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How to Network Like a Pro

By Ryan Plummer

No one in this industry makes it alone, and networking is key to your success.

As a freelancer, you’re used to the hustle. Every day you’re building your skills, seeking out clients, and tackling projects. Yet even with all this hard work, you might be ignoring the biggest factor in your personal success: Networking. We’re a small industry, and knowing the right people isn’t just a way to land new work.
If you want to improve your game, and build a strong circle of encouraging friends, you need to network like a pro. Motion design meetups are becoming more and more popular. These events are refreshing ways to build new friendships with your peers. These are people who speak the same language, know your struggles, and will encourage you to move forward.
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By nature, Motion Designers are a bit indoorsy. We're huddled behind our desks and crunching frames for most of the day. This daily grind tends to be a bit of a downer for our social lives. More than that, face-to-face networking is a perishable skill. If you’re not comfortable at these meetups, they can leave you drained and frustrated.

Networking can be intimidating at first

  • What should you talk about?
  • How much should you talk before it becomes too much?
  • How do you save a dying conversation?
  • How do you even start up with a stranger?
My goal isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to give you the gift of gab. It’s a set of easy tips to keep in your back pocket when you’re meeting new artists. These will not only keep you focused on your new friends, but they’ll help you have a really great conversation. One of the best places to deploy these tips is at a motion design meetup.

What Can You Expect at a Motion Design Meetup?

Meetups are generally broken down into two parts: Mingling and an Activity. Mingling is just a meet-and-greet. Depending on the venue, there is either food provided or available for purchase. Meetups happen at breweries, bars, coffee shops, and sometimes those swanky co-working spaces. At high-end events, you might get a drink ticket once you enter. While you might be nervous, take it slow with any--ahem--adult drinks.
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To have an easier time starting a conversation, show up early. If you arrive while the host is setting up, introduce yourself and offer to help out. Punctuality isn’t just a social flex.
Walking into a room full of people who are deep into conversations can feel awkward. You might even feel like everyone is watching you walk in late (they aren’t). After the mingling, some events will host a guest speaker. These are known personalities in the industry who will share some pearls of wisdom about a number of topics.
Since you’ve already expended the energy to get out of the house, you might as well stick around and get your learn on.
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The host will have a detailed list of what to expect, usually available with the RSVP webpage/invite. If you want to step up your game even more, do a little homework on the people you’re likely to meet. That can come in handy later on when you--you know--actually have to talk to them.

Who Can You Expect to Network With at a Meetup?

Let’s rip off the bandaid here. Basically anyone interested in motion design will show up at these meetups. This isn’t just a gaggle of Graphic Artists and professionals. You will encounter people at every possible stage of their career.
You might spend half your time talking with a newbie who doesn’t know their hand-tool from their pan-tool, but you should still engage with as many people as you can. I've been to small meetups with representatives from Maxon, and huge events with people just learning the basics of the industry.

To network like a pro, you need to engage with everyone.

Expect to find animators, designers, illustrators, 3D artists, people working in VFX, and many other job fields. Talking to all of these people expands your network of talented professionals. You might not realize it, but these are the experts you can call upon when you find yourself in a bind down the road. These are your future teammates.
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Honestly, that's one of the reasons meet-ups are so cool. They are an opportunity to learn new perspectives and techniques, and to share experiences far different from your own. There are a lot of routes you can take in your career, and there may be more people in your area than you expect.
So now you know all the reasons why you should go to a meetup, but how do you keep it professional once you’re there?

Learn to Network Like a Pro

I'm going to walk through 3 networking tips in this article. While they are very simple to learn, it takes time and practice to perfect. Just remember to focus on the person and the conversation.

Remember three things:

  1. The Big Walk Up - How to start a conversation
  2. "With", Not "To" - The general purpose of a conversation
  3. A Game of Questions - How to gain traction and keep the momentum

1. The Big Walk Up

Probably the first and biggest hurdle you'll face is the act of talking to other people. How do you start a conversation with complete strangers?
Picture it. You arrive at the venue and people are already grouped together in small cliques. They’re huddled in corners, standing at the bar, and gathered around trays of snacks.
It can be intimidating to approach a single stranger, let alone a gaggle. If you’re not a social butterfly, your first instinct is probably to run home, hide under a blanket, and binge a TV show you’ve already seen a hundred times before.
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I’ve been that person, standing on the side of the room with a beverage in my hand. I circled the crowd, never quite gathering up the courage to break into any of the groups.
The Big Walk Up changed the way I approach that situation, and I had to learn it as I went.

