When Jona Xiao was 12 years old, she was cast as the lead in her school play Rappingstiltskin — the rapping version of Rumpelstiltskin. “I loved making people laugh,” says Xiao. “At that moment, I fell for acting.”
Shortly afterward, she heard an ad on the radio for a casting agency looking for new talent. The teenage Xiao convinced her parents to let her audition and pay the $5,000 for classes.
“Years later when I went into professional acting as an adult, I realized it was a scam,” she says. “ I felt ashamed that I had wasted my parents money. They didn’t have much. Half my childhood was spent in a trailer park. That fake agency played on people’s dreams.”
Xiao’s experience with the shady side of the entertainment industry left a deep impression on her, and she vowed to help other actors find an authentic way to make a living at the profession they loved. At college, she studied the business side of the industry before going on to work in legitimate casting agencies and co-found a national film festival.
“I developed an insider’s eye for how the 1 percent of actors who succeeded were doing it,” she says. If 1 percent sounds like a shockingly low success rate, Xiao says that to make matters worse, out of the 100,000 professional actors in Los Angeles (those who belong to the union), the average income is less than $5,000 a year. Hardly the stuff that private jets, red carpets and designer clothes are made of.
All of this added fuel to Xiao’s motivation to help actors move beyond the studio to finding agents and paid work through the networking techniques she had observed and was using to build her own career. Enter CareerACTivate.com, the company Xioa started to provide actors with insider strategies to accelerate their careers.
Even though her programs are geared toward actors, Xiao regularly gets businesspeople showing up to learn her networking techniques. Here are four networking lessons any businessperson can borrow to broaden their circle and grow their business.
1. Be a go-giver, not a go-getter.
How can you add value to the people you meet? Many people shiver at the idea of networking, because it brings up an image of someone trying to get something out of someone else. Xiao says she teaches actors to ask themselves how they can build a relationship with someone they meet by continuously adding value.
Xiao shares about one of her clients who met Harvey Weinstein, arguably one of the most powerful men in the entertainment business. He shook Xiao’s client’s hand, asked her name and then followed up by saying, “What can I do to help you?” Xiao’s client was so shocked that she stammered and responded by saying, “Uh, I uh … I’ll get back to you.”
2. Be interested.
When you first meet someone, try working some version of this question into the conversation at an appropriate moment: “What’s the most important thing to you in the next 90 days?” As they answer, Xiao says that the only thoughts that should be in your mind are:
• Who can I connect them with?
• What can I do for them?
• What’s something I could offer that would help them achieve their most important goal?
“Never be listening for what that person can do for you,” she says. “Coming off as someone who just takes is the anti-networking.”
3. Look across, not up.
There’s a tendency when we meet someone who is high up in our industry to think of them as out of reach. Xiao says that instead, she encourages actors to look at those mavens as peers. Remember that someone who is at the top of the game, who everyone knows, is used to getting fawned over with complements.
Instead, stand out by doing and saying the things that other people aren’t. Xiao suggests asking instead about the type of charity or philanthropic work they are passionate about. Connecting with people over what they hold dear is a peer-to-peer activity.
4. Aim high.
Toward the end of every class, Xiao issues a major challenge to her students. She gives them one week to use the simple networking tools they have learned to reach out and connect to the hardest-to-reach people they can think of in Hollywood entertainment. She suggests her students start by asking someone for a short 10-minute phone meeting.
The results? According to Xiao her students have, among other things, scheduled a meeting with the president of Universal and been offered roles in TV pilots, which were then picked up for a series. “The reason behind that challenge is for those actors to show themselves that anything is possible, that there’s no one out of reach for them,” says Xiao.
5. Be generous in your praise.
Is there someone you want to get to know better? Establish a relationship with? Try placing a Google Alert on them, and when something important happens in their world, reach out and acknowledge it. For example: “Hey, I just saw that your pilot got picked up. Just wanted to say congratulations. I know how hard you must have worked.” Xiao says make it short and sweet, and don’t ask anything for yourself.
The bottom line to all these networking techniques is that you must be genuine in your approach. Xiao says it’s often just a change in mindset from what you can get, to what you can give. In the end you’re seen as someone who’s a valued connection and hopefully even a friend — not one of the masses clamoring to get something.
And while these techniques may not win you an Academy Award, they just might make you a star at your next conference or cocktail party.