I’m just going to come right out and say it: networking events are hard.
Hot take, I know. But it’s true.
You hurry from panel to panel, surviving on tiny bottles of water and snacks, while trying to squeeze as much information into your brain and business cards into your pockets as possible. By the end of the day, your back is sore, your feet are throbbing, you’ve 86’d the nine packs of gum you brought, and your deodorant has clocked out for the evening. And, yet, you still need to put on a smile for those after-hours cocktail parties.
Even for the most outgoing people, this isn’t easy. And for those of us who prefer dark rooms and blank pages over social gatherings and shaking hands, it can feel like swimming with Jaws in a bikini made of chum.
Okay… Maybe not that extreme, but certainly threat-level orange on the anxiety scale.
Unfortunately, without effective networking, there will likely be no representation, no pitch meetings, no option agreements, and no writers rooms. To get to the next level in your writing career, networking is a necessary evil. It has to be done.
The upside to events like the upcoming ScreenCraft Writers Summit in Atlanta is that they create invaluable opportunities to be in the same rooms with agents, managers, and award-winning writers, directors, and producers.
The question is: what can you do to ensure that you get the most of being in those rooms?
To answer that, here are 7 Tips and Tricks that can help you chum it up (the friendly kind, not the shark bait kind) at networking events to get the most out of them. I even buried some bonus tips just for the attendees of the ScreenCraft Writers Summit. If you’re going to be there, come find me or @ me and let me know how these are working out for you! Find me on Twitter here.
1. Find a way into groups and conversations.
Most people at networking events will congregate in groups, especially around the panelists and mentors. Shouldering your way into those circles and wiggling into those conversations without seeming like an eavesdropper or creep is difficult. The best thing to do first is observe and check the temperature of the conversation—is it a private conversation or is it open? If it’s open, try to position yourself closer to the conversation naturally – maybe they are standing in line to get food, or refilling their drinks. That’s a perfect time for you to be hungry or thirsty too (and work your way into the group). Then listen, and wait for a lull or opening in the conversation, where you can chime in with your opinion on the subject and introduce yourself. “Hey! I’m sorry. I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about that new “Hanna” show on Amazon. I loved it too! My name is Mary, by the way. Nice to meet you all.”
Congrats! You’re in, and totally not a creep. Woohoo! Now, the goal is to maintain your presence in the conversation without being overbearing. Phrases like “that’s awesome” and “that’s a great point” are going to be your best friend. Try to involve all the group members too, not just the person or people who seem important. Ask questions, and be polite. This brings us to the next piece of advice—
2. Networking is a lot like dating.
Nobody wants to date someone that they think is fake or dishonest, and nobody wants to work with someone like that either. So, the most important things to remember when networking are to be genuine and to be humble. Try to talk about the person you’re speaking with more than you talk about yourself. Ask them questions: where are you from; what are you working on at the moment; what show(s) are you currently binging; where did you get that sweet backpack? Listen. Show interest. And find common ground from which to build a personal connection.
To this day, my most influential professional relationship was built on, of all things, fantasy football. I was a PA working on my first show, when some guy wandered into the copy room and saw me setting my lineup for the week, and we just started talking. It was like my third day on the job and I had no idea he was a well-respected showrunner that was working as a consulting producer on our show. That showrunner became my mentor and that seemingly meaningless conversation served as the foundation for a relationship that – either directly or indirectly – lead to every job on every show that I have ever had since. Something as simple as fantasy football essentially launched my career. Something equally simple could launch yours too. So be yourself, bond over common ground, and use mutual interests to build lasting connections. The truth is, those Oscar-winners and big-time agents are more like you than you may think.
3. Buddy Networking
Just like dating, it’s so much easier to network when you have a wing person. That way, when you’re talking to people, you can brag on someone else’s talents rather than your own. This not only makes you seem like a genuine person who cares about and works well with others, but it also legitimizes your buddy’s skills in a way that they could never do on their own. We’ve all heard that the entertainment industry is a “who you know” business. And it’s true. It’s all about referrals. So, if you can “refer” your buddy into conversations (and vice versa), that’s a great place to start to build connections. And it takes the pressure off of both you and your buddy. So, if you have a friend, bring them. If you aren’t bringing a friend, make one at the event and work the rooms together.
