Performer Abiola Ogunbiyi explains the professional benefits of networking and suggests strategies for those who struggle to put themselves out there.
Networking is purely business speak for having a polite conversation.
Some people just have it. They strut into a press night party and know exactly what to say and exactly to whom it should be said. They glide through the crowd, introducing themselves to new people with the familiarity of a long-term friend. They take compliments on their performance and dress sense with the perfect balance of gratitude and humility, with a drink in their hand (that you never see them drinking from!) and their heart on their perfectly ironed sleeve. These unicorns of charisma make networking seem like an inborn skill. But whilst it may come more easily to some than others, with a little reframing and pre-situation strategy, you too can begin the journey towards becoming a networker extraordinaire.
If you’re reading this resigned to your ‘party place’ as being permanently stationed over the canapé table, cunningly avoiding conversation by always having your mouth half full of bread, well my friend, I am here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way anymore.
As soon as you stop thinking of networking as that horrible and icky thing that feels like you’re trying to talk your way into a job, you can begin to make it start working for you. You can. Trust me. Or better yet, trust yourself. Trust in your ability to do the one simple thing that networking boils down to…
Networking = talking
Maybe it’s because it has the word ‘work’ in it, but networking is purely business speak for having a polite conversation. So take a breath and remind yourself that all you have to do to be networking, is talk.
Perhaps the scary part is the fact that it often involves talking to a stranger, which is fair enough. But remember that, for the most part, if you are in a place where networking is an important factor, you’ll be surrounded by people who know this too. The arts and entertainment industry is a web of connections that will pay off more with the more connections you make. Think of each new person as a possible seven more connections, and seven more opportunities for new projects. To maximise the opportunities, you’ve got to carpe the connections.
If you find yourself worried about how to start a conversation, don’t be afraid of having rehearsed lines. Try a simple “What did you think of the show?” “Were you watching a friend tonight?” “Have you been to this course/workshop/theatre before?” to get the conversation started on anything other than the weather.
It is 100% okay to come prepared with lines when first starting your journey towards unicorn charisma. But if ultimately you would like to put that internal script down, a great way to improve your spontaneous conversation skills would be to go to a few improv classes, to get more comfortable with entering a conversation space with less of a fear of the unknown.
Feet off the pressure pedal
We all know how competitive our industry is, but at the same time, we need to be able to sit back and treat certain elements with ease. Take off the pressure that any one conversation you might have with an individual will be the make or break of your career. Or that you have to introduce yourself to every individual at an event just in case one of them might change your life with an eight-part soon-to-be Emmy-nominated drama series.
Life is not a 90-minute film (though that fact will never stop me imagining I am in a montage every time I lean against a train window). But the idea of instant relationships and life-changing encounters is a very romantic idea that, although totally possible, isn’t really the way most relationships are made.
The beautiful thing is that even when you meet only one person, you are also meeting all the people who they know who they could one day introduce you to. Take relationship-building one bite, event, and person, at a time. (Don’t bite people though. Please).
Networking can have a hugely positive impact on your career, exposing you to people who can not only help you access more opportunities but can make other people aware of your capabilities
Put in the hours
You will never get over whatever worries you have about networking until you try it and see that life will still go on after you have a conversation with someone. You’ve got to get out there and get your networking loyalty card stamps. The more practice time you get, the better you will get. Like any new skill, trust that stepping up and connecting confidently will feel slightly uncomfortable at first, but that, with time, you will find your unique footing.
You can also practice networking in less professional settings. Have a conversation with your waiter next time you go out for a meal, or with your barista, or with someone wearing a jumper that you like. Practice anywhere and everywhere you can, and you’ll train your brain to see it as a natural part of your professional and personal life.
Be sure to practice the entire art of conversation, including the ever-feared goodbye. This is the finest art in the networking gallery. It is as simple as “Well, it was so nice to talk to you. I’m going to grab another drink/get some food/go to the loo/make around round before I go home, but I would love to exchange details.” Ending a conversation with a stranger seems to be one of the hardest things for us to do. I like to see it as ripping off a plaster. Rather than deliberating and wringing yourself inside thinking about how the other party will take your goodbye, you’ve just got to tear and breathe. Think about the fact that you’ve met that person, you’ve (hopefully) had a lovely time and that somewhere else another lovely person is waiting to meet both you and them.
May the fearlessness be with you
Yes, to a degree, you will have to cast out your net and be prepared to do some work. But networking can ultimately have a hugely positive impact on your career, exposing you to people who can not only help you access more opportunities but can make other people aware of your capabilities.
It’s a case of choosing smart work over deceptive fears. Choosing to trust that you know how to talk and that doing it enough will create a network that works for itself, gradually turning you into the unicorn of charisma that I know lies within. So gallop on out there and trust that the canapé table can mind itself.
Abiola Ogunbiyi is an actress and screenwriter, whose performance credits include Mamma Mia!, The Book of Mormon, Alone In Berlin, Girls (Theatre); Jamestown, The Interview (Television), and A Boy Called Christmas (Film). Her short film Sexellence won Best International Film at the Portland Comedy Film Festival (2018), and Best Comedy Short at the Grand Budapest Film Festival (2019). In addition to writing and acting, Abiola runs the platform To Be A Better Artist, facilitating workshops to support wellbeing amongst creative professionals.
Headshot by Crista Leonard.