How to network at film festivals without being a jag

We’ve all been there, at a film festival event at which everyone is standing around chatting when someone enters the conversation in full-on schmooze-mode. It’s insincere, it doesn’t feel good, and, as is usually the case, it doesn’t get the schmoozer anywhere. But, on the flip side, we’ve also all felt the great feeling that comes from striking up a conversation that feels genuine, that has give and take, and that feels good long after the conversation has ended.

networking-at-film-festivalIt’s a delicate balance. We want to go into events prepared to shine, but we also want to be mindful of not trying too hard and looking like a schmoozy bullshitter. Here are some tips to keep in mind next time you find yourself at an event where socializing is on tap, so you can networking with ease and authenticity and make the most of the opportunity to build community.

Understand the reason to schmooze.
People who really excel at networking and building relationships are masters at finding out what they can do for other people. This alone can change your whole approach, if not your life. Seriously. Think about it. It’s not about going into the room and begging for your needs to be met. Nope, when it comes to networking, the people who are giving to others and connecting like-minded people together are coming out way ahead.

Before the festival, look at the website, its event calendar, and at related social media and take note of news related to the event, the people highlighted, and who is going to attend. Connect and follow social media accounts, both the official accounts of the festival and with people you might find who are posting/tweeting about the event. If there’s someone especially relevant to your work, you might even send them a chill “looking forward to meeting you” tweet as long as you do so with a completely professional and not-creeper vibe. Another route, if you are in contact with the festival or event organizers (and provided it’s not the night before because hello, busyness) you can shoot them a note well in advance and ask for an introduction to a particular person. Note, though, that this only works for an intro to someone relevant to your work, and will backfire terribly and make you look like a jerk if it’s just about connecting to someone famous. So, don’t do that.

Next, take a second and determine what you will have in common with others at the event. This seems goofy and simple, but it puts you in a more confident state to remember as you go in, especially if you’re feeling the pangs of imposter syndrome or sheepishness about what you might perceive as too-few project credits. Just remind yourself you’re a filmmaker/actor/whatever, too, and proceed.

The elevator speech is so dead.
Don’t open with your entire bio or some fake-ass line. The goal here is to get to “tell me more,” not to barf your entire resume or some boring pitch at every person you meet. Better plan? Have a simple and brief introduction and have 3-5 bullet points in your mind of things that are relevant and that you’re passionate about (passion reads positively) and work them into conversation as appropriate. But, also remember this: it’s better to keep it brief and light. If the conversation accomplishes its goal, then you will have another opportunity to give the other person more information later, so don’t drive yourself crazy trying to bare your soul to everyone you meet.

Be a hero to a wallflower.
If you don’t know where to land next in a room full of chatting people, go talk to the person standing alone. They’ll probably welcome your company because nobody wants to be the one standing in a room by themselves. And, don’t assume that by standing alone, this person is low-status; in fact, always assume the best and most empowering narrative for everyone you meet.

Be ready and be confident.
Having a rehearsed schpiel ready to go is going to sound fake AF, but knowing how to simply, briefly and confidently state your deal is important. Equally important? No self-undermining. Your body of work is a fact, so claim what’s yours– there’s a huge difference between saying “I’m a documentary filmmaker. Right now I’m doing a project about rollercoasters.” and “I sort of make films or whatever. I mean, not like huge ones, but like… you know. I’m doing one about rolelrcoasters. Well, not like famous ones, but like…” Blah blah blah. If you don’t believe in your work, nobody else will. It’s not endearing to undermine your work. Just say it. You work hard. Claim what’s yours.

Even if you’re new to the game, own it. Way better to say, “I’m working on my first feature,” than, “Oh, yeahhh, I’ve done a tone of films, sure. Yeah.” Be real. People can sniff out a bullshitter a mile away.

Also on that note, take a few minutes before the event and scan whatever blog and news orgs you regularly read beforehand so you’re up on current industry news, and the main headlines of the day. You never know when the big stories will come up in conversation, and you want to be ready. Bonus readiness plan? Read opinion pages and sites so you have a related op-ed or three in your mind so you have an interesting point to add.

Ask questions.
We can’t emphasize this one enough. Look, people want to feel heard. So, listen to them. We all intuitively sense the difference between someone genuinely listening to us and someone waiting for their next opportunity to speak. Be a listener, and even better, be someone who is curious about others and makes them feel heard by asking questions. Not cutesy, gimmicky questions, either. Think interesting industry news and questions about the other person’s projects, passions and work. People will love you for hearing them and wanting to know more about them.

Start with easy questions like, “How are you connected to this event?” or “Where are you from?” or “What brings you to this event?” Then shut your mouth and listen. Ironically, you’ll likely be remembered as interesting simply by drawing conversation out in others.

And remember, the goal of conversation is to advance it with each contribution. A great conversationalist not only advances conversation with ease and simplicity, but also is generous to the other person in terms of giving them places to go in the conversation. No matter how tempting it might be to describe a play-by-play scene breakdown of your amazing script, try to give more than take and form a connection. Think long haul, not one-shot.

Keep it positive.
Often, when we don’t know what to say, we resort to complaining. Nooooooo. Double no! Don’t do this. Keep it positive, or, at least, neutral and not negative. Remember: successful networking always builds forward, and never tears down.

Know when to exit.
We’ve all been there: stuck in a boring conversation, stuck with a person talking nonstop about themselves, or, as is most often the case, stranded in an awkward conversation that was perfectly fine but that has run its course. Easy: downshift with one small-talk sort of question or comment, then smile and politely excuse yourself with a simple, “Well, So-and-so, it was great chatting with you. I’m going to grab another drink/start to make my way out/thank the host/make sure to say hello to a couple of other folks here before I leave.” Then, shake hands and go. Easy, no drama.

For the love, please follow-up.
So often, people make contact at events, then never follow up. Here’s what’s needed: say hello, remind them where you met, and give them something. That’s all. For example: “Hi, So-and-so. Great to meet you at XYZ Festival the other night. Here’s the op-ed I mentioned about women in film. Have a great weekend. -Your Name.” Greeting, place reminder, and a gift. Boom.

If you want to also ask something of them, make sure the ask is very specific and connected to the conversation you had in person, that it’s very clear, that you’ve given a compelling reason for them to say yes, and that you’ve made it easy for them. For example: “Hi, So-and-so. Great to meet you at XYZ Festival the other night. Here’s the op-ed I mentioned about women in film. I would love to learn more about the board position you’re looking to fill and see if I would be a good fit for it. Here’s a link to my bio. How about we find a time in the next week to hop on the phone for 10 minutes and talk more about what the role requires and I can share my ideas about what I can bring to it? -Your Name.” Notice that the intent was clear, not some vague “let me know what you think,” the ask was low-stakes– a 10 minute phone call, not the dreaded “grab coffee” meeting (nobody has time for this), and not leaving it vaguely to the fates.

Amy Guth is founder/executive director of Strangewaze, a filmmaker, journalist and talk radio host in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @amyguth


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