I get it. You most likely chose a creative career because you love working on your own. As a Hollywood film & tv editor I spend the vast majority of my life in a small dark room…alone. I not only chose my profession because I love the craft of filmmaking, I also chose it because I’m not the most social person on the planet. I’m what you would call an “extreme introvert.” (Don’t believe me? Just ask my wife)
Being introverted and socially awkward is not a valid excuse, however, for avoiding the most necessary step to landing your dream career – networking.
I don’t care how amazing you are at your specific craft, it doesn’t matter if the right people don’t know that you exist.
The key mindset shift when it comes to networking is thinking of it as a skill you must develop no different than learning software. Rather than spending time watching Adobe Premiere or After Effects tutorials, your primary objective is developing your ability to persuade. No matter how socially awkward you might be now, networking is absolutely a skill you can master with practice and consistency.
Defining the Term “Expert”
For the sake of clarity let’s first define the term “expert” because it can apply to many different types of people, it’s not about only finding masters of your craft who are the best ever at what they do. Sure meeting Steven Spielberg would be amazing, but getting to know his receptionist is a far more likely path to getting in the door.
- An expert could very easily be someone at the very top of their game and a legend in your field. An example in my specific industry would be Walter Murch, Oscar-winning editor of such films as Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and frankly too many other classics to mention.
- An expert can also mean someone just slightly more experienced than you. The outside world might not consider this person an “expert,” but they’ve gone further down the path than you have. They are an expert at helping you get from where you are to where you want to be. For example, if you’re working as a night logger on a reality TV show, an “expert” to you could be an assistant editor working on a high profile scripted drama.
Your networking approach is no different whether you’re approaching a legend or someone only one rung higher than you on the same ladder.
Networking Done Very, Very Wrong
There is a right way and a wrong way to go about connecting and building relationships with industry experts and influencers no matter if you’re approaching them in person or electronically. Heeding the following warnings could literally be the difference between you landing your dream career someday vs wondering why you “never get lucky.”
1) DO NOT ask for anything. Don’t hand someone your demo reel and/or business card right after meeting them and say, “I’m available for work right now and I have XYZ skills, and I’ve worked for all these different companies and if you hear of anything that might be available I’d love to be considered. And I’d love your thoughts on my demo reel too!”
Put yourself in the expert’s shoes for a second. They got where they are by working hard and building their own network. They have an entire list of people at their fingertips for when jobs open. Why would they consider you? They don’t know you from anyone else and they have no idea if you’re worth recommending. You must earn your spot on that coveted list.
Think this doesn’t happen? I receive emails and messages via social media all the time from people I’ve never interacted with once.
2) DO NOT ask to go out to lunch (or even coffee) to “pick their brain” in your first interaction. Once again, put yourself in the expert’s shoes…do they have an hour in their hectic day to spend with someone they’ve never met that may or may not be able to string two coherent sentences together? Nope.
The knee-jerk response to this is, “Well they’re just an a-hole if they don’t have one hour for me. They just don’t want to help people.” No, actually they don’t have 10 hours a week for all the requests they most likely receive every single day. It’s your job to stand out from the crowd and earn that lunch. In the next section I’ll show you how to earn it the right way.
3) DO NOT approach an expert without a plan. It doesn’t matter if you’re meeting them in person or reaching out via Twitter, Facebook, or email. The worst thing you can do in your first connection is say, “I’d love some advice,” and then when they do respond you say, “Well I don’t really have anything specific. I’m just curious what I can to do be successful.”
Conversely, don’t reach out to an expert and share your life story and ask them 15 questions either. Don’t make the expert do all the hard work for you, be concise in your request. Come prepared with one question in advance. Do research on this expert before approaching them to understand what they’re working on.
(If you’re interested in perfecting your “elevator pitch,” keep reading)
The Secret to Networking The Right Way
Assuming you’ve internalized the above approaches and you swear to never make these networking faux pas again (like EVER EVER again), you now have only one goal when building your network: Creating meaningful relationships.
Whether you’re trying to connect with experts or just chat with people at a bar, you have only one goal: Create meaningful relationships.