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4. Be Complimentary and positive.
Compliments are a great way to break the ice. “Holy cow, those shoes are amazing! Where did you get them?” Or, “I just want to say how much I loved X project. It was so good! What are you doing next?” Compliments never hurt anyone. They’re also disarming and have the tendency to lead to other topics of conversation. Your rule of thumb should be to pass out more compliments than business cards. This philosophy will serve you well.
Next, keep in mind that these events are stressful enough. No one wants to chat with a Debby Downer. Even if you’re typically a negative person, try to check that at the door. Have a good attitude, speak kindly about others, be excited to be at the event and to meet anyone and everyone. The saying doesn’t lie: a smile goes a long way. Brings yours. And wear it.
5. Don’t forget about the other attendees.
These events, contrary to popular belief, are just as much about meeting the other attendees as it is about meeting and learning from the mentors and panelists. There’s a booming film and television industry here in Georgia. And a TON of talented people – like you – will be at the ScreenCraft Writers Summit. So, go into the event (and any other event for that matter) looking to connect with anyone and everyone, not just the professionals. Your goal, especially if you’re from Georgia or nearby, should be to build strong relationships with a community of fellow creatives that you can collaborate with to produce amazing work down the road. Remember: today’s full-time accountant and part-time writer is tomorrow’s Oscar-winner. And they could be sitting right next to you in one of these workshops. So, you should probably, like, get their handle or whatever. Seriously though, get to know the people you sit next to and stand in lines with. You never know who you’ll meet and where you’ll find a connection.
6. Use social media.
You’re already going to be peddling and collecting so many business cards it’ll crash your contact list, but you need to friend, follow, and retweet your face off as well. Today, that’s not just the best way to connect, but to stay connected (which we’ll talk about in the recap article, after the Summit). Besides, these days, who doesn’t like having more followers? But don’t just follow. Like one of two things on their page. Show you’re interested in what they’ve posted, but don’t overdo it. Again, it’s like dating. There’s a fine line between showing interest and being a creepster. Be careful not to cross it. Also, realize too that social media isn’t for everyone and many people like to keep their accounts private. So, if they say no, don’t be offended. Just roll with the punches!
7. You’re not there to sell.
Okay, I saved the best piece of advice for last. These events aren’t about selling your stuff; they’re about connecting. One of the biggest and easiest mistakes to make is to go to these events and approach people with the sole purpose of forwarding your own agenda. Nothing sours a potential connection faster than: “Hey, I’m a writer! Will you read my script?” It’s a Writers Summit. One can assume, fairly accurately, that you’re a writer or creator of some kind, and that you probably have projects you’re looking to get people interested in. The trick is to get people interested in your work because of the personal connection you’ve made. But to do that, your work has to be the last thing on your mind and theirs. If they feel pressured or obligated, or sense that you’re only looking to get something out of them, you’ll likely never hear from them again. Your only agenda should be to meet people. Whatever happens past that is icing.
You bought the badge. You blocked out a weekend. Maybe you even paid for a flight and booked a hotel room. Now you just have put these tips and tricks to use so as to ensure that all your time, effort, and money are well spent. If you walk away from the ScreenCraft Writers Summit – or any other networking event – with two or three genuine connections, then it was all worth it.
I’ll be at the ScreenCraft Writers Summit in Atlanta all weekend, and I look forward to meeting and getting to know as many of you as I can. Good luck!
Mitch Olson is the Founder and CEO of Point South Productions, a literary management and development company based in Georgia. Prior to moving to out east, he worked in Los Angeles in development and on shows for NBC, Fox, CBS and Netflix. In addition to Mitch’s work at Point South Productions, he teaches Screen and TV Writing at Kennesaw State University where he is building a Screen and TV Writing MFA program and training the many diverse and talented writers that he hopes to one day represent and work with. Additionally, he has partnered with Georgia Film Academy to develop high school curriculum aimed at providing students with skills and career opportunities in dramatic writing.