personal. I have had writers I just met tell me about their hysterectomy, their childhood abuse, their drug addiction, etc. Connecting on a personal level does not mean engaging in a therapy session.

6. Unlike during an actual pitch, when you’re networking with an exec, it’s a good idea to open with a question because then they have to engage with you directly or they will seem rude. But again, make sure it’s an appropriate question, not embarrassing or too personal. And if he’s in the middle of a conversation with someone else, wait until he is finished and then ask what could be a “transition” question – something connected to what they were talking about but that slowly veers the conversation to you.

However, do NOT play 20 questions! Execs do not like to feel like they are being grilled. Try to just have a normal conversation. I met a guy at a recent event who was like a four year-old asking me every type of question he could think of, even as I was walking away. What are you looking for? Did you like Avatar? What do you think of all the remakes? Do you think my period piece can sell? Do you like L.A.? Why is the sky blue? Do these jeans make my ass look fat? OMG, SHUT THE HELL UP!

7. Don’t be a name dropper or a right-fighter. Executives and agents don’t like writers who are name droppers because THEY like to be the ones dropping names. That’s the advantage they think they have over you – so if you try to trump then, or prove you know more people, they will have no interest in you. And if they say something you disagree with, certainly you can pose an alternate view and opinion, but don’t fight a point just to prove you know more than they do.

8. Do NOT start your conversation with “I have a script I wrote…” This immediately turns an exec off. Especially at a conference where we’ve just gotten through 8 hours of pitching, the last thing we want to hear during happy hour is another pitch. If you’re at a pitchfest, the exec knows you wrote a script - that’s why you’re there. If they cared and wanted to hear about it, they would ask about it. Make the connection, make the contact, and follow up later about the script.

9. The easiest way to get an exec or assistant to give you his or her time is to buy them a drink. Works every time. Or ask if you can take them to lunch. This especially works with assistants, because a free lunch is like manna from Heaven to them.

10. Never, ever…ever…strike up a conversation in the bathroom. I don’t care who you are when I’m peeing.

11. Don’t stalk. Don’t be creepy. At a conference I went to 2 years ago, all the execs went out at night (as we often do) and as we are all sitting in a bar drinking, we notice that peering in from outside the doorway, was one of the writers that had pitched us earlier. He didn’t say hello, he didn’t get a drink, he just stood there and watched us. Don’t be that guy. And if you pitch an exec for 5 minutes at a conference, don’t run home and add him as a friend on Facebook. As I said, a five-minute pitch does not BFF’s make.

12. Don’t overstay your welcome. There is a natural flow to a conversation, and often there is an obvious moment when the conversation is over. Instead of forcing it to continue, ask if you could give an exec your card or get one of theirs, say “very nice to meet you” and move on to your next target! Especially for people like me who have little tolerance for inane chatter, usually after 7 or 8 minutes, I tune out (I promise, I’m actually very nice and don’t have A.D.D., I just have the patience of a toddler. Haha).

And finally…

13. Drink. Be responsible of course, but having a drink or two will probably allow you to loosen up and be more social. And hey, beer-goggles make everyone more fun to talk to.

Networking is just as much a skill as writing and pitching. It takes time to perfect, time to realize what strategy and approach works best for you, and time to truly enjoy it and feel proficient at it. And if it seems to be taking a long time for networking to come naturally to you, then slap on a smile and fake it ‘til you make it!