If my choices were either to hand out my business card to 50 people at a giant convention and hope 5 email me back or instead leave having created one new relationship, I’ll take the latter option every single time.
Networking is a game of chess, not a game of checkers.
If you’re wondering how in the world you can build a relationship with an expert in your chosen field if you’re just getting started and they are higher up on the ladder, the key is to add value. Which leads to the next obvious question:
“How the heck do I add value if I have nothing to offer???”
1) Realize that you have at least one skill that expert doesn’t. I guarantee you are better than them at something. If you gently steer your conversation with them towards your skills (only if it naturally fits the conversation), perhaps there’s an opening for you to lend your services (for free of course, DO NOT use this as an opportunity to land a paid gig). Your conversation might go as follows:
EXPERT: “I’ve been crazy busy working on this film and it’s been a wonderful experience, but to be honest it’s been tough to keep everything organized. I feel like I’m buried in paperwork. You should see my office!”
YOU: “Wow, that sounds nuts. I’ve been through that before too, but then I discovered this cool program called Trello. Have you heard of it?”
EXPERT: “No, what the heck is Trello?”
YOU: “It’s this awesome project management tool I use to help me keep all my paperwork organized digitally. I’d be happy to shoot a quick screencast video on how I use it to keep all my stuff super organized and email it to you. Would that be cool? No strings attached.”
EXPERT: “Yeah, that sounds awesome. Here’s my email address.”
BAM!!!! You just found a way to stand out from the crowd, provide value, and get them to offer their email address…and you didn’t even have to ask for it!
2) Periodically send resources you’ve discovered that show your shared interests. After making your initial connection with an expert, keep your new relationship alive by showing you understand their interests and you perhaps have the same interests in common (just don’t abuse this privilege).
For example I get emails all the time from people I’ve met at networking events or that read my blog or listen to my podcast where they send useful links to other products, programs, or guests I might have on my show in the future.
It’s easy to make the assumption that you cannot provide meaningful value if you don’t have the same level of knowledge as another “expert,” but in my mind every single person I come in contact with knows more than me about at least one thing (and generally many things).
3) Take the advice you’ve received and put it into action. If you’ve begun a cordial relationship with an expert and they have given you one or two pieces of great advice, prove to them you actually listened and did something.
For example, let’s say this expert answered your “one question” at a networking event (you did only approach them with one specific question, right?) and suggested you finish your undergrad education instead of taking a paid job you were offered during a college internship. After making the decision to go back to school, follow up with the expert who gave you the advice and just say, “Hey, wanted you to know I decided to finish school based on your recommendation, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Thank you!”
How does this add value? Simple, it makes them feel good about helping you. They successfully helped send the elevator back down to somebody else.
Only after providing value will the door open to further your relationship by grabbing lunch, coffee, or even shadowing that person for a few hours. This is time you have to earn by showing you know how to play the game.
Want to see this system in action? Listen to my interview with Chris Visser. He used these steps to land the job as my assistant editor.
How to Perfect Your “Elevator Pitch”
Alright, now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Whether you’re reaching out to someone via email, social media, or meeting with an expert in person, you need to have your pitch down if you want to get noticed and stand out from the crowd.
NOTE: It’s called an “elevator pitch” because in a hypothetical scenario you have serendipitously gotten into an elevator with this expert or influencer and you have the amount of time to pitch that it takes to get from the ground flour to their floor. No pressure…
“So…you live around here?”
Pitching an Expert In Person
DO NOT under any circumstances approach someone after a panel or at a networking event and say, “I just want to do everything! Do you have any advice?”
If you want to stand out and be memorable, you need to be specific. Have a succinctly honed elevator pitch with specifics about you, your interests, and where you desire to go in your career. Not sure how to narrow down your interests? Try the ‘Tornado Technique’ that I break down in detail in my Ultimate Guide to ‘Making It’ In Hollywood (As a Creative).
You must have a succinct, pre-rehearsed answer to the most common question you’ll most likely be asked by not only the expert you are approaching but also other people you meet: “So…what do you do?”
