Careers Clinic: How can I quell networking nerves?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I’m not sure anybody who has seen me on stage will believe this, as I am inevitably cast as the bouncy, noisy, confident character, but ‘behind the scenes’ I’ve always been quite shy. Funnily enough my partner, who is also an actor and tends to get the downtrodden, nervy roles, is the confident one when we go to events together.

Unfortunately, with the Christmas party season on the way and, more importantly, those all-important opportunities to ‘network’ that everybody keeps banging on about, my other half is currently working halfway across the country. This means I’m going to have to show my face at the various industry festivities as a ‘solo act’ this year.

As I’m getting to that age where reminding people I am still out there is a good idea, I don’t think sitting at home is going to be an option. My partner is encouraging me to ‘just get out there’ but what is easy for some isn’t so easy for everyone.

What are your tips to avoid my ‘networking’ turning into ‘not working’?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I completely agree that quite a lot of actors lack confidence in social situations. I would include in this number certain actors who are loud and always ‘on’ when offstage, as this is usually a response to being more afraid of social interaction than they might admit.

You are also spot-on that networking is something actors are increasingly encouraged to do, with very little guidance on how to do it properly. In some ways the misconceptions about physical networking are not dissimilar from those that lead many actors to approach online and social networking in the wrong way – the belief that the onus is on ourselves to be fascinating at all times. The result of this is twofold: either we put too much pressure on ourselves and withdraw from the whole business altogether, despairing of ever measuring up, or we try too hard to attract attention, and succeed – for all the wrong reasons.

The ironic thing is that if we use some of the skills actors (or good actors, at least) use on stage they will work equally well in this offstage and increasingly vital aspect of acting life.

The first element that helps is rehearsal. Rather than trying to come up with good introductions on the night, especially hard to do at an event when you are already nervous, play around with a one or two-line introduction of yourself which sounds professional, interesting and, most importantly, personal, and rehearse it to the point where it comes out naturally. As with all rehearsals, don’t get to the point where it sounds over-rehearsed.

Step two, which again is something good actors do, is to put more focus on listening and asking questions rather than concentrating so much on what you are going to say that you don’t hear what the other people are saying. What you have to say is going to be a lot more interesting to other people when it is tied to what they are already concerned with, and it is only when you are listening and observing that you will spot those opportunities to connect. You can take that principle one step further by doing some research on people who you know might be at the event and who you are particularly keen to meet: what have they cast, what are their interests outside the industry, and, just in case there aren’t name badges, what do they look like?

Networking and acting both get easier the more you do them. So treat your first events as a learning curve and, if I happen to be there do come and say hello, I promise to find you completely fascinating.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne