Help for the Common Shy Person
While living along the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Portland, I somehow learned to network. I never took any classes or workshops on the subject, I merely made my way through the city the best I could. And after a few years, I realized I had a pretty large network. Since making my way back to the Midwest, in the town of Grand Forks (located not too far from Winnipeg, Fargo, or Minneapolis/St. Paul), I have to make use of those skills in a more concerted effort as I develop my presence and reputation for my work as a theatre artist. I wanted to share some of the insights I’ve had along the way.
Have a Message
In Los Angeles, I tended to think of this as “always be working on something.” Even if it was as simple as a passion project that may or may not come to fruition. But if you have a message, it is something you can rely on if someone asks you what you’re up to.
For example, I have a solo show that I premiered in the fall of last year. And it is always a project that I am further developing, rewriting scripts, trying to promote for bookings. However, it is a slow journey at times, for multiple reasons. But I’m working on it. It’s something I can talk about. The message is something that is important to me. I have passion for it.
You can also think of a message as having a brand. It’s what you want to be known for. I have a reputation as the clown/mime/living statue guy. I’ve created formal gala entertainment and had people ask me if I was going to be doing it in clown make-up (I didn’t). Part of that brand is also knowing why I am doing it: Because I want to fill the streets of this town with magic. I want someone to be walking down the street and encounter something or someone that they never expected, and for the rest of the day, they might have a smile on their face because they ran into a crazy character on the street who took a selfie with them to promote an event.
I also have boiled down the purpose of my company to my three C’s: Create, curate, and collaborate on theatrical events that connect people together. That’s another thing I can talk about at length if anyone asks.
I have all of these stored away for use. Which brings me to point number two:
Forget the Message.
Seriously. Once you know what you can talk about, just forget about it. I’m reminded of that popular internet meme: Ain’t nobody got time for that!
The reason for this is simple: You don’t want to FORCE the message on anyone. If you are pushing it onto every person you meet at a social function, you may find yourself having the opposite intended effect. There is a reason for this that we touch on in a moment, but first, just imagine: Have you ever been stuck in a conversation with someone that only talks about themselves? It can get a bit annoying.
If you forget about your message when approaching a new connection, this allows space for the conversation to move in any direction. It can flow from topic to topic. It may at some point reach your message, or it may never reach that point. And either way is okay.
Having a message simply allows you to have confidence when you walk into a room. You have something important to say. And you know how to articulate it in a concise, powerful way. Imagine if you only have two-three minutes chatting with someone, what is it they should know about you and what you’re trying to do right now? That should be in your back pocket, no need to wave it like a giant banner around the room.
Be More Interested in Others
There’s an old adage, “Humans were given two ears and one mouth because they should listen twice as much as they speak”. Apply this to networking situations. Be curious. Most people love talking about themselves and their interests, so be willing to ask them questions. Find out what makes them tick. Find where their passions and your passions intersect.
It is where these intersections exist that progress can be made. I have never found a more positive impact on my relationships than finding common goals with a new friend. We may attack the problem from completely different perspectives, but it also allows opportunity for two different ventures to come together (even if just briefly) to accomplish something before going their own ways.
Don’t Look for Advancement
People can sniff out someone who is simply trying “to get ahead”. It can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth dealing with someone who is being artificially polite and trying to keep your attention. If I learned anything from years in large cities, I learned to not be that person.
If you don’t focus on this, you’ll be surprised. By the time I left LA, I had a pretty wide net of friends. I knew the general interests of most of my friends. I was friends with actors, yoga teachers, musicians, videographers, etc. However, it was not until I left LA that I realized that some of my friends were far more influential or established than I knew at the time. This was because the nature of our relations focused on the personal day to day frustrations of living life. No matter where you are in life, you still get sad, angry, depressed, excited, and everything within the full spectrum of human experience. And this was our common language we had.
So while I knew intimate details about my friends, I never knew some superficial facts about their careers. Once I left LA and got into more contact via social media, I began to see their other endeavors, and learn that some of my friends were doing some amazing things all over the world. Also, having TV once again, I’ve started to see my friends in commercials all the time. Which is definitely a fun perk from living in Los Angeles.
Opportunities have come from those friendships as well. I won’t go into details, but I’ve certainly had the chance to do some exciting projects thanks to those relationships, which were cultivated with the correct priority first: Friendship.
Ask to Help, Not for Help
One lesson I’ve learned more recently came from a friend in Grand Forks. Whenever I run into him, one of the first or last things he asks me, “Is there anything I can do for you?” It’s a simple but effective question. And most of the time the answer is no. But sometimes there might be. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting down with someone over a coffee and picking their brain about how they did something so that you can learn how you might proceed. Or maybe it’s about connecting you to someone who can help you further in your path with certain resources (whether that’s mental, physical, financial, spiritual, etc).
But instead of focusing on you and what you need, ask others how you can help them. Just like being interested in others, this can lead to some interesting opportunities for collaboration, growth, and reaching goals.
I like to think in terms of social capital. When you help others, or invest your attention in their interests, you are depositing capital. Whenever you ask for help or seek the attention of others, you are withdrawing social capital from your imaginary account. Make deposits rather than withdrawals.
Quality Interactions, Not Quantity
A single evening spent talking with one person can be worth 10 superficial conversations. I once had a conversation with a theatre maker in the lobby after a show for nearly an hour. I didn’t know much about him before the conversation, and only got hints of his history during. But we had an amazing conversation about the art form, what constitutes good theatre in our opinion versus bad theatre. Only upon going home and looking up a little more information did I realize how accomplished of an artist he is.
That did not matter in the conversation. We were equals in that moment, inspiring each other through our own observations of what we experienced, and placing all the different lens of academic scholarship over the piece. It was probably a bit condescending if anyone was to walk into the middle of the conversation (which may explain why it was simply the two of us talking for so long in a crowded lobby), but we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
I would must rather have that singular interaction in an evening than to try and hit everyone in the room to have a brief conversation that ultimately does not inform either person about the hopes and interests of the other.
Making the Leap
The scariest part can always be the initial reaching out. Putting yourself out there is an extremely vulnerable act. One way to counter this is to enlist a friend who may know the crowd or a contact better, and to introduce you. This helps at least temporarily break the ice. But eventually with practice, it does get easier to simply reach out and say, “Hi, I’m…” and introduce yourself briefly, before asking the other person questions.
Sometimes you can reach out via social media or email. Ask for a coffee. This helps focus the conversation to two people. I have seldom been disappointed by approaching someone for a conversation. I may get no answer if it’s via social media. Or, in person I may simply not get a chance to approach someone because either they are too busy with other people or I get too busy with other conversations. Those are quality problems though. Whatever messages you may be telling yourself that lead to doubt, forget about. Remember that message you have in your back pocket? You know you’re valuable.
I have apparently done something right in my networking. I find myself being approached for projects. People know who I am, and they send people my way who might have something interesting for me to help with. I have given multiple interviews with the media simply because I was helping on someone else’s big project. Sometimes you have to have to be patient. You’re never going to feel like you’re where you’re supposed to be, so just relax. You’re exactly in the right moment. You are heading in the right direction, so keep on traveling!