What a Year of Networking Looks Like or How to Strike Up a Conversation in a Room Where You Know No One

I like to tell up and coming photographers, directors and film editors who ask how I keep so busy, that it’s not knowing the tools that makes you a success, although you positively do have to know your tools, it’s the relationships with people that make make you someone attractive to do business with. There are millions of creative artists out there, and more every day, who know how to do what you do on some level. How do you compete in that creative services pool?

You get out there. You talk to people you don’t know at industry related parties or events. In fact, you talk to people you don’t know everywhere you go. You never know when a conversation is going to lead to a chance for creative collaboration.

For some, talking to strangers comes naturally. But for the majority of artists, it can be a terrifying thought to walk into a room where you know no one and not hug the wall. Taking flight, literally flapping your arms until you levitate, might seem to be a more reasonable proposition for a lot of us than saying hello to someone you don’t know.

But you have to do it. Unless you have a generous benefactor funding your art, the business of art requires human interaction. And for those of us who are used to working alone when we create, we have to unlearn the solitude. We have to learn to mingle.

Trust me when I tell you I know it’s not easy for most of us. These days I can walk into a room of people I don’t know, at a party or meeting or some other gathering and strike up a conversation. But it wasn’t always that way. I used to hug the wall looking at my watch before finally deciding nothing was going to happen and heading for the door without saying a word to anyone.

A stack of some of the business cards I’ve collected in the past year

But that is silly when you think about it. A wasted opportunity. Both from a just-for-the-sake-of-being-social standpoint as well as missing a chance to maybe meet someone new who might be looking to hire someone with your particular set of skills.

Slowly I began to learn how to begin a conversation with someone I didn’t know existed only a few moments before. It starts with an open mind. A curious spirit of adventure. And remembering not to take yourself too seriously. You have to be yourself. And remember to try to have fun. Relax. What have you got to lose? Actually, nothing.

Fun is the key. We’re all out there looking for work, but it doesn’t have to always feel that way for both the sanity of ourselves and the people we’re chatting up. In fact, it shouldn’t feel that way. No one likes the hard sell. It makes everyone uncomfortable.

I like to work with people I like. That’s really the foundation of networking for me. I assume that people who may decide to hire me to shoot or edit something for them feel the same way. The goals of whatever project you may be involved with can be difficult enough to achieve on their own. At least if you’re part of a team that gets along, everything is much easier. Finding a team of collaborators that have your back makes all the difference.

So I begin a conversation with someone at one of these industry events by simply saying, “Hi, I’m Billy.”

It’s simplicity at its best.

Hopefully, whoever you just introduced yourself to will, at the very least, respond in kind with their name.

Then what?

Look at the room or environment around you. Comment on something interesting or amazing or odd about it. Just try to make it something reasonably positive. If you begin a conversation by complaining about something, you’re sucking the energy out of the moment before you’ve begun.

Just be friendly. Remember, you’re trying to have fun. Cultivating this person for a job should actually be the last thing on your mind at this point. First, you don’t even know who they are, let alone whether they are in a position to hire you for anything. Smile if you feel like it. Smiles are good. Laugh if something is funny. Just make sure it’s genuine. We all have game faces, but sometimes it’s good to let down the guard and relax. Be real.

Sometimes that will be enough to continue the conversation for a few minutes. Sometimes you’ll get a brush off. It happens. No one likes rejection, but it’s part of life. Tell yourself that someone who would brush you off so quickly is probably not someone you would enjoy working with anyway. Whether it’s true or not, you’ll feel better. Don’t take it personally.

If you do manage to keep the initial conversation going, I find it’s best to give up some information about yourself. You don’t have to be specific, just enough to give the other person a reference point of where you’re coming from.

Who is this person who is suddenly talking to me. What do they want from me?

If you can put someone you’ve just met at ease, they’re less likely to make a hasty excuse to move to another part of the room.

“It feels good to be out and unwind tonight. I just got back from a shoot in Mexico this morning and I’m looking forward to having a few drinks and sleeping in my own bed tonight.”

I’m not always returning from a shoot in Mexico every day, but you get the idea. You’ve just given the other person a reference point of who you are. If they’re interested, they’ll ask to hear more. If not, move on.

