19 February, 2014

Ask Al: Networking

Hi Al, 

I'm an American acting student studying at The RWCMD [Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama]. What are some actions I can take/things I can do to network while still in school overseas? And similarly, when I am back in the states? 



Dear Abroad,

All of these are great questions.

First of all congrats on your educational adventure! (I obviously identify...) Remember: continue to celebrate your adventure. It can be difficult to see so many of your British classmates make plans to stay in the UK. I know it is hard to envision an alternative life for yourself when you are in the minority, but fear not! Celebrate that you get to have yet another adventure as you return home to the Land of the Free.

Networking can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but breathe: if it doesn't come naturally or easily, take heart. It can be tough on anyone. Everyone in every and any business has to attempt it on some level, so try to approach the entire thing first as a necessary exercise in human nature (not a make-or-break career killer.) You're special. I know that. The trick with networking is getting other people to know it too.
...That's it.
So while you're taking heart, don't freak out—you're not slicing brains or FIXING SYRIA...you're mostly just... going to parties...

The advice I have to offer is pretty simple. (And in six steps. You know how much I love numerical points...)

Here we go... 

1. Don't lose touch with the people you already DO know.

I know. I know. But think about it—"Networking" is only as powerful as your base Network. And you absolutely never know who or what anyone will ever become, who or how anybody can help you--even in the most seemingly insignificant ways.


2. Continue to network with the new people you meet. 

Even the British people— you never know who they might be able to introduce you to.

When young actors ask me for advice, I sometimes tell them what people in the corporate world call 'NYFO'— or, Network Your Face Off. You want to NYFO so hard that you HAVE NO FACE.

Nearly everything I have worked on in the last three years (from theatre, to orchestral gigs, to my teaching at Pace), can be directly traced back to both connections I’ve made, and help I’ve received from a network that is expansive, diverse, and crucially: active.

3. Say 'YES.' Then Show Up and Show Often. 

The best networking suggestion I can offer? Say yes to invitations. Even if it isn't clear what you’ll 'get' out of the event.

I’m not arguing for overbooking yourself into exhaustion, nor am I campaigning for long,  unstructured conversations with every single person you meet at the opening of an envelope. But my most fruitful business connections have resulted from a spontaneous gathering or event I was not, at the offset, entirely sure about.

Some call this "making your own luck—" but making your own luck simply means increasing the odds of making the right connection.

Of course you can’t possibly go to every soiree, cocktail to-do, industry party, opening night, nor could you take every single meeting. But by regularly connecting with people you think are interesting, you guarantee yourself a richer life. But you also heighten your potential for unexpected benefits in the form of seemingly serendipitous connections. Some of the best friends, allies, business partners and jobs I've acquired came through other friends, acquaintances who saw me and sparked a mental connection—even when I did not.

You may be asking, how can I make these connections in the first place?
That's my point: SAY YES. Then show up, and show often. Get off the sofa, put down the Pringles, turn off the Netflix binge marathon, brush your hair and go—go to that thing your roommate's boyfriend's cool artist cousin is throwing.

This should be obvious, but when you are starting out in any industry, it is an understandably unappealing idea to socialize with people you don’t know (especially when you’re working 16-hour days at some temp job to supplement your artistic dreams). But everything, and I truly do mean every single thing, starts with showing up.

4. Ask others for help both directly and specifically.

If you work with someone you REALLY connect with (say, a guest director), ask them directly: “Do you have any American contacts you might be willing to make an introduction to?” If they do, the probability is that they will. People LIKE to help other people. Well, most do.

When it comes to the networking, my advice is ALWAYS to be very specific. Identify who precisely you might ask for help, then ask for EXACTLY what you need. General questions aren’t going to help you at all. “Can you help me?” simply is not as effective as “I am looking for American connections to meet in person the week of February 18th. Do you have anyone you might be willing to connect me with through email or by phone?” The latter is a specific request to which a person can offer a “Yes” or “No” answer. Help people help you by knowing what you want and need! On that note, my penultimate, highly-complementary strategy:

5. When you identify exactly what you want, broadcast that to every person you meet. 

When talking about your career goals and artistic dreams, be honest—first with yourself and then with others. A little candor combined with an honest bid for a connection with others, goes a long way in turning a conversation from trite to meaningful.

A few months ago, a friend of mine was on the hunt for a new agent after a long pause from the entertainment industry. For an entire month, she answered every “How are things?” question with some variation of: “Great! I just started back in the business, which has been a great adventure. Auditions, meetings, and I’m also trying to meet with a few new agents. How are things with you?”

96% of the time, she said the conversation continued as normal, with a corresponding update and usual small talk. .
...But four people she spoke with were different:
       "They immediately responded by suggesting they had a former colleague, relative, mailman, or ex-husband at Blah Blah Agency," she said, "and would I like an introduction?"

Within six weeks, she went from career stagnation, to four warm personal introductions to power players who could make her career re-boot happen. Eight weeks after that: she had both a voice over gig and a fantastic job in regional theatre. The overall point is this: people WANT to help others if they can. But they can't help out if you don't make it known.

Behold! A party at chez Al Silbs.
6. Don't just get a life. Have a life. 

If you have a life—by which I mean a life full of friends, family, meaningful activities, interests, and higher purposes—you won't feel as desperate about your career.

Then, don't just be the person that goes to the parties. Be the person who throws them! They don't have to be big or fancy. Two years ago I resolved to open my home up to two or more people per month. There were no restrictions on what they had to mean (giant Labor Day soiree, Burns Night with Scottish pals, a tea party with Nikka and Amy Jo, or Make-Fun-of-a-Movie Night with local Astorians—no matter!) I not only learned a lot about hosting and opening my heart and home, but I entered a new form of networking sentence "Oh, hey didn't I meet you at Al Silber's party?" Look at that—I get to fill my house full of friends and fun, and my name gets out there in the universe when I'm not even there. Magic.


Remember that networks are powerful, but only as powerful as YOU make them. And, when the dance is done well, a network reveals a core of individuals who are all rooting for your success, more often than not, truly pleased to help you.

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