From the Sidelines

My first networking event was a trainwreck.
Just getting out the door took a monumental effort. I’d planned to bring a friend so that I could know at least one person there, but they bailed at the very last minute. I was literally walking up to the venue when I got the text asking for a raincheck. A few minutes earlier and I would have just spun around and gone home, but now it was too late. Still, I figured I would try to make the best of things.
The room wasn’t too large. There was a table with free drinks and snacks, and most of the crowd had already grouped together in little circles to converse. I snuck over and a bottle of water, arguing internally over what to do next. Am I late? How are people already in groups? Does everyone here know everyone else? Am I just a stranger? Was this a dumb idea? Should I go home?
You’ve probably felt this way at one point or another. The truth is my inner monologue was completely wrong. These are meet and greets. By their very name, they are for people who’ve never met. No one arrived more prepared or more in-the-know than anyone else, I just didn’t believe enough in my abilities to socialize. The longer I waited to engage with the guests, the more certain I became that I was too late.
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Mograph Mike is sad, he needs pro networking tips!

Pulled Into the Game

After 30 minutes of standing on the side of the room, I waded through the crowd to pick up my third or fourth bottle of water. Out of the blue, someone tapped me on the shoulder.“Are you Ryan?”I turned to find a familiar face smiling at me (let’s call her Anna). She was a colleague, a friend of the guy that had bailed on me. When Anna heard I was coming to the event, she sought me out. Suddenly I found myself in friendlier waters, about to start my first conversation of the night.

Widening the Circle

Anna and I spoke for about five minutes before a new person approached. They lingered on the periphery for a few minutes, listening in on our conversation. Then they took a step forward a joined the circle.
I just assumed that this new person was one of Anna’s friends. Someone she’d brought along to keep her company (the way I’d planned to do before my partner bailed). When our discussion slowed down, the new person quickly introduced themselves. “Hi, I’m David. I heard you talking about…” And just like that, they were a part of our conversation.
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Motion designers in suits?
Couldn't they see we were talking? Why did they just walk up to us like that?
Before I had a chance to dissect what just happened, more people walked over to join the group. We were a hot new item, attracting the attention of nearby attendees. At first, I tuned out everything around me. I was dumbstruck, overwhelmed by all the new faces and voices. Was I doing something wrong? Was I supposed to do something or say something or ask something? Then it hit me. This is what I was supposed to do: Walk up, introduce myself, and start talking.

How to start a conversation: Just walk up.

As simple as it sounds, that’s exactly what you need to do: Find a conversation and walk right up. At events like this, dozens of conversations happen all at once. Some people are looking for work, some are looking to hire, and some are looking to collaborate. No one goes to a meetup to see one specific person and leave. They want to meet up with new faces and new ideas. It was hard for me to understand the Big Walk Up at first. In normal, everyday life, it is pretty rude to interrupt a group of people mid-conversation. Yet at a meetup, that’s exactly how you should approach a circle.

The purpose of networking events and meetups are to meet new people.

So, take this advice: Just walk up. Find a group, wait for a lull, and introduce yourself. In two seconds, you’re a part of the circle and engaged with your peers. Then, when a new face looks eager to join, make sure you welcome them in with a smile. Remember that you were in their shoes not too long before.
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2. "With", Not "To"

If you want to Network Like a Pro, you need to keep this in mind: Talk with people, not to people. Let’s start with a basic question: What is the purpose of having a conversation? More specifically, why are you having conversations with artists, strangers, and old friends? Obviously you have some motive, whether it’s to get a new job or find a new collaborative partner. However, I want to push a different mentality. When you are engaged in a conversation at a networking event, your goal is to Actively Listen.

