Ask the Mentor: I’ve forgotten how to network in real life

Online conferences were great for shy people, but now in-person events are back. Brush up on your social skills and be brave, says Media Mentor Esther Coleman-Hawkins.

The Question

Ms L writes: I saw a couple of weeks ago that someone was asking for advice about an online conference. I’ve LOVED online conferences – go to the sessions, learn what I want, follow up the relevant people by email, not leaving my house. I was hoping that conferences would be like this forever. But I’m going to Screenworks Regional to Global Screen Forum and I’m quite local so I have to go in person. I’ve forgotten all my social skills and how to network. Help!

The Answer

Sister, I hear you. As a #survivor of the Victorian long winter lockdown I got used to only speaking to my immediate family. And towards the end of lockdown, barely even to them.

When kids parks finally opened I was so unused to chit-chat that I blurted out way too much personal information. My sincere apologies to the woman at Alma Rd Park who now knows, in graphic detail, about my family’s gastro problems.

Zoom is marvellous but it’s a tool that encourages brevity and no eye contact.

And, since you have to go to the ball, there are a few things you can do to make the experience bearable.

Actually, bugger that, lets aim higher. Let’s aim for joyful. Or at least productive.

  • Be kind. Right now, we’re full of fear; shell shocked by a traumatic global event. Many of us are struggling financially, emotionally and psychologically.
  • Be professional. Pop your work hat on and your professional boundaries up. You’re there to talk work.
  • Ask questions. Prep some questions in advance. I know that sounds like the most Dweebish thing ever but, trust me, it helps. Google and you’ll find hundreds of suggestions, some of which really aren’t toe-curlingly cringey. If all else fails, ask them what they’re watching at the moment? And make sure you have three shows to talk about too – ideally Australian!
  • Remember to connect on LinkedIn, it’s easier than swapping business cards and you will still have access to their email address. And follow-up if you said you would.
  • Pick a handful of people from the attendance list that you’d like to meet. Email them in advance and arrange a coffee. That’s your networking done. So now any random chats you have are a bonus. This will take the pressure off you to connect.

Read: How to Hustle: Tips & Tricks for Networking

The conference you’re going to has dedicated networking events every morning from 7am – 8.30am. While I’m not sure if this is better than awkward conversations over tepid chardonnay or a new form of torture, it is what it is, so I asked Ken Crouch, CEO of Screenworks, about how to make the most of these sessions.

‘Of course, we will be hosting the standard networking drinks function (featuring delicious cocktails from [SPONSOR ALERT!] Archie Rose and local beer from Seven Mile Brewery – no tepid wine I promise!), round-tables and one-on-one meetings with speakers. 

‘But we also wanted to create some less formal opportunities. One of them will be a morning networking walk from Lennox Head to Pat Morton Lookout, which will be a great way to connect with others.

‘I think the most important thing to remember about networking is that you are trying to create long-lasting relationships; you’re not just selling your idea or yourself.

‘Don’t feel that you have to pitch your project the first time you meet someone, especially if you have a glass of wine in one hand and a canape in the other. Get to know them and ask if they have time for a meeting in the coming days to discuss the projects you’re working on.’

Read: Screenworks announces Regional to Global Screen Forum Program 

Finally, this is an industry event, not life or death. It’s unlikely to make or break your career. If you need a break – take one.  And remember, many people will be feeling just like you.

Got a question for the mentor? Send it to us at with the subject line ‘Media Mentor Question’ and we’ll pass it onto Esther.

Esther Coleman-Hawkins
About the Author
Co-founder of Media Mentors, Esther Coleman-Hawkins is an experienced TV producer, conference organiser and career mentor. Media Mentors provides one-on-one mentoring and runs workshops and networking events for people in the creative industry. Sessions with her, or her co-founder Denise Eriksen, can be booked through their website