The Indie Introvert’s Guide to Networking: How to Work a Room, One Person at a Time

“Networking” can feel like a dirty word—so sleazy and sales-y, so “look at me” that it can make you cringe.

The whole endeavor can be particularly nerve-wracking for moviemakers, who start their careers wanting to do creative work, only to find themselves mired in the ol’ promotional hustle routine that’s necessary to get work seen, build a fan base and meet future collaborators.

Well, good news, introverts: Networking is something that gets easier with practice, and it needn’t feel gross. Author, entrepreneur and public speaker Tim Ferriss said it best in his 2015 South by Southwest speech about how he built his network. The goal, as he put it, is “to spend very little time ‘networking’ per se—collecting business cards and what not.” Rather, make your objective the creation of “long-term mutual relationships, as opposed to transactions.”

Here are some concrete techniques, tips and good habits that I’ve picked up from various mentors, colleagues and thought leaders—all damned good networkers—that will have you known as a “people-person” in no time.

Quality, not Quantity

Your goal at any mixer, festival or event should be to make a meaningful connection with one person. That’s it.

I’ve heard this from many people over the years and it takes all of the pressure away from meeting as many people as possible. You never know the future collaborations or great friendships that might arise from this single connection. And you may well encounter more, and better, connections through your one newfound friend than if you spread yourself too thin trying to meet everyone at the party.

Be Interested, Not Interesting

This is a gem that career coach Barbara Deutsch talks about on a regular basis: being “interested” in people, instead of attempting to be “interesting.” Forget the stressful—and obnoxious—task of putting a spotlight on yourself; instead, put your effort into listening to the person you are meeting, who they are and what they are about.

Everyone likes an opportunity to tell their story. Be a refreshing break from all the schmoozers running around, shoving their business cards in people’s faces, launching into monologues about why they are important. And don’t worry: The conversation will eventually come back around to you, giving you an opportunity to tell your story, as well.

Pick Your Target

The burning question: Who do you try to talk to, in a room of complete strangers?

The good news is, if you are at a networking event, mixer, film festival and so on, everyone else is there to meet people as well. There will be, hopefully, a general openness to conversation.

Ferriss looks around for “the most relaxed, unrushed-looking person, not necessarily the A-lister surrounded by people.” On the flip side, Gersh agent Tara Kromer suggests that you research anyone you know is going to be there and look up what they look like beforehand. This is great if you have someone very specific you want to meet. And then you’ll need a good…

Lead-In Line

How do you to approach someone and what should your opening line be?

If there is a person you specifically want to meet, see if you can ask for an introduction through someone whom you know has a connection to them.

If your target is a complete stranger, try opening with a compliment. It could be as simple as saying, “That’s a great jacket,” or “That cocktail looks delicious; what is it?” Which can lead you into “How did you hear about this event?” or “Are you in town for this, or are you local?” as well as “Any panels that you’re excited for at this festival that I shouldn’t miss?” and so on.

To a moviemaker whose work I love, I’ll say something like, “I wanted to let you know that I loved the fight scene from your latest film. That wide shot was absolutely stunning.” The idea is to mention something you truthfully love about their work. This will often be received with a “Thank you so much” and a “What’s your name?” which allows you to keep the conversation going.

What to Talk About?

Ferriss says that “the small talk is the big talk.” And as Kristen Nedopak, showrunner of The Geekie Awards, says, “You never have to talk business to network.”

You might have an ulterior motive related to your filmmaking career that you’re jonesing to bring up, but hold your horses before busting out with an over-eager request. Talking about things other than the independent film industry lends the potential to connect with someone on a much deeper level. Sure, conversation will probably arrive at “What do you do?” territory, but until then, let your guard down and learn some personal, meaningful things about the other person—the “authentic connection,” remember?

The Buddy System

Tag-teaming a party—having a wing-woman or wing-man—is always a great idea. The key, of course, is to not get stuck only talking to each another. If you’re shy in social situations, bring someone more outgoing than yourself to help get you out of your comfort zone. Agree beforehand to share any new people by opening up conversations to include each other. You’ll feel a lot less self-conscious with a partner.

NETWORKING Leah Cevoli and Helenna Santos

Filmmaker Leah Cevoli (left) and Helenna Santos at a Ms. In The Biz networking event in Hollywood. Photograph by Michael Jackson

Know Thyself… and Thine Drink

A good rule of thumb is that if you are going to drink at an event, have one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage. Or, if necessary, just have one drink at the beginning if you need some liquid courage, switch to water, and then wait to drink more until later in the evening. There’s nothing worse than meeting someone who could have a direct impact on your career and either not remembering it the next morning, or making a complete fool of yourself right there and then.