Tricky Tricky

Networking events are put together so you can show up and find work, right?
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If you're showing up to push an agenda, plow through conversations, and pitch your services, it's not going to end well. The trick to networking like a pro is balancing what you want to be talking about and what you are talking about.
Joey Korenman, the author of the Freelance Manifesto, put it very simply: "Never, ever, ever ask for work directly. If you're talking with someone, eventually they'll ask you what you do and then you can say, "I'm a freelancer" or "I'm looking for my first gig," and it can come up naturally. It's far more likely to be fruitful that way."
Here’s the key: Networking is about more than just getting work.
Some people are looking to build a social safety net, some people are looking for partners, some people are looking for a personal connection. Don’t assume that everyone at the meetup has the same ambitions and goals.
Instead of going in with the need “to network,” approach meetups with the intention to just make new friends. As we said before, these are your peers. These are people going through the same struggles as you, and they are likely eager for a personal connection. Expect nothing from your new acquaintances, and you'll seriously be surprised at how quickly that takes the pressure off.
If you spend an evening out and walk away with a new friend and nothing more, your life is unquestionably better. That said, you are a hungry freelancer and you want to make the most of your time. So how do you navigate a meetup to find the “right” people?

Slow Rolling

Most meetups are packed houses lasting a few hours.
Don’t feel like you have to talk to everyone. If we’re being honest, you won’t remember every conversation you have. Before you even arrive, set your goals a little lower. Tell yourself, “I’m not going to be offered a job tonight. No one is going to hire me on the spot between the bowl of pretzels and the table with the light beer.”
Let yourself off the hook. Set an achievable goal, such as handing out X number of business cards, or collecting a few email addresses from strangers. One thing to remember is patience. Finish the conversations you start. If it's leading somewhere, let the conversation play out. Also, remember not to control the conversation too much. It’s fine to bring things around to an interesting topic, but it is rude to constantly steer things back to your specific interests.
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If you make a connection, ask them, "Do you mind if I keep in touch with you? You seem super interesting." Then -- Mega Tip Alert -- email them the next day. Say it was nice to meet them, and share a memory of the conversation. Honestly, NOBODY DOES THIS, and it will really help you stand out from the crowd.Take it slow and remember that you're there to talk with people, not to them.

How do you handle small events with fewer people?

When I first started networking, I figured that bigger events were the only ones worth my time and energy. It’s simple numbers. More people equals more opportunities for connection and employment. As with a lot of my older perceptions, I was wrong.
Events with just a handful of people offer a unique advantage.
They often present chances to have deeper dialogue that results in better conversations and typically longer-lasting connections. You don’t know where these people are in their careers, or where they will be in five years (that rhyme was unintentional, but feel free to lay down a sick beat and turn it into a #1 jam). You’re more likely to get work collaborating with a peer down the road than winning the lottery with some known personality. Smaller events give you the chance to make those connections and build those bridges for the future.

Making a Connection

Networking isn’t just meeting people. It’s about getting to know your peers. It’s about deep conversations, personal concerns, and interpersonal relationships. Once you understand that the goal is more than just a paycheck, you can stop trying to survive these events and start being a Connector.
A Connector is open, honest, and a Networking Pro. They listen actively, communicate clearly, and form true connections with people. Becoming a Connector is a power move.
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Sounds cheesy, I know. But it’s not just that connection is helpful for you, it enables you to help others as well. This is only possible if you've been talking with people and not to them.
Here's how simple it is: You're in a conversation and someone mentions that they are looking to create more passion projects. You recall from an earlier conversation someone else mentioned the same thing.
So you say, "You should totally meet this other person. Do you mind if I introduce you?" Not only are you fostering a collaboration, but you are also demonstrating your value as a Connector. Whatever happens between these two people and their inevitable project, you are responsible. That is a powerful trait. More than that, helping your peers is always the right call. Once you’ve made The Big Walk Up, relax. Ask questions. Listen actively. Engage with people and don’t just talk to them. Finally, become a Connector. But how do you keep the conversation going long enough for any of that to happen?

3. A Game of Questions

If you want to Network Like a Pro, you have to be able to maintain a conversation. Some of you have a natural gift for socializing. You can walk into any situation and comfortably weave through a number of topics without any lulls.
For the rest of us, it’s important to know the difference between having a conversation and just waiting for our turn to speak. As we mentioned before, we have to talk with people, not to them. So how can we make sure to have a great conversation?
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Simple: It’s a game of who can ask the most questions. This keeps the conversation alive while you gather more information about the other person.
When you meet someone new, there can be this awkward dance that forms with the two of you staring blankly at one another, not sure what to talk about next. You start up with a topic, then interrupt the other person, then you forget your own name. It’s all very cringe-worthy. Lucky for you, I’ve endured those terrible situations so you won’t have to. First, understand that it is totally acceptable to lead a conversation. More than that, people love talking about themselves. If you ask questions about their lives, you will likely get a positive response. So what should you ask?