Here’s how NOT to answer this question:
“I’m thinking of becoming an editor, I guess. I’m still figuring it out.”
Here’s a much more concise answer to this question:
“I’m currently working my way into editing scripted drama because I love character-driven stories. Emotion is what draws me to my favorite shows, and [your latest project] happens to be one of my favorites on TV. If you don’t mind I’d love to ask you one question. How did you….”
Your goal is not to impress someone, your goal is to make yourself unique and memorable in as few words as possible (without being weird).
While your question is being answered, pay attention. This sounds ridiculous, but nothing will disqualify you more than approaching an expert, asking your question, then looking around the room for your next “target.” Show you are listening and that this advice is valuable to you.
Once your question has been answered, you’re going to have to play a bit of jazz and improvise. If there are fifty other people waiting in line behind you, it’s time to move on. If you have room to breath, maybe ask a related follow up question if you’re getting the vibe that things are going well.
If you want to get their contact info, DO NOT say, “Can I have your email address so I can send you my reel?” This puts them in an awkward position of most likely having to say no because they don’t want their personal information circulating. Moreover, if 20 other people are standing around, that means this person is giving away their email not to just you but 20 other people.
The super-secret ninja method is instead to ask for the contact info of this person’s assistant, publicist, support staff, etc. You have a much better chance of connecting with a “gatekeeper” than the expert if you are making a cold approach.
If you still insist on trying to get their contact info and there aren’t other people around, the best method is to phrase it this way:
“Wow, the advice you gave me is just invaluable. I cannot thank you enough. Once I implement this I’d love to let you know how it helped me. Do you mind if I keep in touch via email and share my results with you?”
As mentioned in the previous section, this approach provides genuine value to the expert by showing you know how to take advice and implement it. Everyone loves helping someone else find success.
Pitching an Expert via Email
When pitching an expert via email, remember they have a lot of other emails to get through, and if they’re truly an “expert,” it means their life is busy. Keep it simple. DO NOT share your life story, every single challenge you’re facing in your career, and ten questions you’d like them to answer on top of that.
Try out this formula for your next pitch email:
- Briefly introduce yourself using your elevator pitch
- Share a piece of information personal to them that proves you’ve done your research and you aren’t sending the same email template to 100 people
- Ask one question (a related follow up question is okay as well)
If this person is a halfway decent human being they will most likely respond, but do not expect them to respond promptly. In general an email like this goes into the “Someday” folder. The last thing you want to do is blow your chance at a potential response and lifelong relationship by getting irritated after only 3 days and sending the following message:
“Hey, I sent you an email a few days ago and you haven’t responded yet. I know you’re busy, but after 3 days it’s kinda rude. I’d really appreciate a prompt answer to my question when you have a moment. Thank you.”
This is an INSTANT DELETE. Do not make this mistake. Please. Like ever.
Be willing to play the long game.
If they haven’t responded in a month, it’s okay to gently nudge them as long as you are very conscious of their time.
Try this simple email formula for getting their attention:
“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, a while back I inquired back about [X]. I’m sure you’re very busy, no problem at all. Just thought I’d float this to the top of your inbox as I know stuff falls through the cracks. Thanks so much.”
Most likely it was an honest error and you’ll usually get a very polite response back, often the same day. The reality is you won’t always get a response. Plant enough seeds and eventually a few will sprout and grow.
Networking Is One Piece of a Much Larger Puzzle
If you want to land your dream job in your creative career of choice, there is no question that networking is a vital skill to master, but it isn’t the only skill.
Even if you follow every piece of advice listed above and build a solid network, do you have awesome work that demonstrates your skills?
And even more importantly if you’re working hard to climb the ladder of success, have you made sure you are climbing the right ladder to begin with? I cannot tell you how many friends and colleagues I’ve talked with who killed themselves in their 20’s only to become “successful” and hate where they are now because they didn’t take the time to assess whether they were climbing the right ladder at all.
If you’d like to dive into the three fundamental steps I believe are necessary to “Make It” in any creative career, I recommend downloading my Ultimate Guide to ‘Making It’ In Hollywood (As a Creative).
Best of luck networking at your next event!