Exec-types will often show up at the beginning of the night, so if you are there to meet them, go early. According to Kromer, most serious networking takes place before 11 p.m. On the other hand, filmmaker John K.D. Graham points out thatit can sometimes be the connections made with people at the end of the night, over drinks, that can end up being important over the long run.”

Use common sense. Know your limits. Drink within them.

Conversation Etiquette (a.k.a. Make Your Mom Proud)

There is an epidemic I’ve witnessed at entertainment industry parties: Someone will be engaged in conversation with another attendee, but glancing over that person’s shoulder for anyone more important they could be talking to. Don’t be that guy or girl! It’s hideously rude. Pay attention to the person you are talking to.

A conversation’s just begun and you’ve realized that your partner isn’t someone you want to connect with? You still have to be respectful during the time you are talking to them. Look them in the eye, listen attentively, and then if necessary, politely excuse yourself.

Pausing the Conversation

Every entrance needs an exit. What do you do when you are stuck in a conversation that you don’t want to be in, or just want to meet other people?

Ferriss suggested, in his SXSW speech, not thinking of this as “ending” or “escaping” the conversation but “pausing” it. Don’t make up a hokey excuse to leave; say, simply and straightforwardly, something like, “You going to be here for the rest of the festival? Cool. Do you have a card or something? I’d love to connect but I just want to wander around and maybe take a breather, grab a cup of coffee.”

This also works well for evening mixers and networking events. I would say something like, “It’s so great to meet you. Are you going to be here for the rest of the night? There are a few people that I promised to say ‘hi’ to and I haven’t connected with them yet. Perhaps we can keep this conversation going later on in the night?” Then ask for their card or contact information if you want it.

Getting the other party’s card is always more important than giving them yours. They might lose your card, or it might get thrown into a pile and never looked at again. If you have their card, you hold the power to keep the connection moving past that one event.

To help you remember who you’ve met, when and where, Kromer suggests jotting down some brief notes soon after the encounter: “I set up a ‘note pad’ on my phone beforehand with the events I’m going to and make the list of new contacts after each event so the information is fresh.” Include notes on what you talked about and whatever else you think might come in handy in the future.

The Follow-Up

After a one-day or one-night event, follow up with your new friend the next day with a quick email saying it was great to meet them. If there is something specific that you had spoken about, make sure you mention that in your correspondence. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could “Friend” them on Facebook and/or follow them on Twitter.

Ferriss recommends waiting a full two weeks after a big event like Sundance because during the event, correspondence will get lost. And right after, the catch-up email slog can be even worse—so two weeks is great. He also suggests that emailing is best on Wednesday, Friday or Sunday afternoons (recipient’s time) for maximum response results.

What if—oops—you waited a month past the timeline of when you were supposed to contact them? Career coach Dallas Travers says to just admit to your mistake: “I’m sorry I dropped the ball,” and then remind them of what you are following up on. It’s never too late to reopen a door, if you’re minimally awkward about it.

Growing Relationships Over the Long Term

Some of the people you’ll meet at networking events, film festivals, parties, workshops, conferences and panels might not lead to any more than a handshake and a hello. Others have the potential to become collaborators, mentors, colleagues and friends. How do you continue to foster and grow these relationships?

If you made an authentic connection (“Tennis? I love tennis! You should come to our weekly mixed doubles group!”), nurturing the relationship will be easier. However, if you made a simple “this is what I do, this is what you do” connection, sometimes it can be a bit trickier. Either way, each connection you make has the potential to help you grow your career.

Personally, I opt for staying in touch on Facebook and Twitter. It allows me to see what people are up to without being a cling-on. I make it a point to support colleagues by sharing news about what they are up to with my followers. This reminds them that I exist and adds value to their journey and career, but allows me to stay at a distance so I’m not smothering them.

That’s important: Don’t be the one constantly messaging someone you just met, asking them to donate to your crowdfunding campaign or to “Like” your project on Facebook. Incessantly pestering someone on social media will put you in “creeper” category very quickly. So err on the side of less is more.

And on that note, assess the other person’s personal and professional space. Are they even on social media? What platform are they most active on? Maybe they never tweet, but are active on Facebook. Engage with that person in the way in which they have opened themselves up to being contacted.

Now Just Do It

Have fun! Even the shyest moviemaker has to work with other people, so why not search out other people you genuinely like? It’s a virtuous circle: The more you put yourself in situations to grow genuine relationships inside of the industry, the more your professional network will grow, one person at a time. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016.