Stocking Up

When you’re meeting someone new, the most important thing is to get a basic understanding of who they are and what they like. We’re not talking about their deepest hopes and dreams (that comes later), but more surface-level interests that can lead to future questions. Start broadly, with short questions that don’t require any heavy math.
  • "What kind of work do you do?"
  • "Are you doing that as a freelancer or are you working in a studio?"
  • “What are you working on now?”
Think about it from their perspective. If someone asked you these simple questions, you wouldn’t hesitate to answer. Likely, that information is already on the tip of your tongue. You’re at a networking event and you want to share what you do and what you’ve done. These aren’t filler questions, though. By starting the conversation with comfortable softballs, we make it easier to talk about deeper subjects. Now that you have a little information on the other person, you can start to dig a little.
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Based on their title:

  • What do they like the most about their specific role?
  • What is their specialty?
  • Did they hear about the recent industry news about X company or about the new software?
  • What software do they mostly use? Why?

Based on where they work:

  • What's the weather like there?
  • Do they have a cool workspace?
  • How long have you worked there?
This is a fairly simple list, but with just a few questions I was able to branch into a number of deeper topics. Those follow-ups will, in turn, open new paths in the conversation.

Keep Rolling

Once you know more about the other person, you’ll likely find a topic of mutual interest. If that’s the case, keep pulling at the thread and share your passion for the subject as well. If you don’t have common ground, keep asking follow-ups. It’s polite to show interest in the other person, but more importantly, you should always be learning about the industry. You might discover things about Motion Design that--while not directly related to you--have a deep impact on the community as a whole. And let’s not forget that you might get to play Connector down the road if you’re paying attention.
  • "Oh, that's interesting, so how does that relate to..."
  • "What do/did you mean by..."
  • "Earlier you said... can you tell me more about..."
A simple example: Where do you work?
"I actually freelance from home in Denver as a motion designer"
"Oh, I bet working from home is super nice in the winter! No commuting in the cold."
While this is very rudimentary, it is a great example of Active Listening. By connecting your response to their answer, you show the other person that you’re not just waiting for your turn in the conversation. You are hearing what they are saying.
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It needs to be mentioned that this is not an interrogation tactic, so please don't force questions. Leave some room in case they have a follow up for you, and be prepared to talk about your interests as well. After all, you want them to get to know you too.

Networking Like a Pro isn’t rocket science.

Get comfortable with the Big Walk Up. Remember to listen actively, and speak with people and not to them. Finally, play the Question Game to turn a simple conversation into a great one.
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It ain't rocket science, people.

Looking for a place to Network?

Check out our awesome list of mograph meetups! There are events happening literally all over the world and they very rarely cost you more than time and transportation.
If you've never been to a motion design meetup, I would highly suggest attending one and seeing who's in your area. If nothing else, you may get a free beer.
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That's a lot of MoFolk!

There's no shortage of professional advice

What if you could sit down and have coffee with your favorite motion designer? That was the thought process behind one of the biggest projects in School of Motion history.
By using a series of questions, we were able to organize insights from some of the most successful motion designers in the world into easy-to-digest knowledge nuggets (yummy). This is truly a project that couldn’t have happened without the incredible collaborative culture across the motion design community.

Download "Experiment. Fail. Repeat." - A free e-book!

Free Download
This 250+ page ebook is a deep-dive into the minds of 86 of the biggest motion designers in the world. The premise was actually pretty simple. We asked some of the artists the same 7 questions:
  1. What advice do you wish you had known when you first started motion design?
  2. What is a common mistake that new motion designers make?
  3. What’s the most useful tool, product, or service you use that’s not obvious to motion designers?
  4. In 5 years, what is one thing that will be different about the industry?
  5. If you could put a quote on the After Effects or Cinema 4D splash screen, what would it say?
  6. Are there any books or films that have influenced your career or mindset?
  7. What’s the difference between a good motion design project and a great one?