This is not the time for your elevator pitch or a list of your professional accomplishments. It’s just talking. Experiencing whatever it is that’s going on in your general vicinity at that moment.

At some point you’ll probably both reveal what you both do for a living, but this is not a scavenger hunt and the longer you can put off any sense that you might be interested in being hired by this person, the more real and genuine these first few conversational moments will be.

If it seems like the conversation has reached a point where it might be appropriate to ask what someone does for a living, I find a much more interesting question to ask is, “So, what are you good at?”

The other person may look at you funny for a second because it’s not the usual networking question. But to be honest, at this point if I’m really interested in getting to know this person as a human being and not as a potential paycheck, the answer to the What are you good at question, is first, way more interesting than finding out the name of the company where they are employed, and second, indicates that I may be not the usual artist trolling for work.

Often, whoever I’m speaking with will laugh and repeat the question, “What am I good at?!!”

I usually say something like, “Yeah, I could ask you where you work, but asking what you’re good at is usually more interesting.”

It’s just the truth. It’s just me being Billy.

It’s not an act. Like I said before, I’m there to have fun first and if something comes of it, great. If not, hopefully I’ve spent a few minutes with someone interesting. Maybe I’ve learned something. Being curious is usually rewarding.

If the conversation continues and we discover that we might benefit from collaborating on a project in the future, perhaps we’ve taken the long road to get there, but it’s a real road. Not a fake sales-y road. It all goes back to the concept of working with people we like. If after 15 minutes of conversation the person I’m talking to decides he or she could picture spending weeks with me working on a project, then I’ve achieved my goal of getting out there and showing people who I am.

Not every networking conversation is guaranteed to lead to work. But never having any conversations at all is guaranteed to never get you work.

And not every random person you meet is going to be in a position to decide to hire someone with your skill set. For every art director, writer or producer, there is a team of business managers, account people and other general office staff. From a professional work standpoint, perhaps it might seem like a bust, or a waste of networking time if you find yourself ordering a round with someone who literally can’t hire you. But you know, sometimes being a reasonable human being means learning about someone who has nothing to offer you professionally. It’s that just having fun thing. It’s Karma. And you never know. Sometimes an account person might mention this cool photographer they met at a party the other night to one of their creatives….

You just never know…

It’s now four hours since I wrote that last sentence. Ironically, my evening just turned into a real world experience of what I’d just been writing about.

As I was typing the words, You just never know, my phone rang. My friend Inna was outside my studio in her car. I poked my head out the window to wave at her on the street below. The next thing I knew I was being driven to the Dana Hotel to be her guest at a Vertigo rooftop party involving a group whose name escapes me at the moment, but it’s basically a international community with the occasional well-traveled American in attendance. I may have been the only American there. My kind of party!

Soon after we arrived, Inna, who is an Uzbekistan born makeup artist, was introducing me to a Russian makeup artist friend of hers. Our little group slowly grew to include a few more of their friends and friends of friends, including a teacher from Italy and a physician from Colombia.

After a few drinks on the roof, our international party headed over to Alliance Française de Chicago, a short walk away, for their Fête de la Musique/Make Music Chicago event where we were treated to a musical performance by Andreas Tibbles, a guitarist from Nova Scotia. Six years earlier, Inna and I met each other taking French language classes at Alliance Française. We had come full circle.

When the music performance ended, we were invited into the auditorium to watch a movie presentation of Funny Face, a 1956 musical starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, loosely based on legendary photographer Richard Avedon and set in Paris, but instead we opted to continue our conversation in the lovely outdoor courtyard of the Alliance Française.

With such an international group, the topic of conversation quickly turned to events and personal stories from all over the world. I really love that kind of discussion. My only disappointment throughout the whole evening was the realization that my French has gotten a bit rusty in the past few years. I’ll have to work on that.

When it was over, we all exchanged business cards and said bonne nuit, or good night, and Inna returned me to my studio.

And speaking of business cards, the photo above is a stack of some of the business cards I’ve acquired in the past year of networking. It really is what a year of networking looks like. And tonight I have a few more to add to the stack.

Next, we return to the continuing stories of the ZoeFest photography artist retreat of which I was a part of late last year in Todos Santos, Mexico. I’m long overdue for another chapter in that adventure.

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