People love to pay attention to people who are useful. To make yourself one of the chosen few, learn to provide excellent information at all times. [To get the most out of this column, please read Part 1 of this series on attention that lays out the foundation for being AWESOME.]
For the purposes of our discussion, you're a great actor. (I mean, I'm sure YOU are, but this is for that slack-tor over there at the other table, nursing his cooling latté as he whines about the current state of disarray and unfairness in the industry, like whiny slack-tors from time immemorial.) You get that marketing and self-promotion and networking and all the rest of it aren't a substitute for being able to deliver 100%, at whatever level of acting competency you're competing within.
But you also know that there's always room for improvement. Learning to think in terms of the three guiding principles of awesomeness, being useful, being specific, and being nice, is a journey, not a destination, much like becoming a good actor. (I mean, really: do you think Meryl Streep is all, "Yup, done improving; no need to get any better"? Exactly.)
What's that you said about useful?
Remember that our definition of being useful is simply doing things that add value to other people's lives. And when I say "doing," I don't necessary mean adding more items to your already overtaxed to-do list, I mean behaving in ways that are useful, that serve other people first, rather than your own perfectly justifiable but ultimately selfish (and to them, beside the point) interest.
In other words, it's about acting (no pun intended) or behaving in ways that are useful, rather than in ways that mess people up. Ready? Let's take a look at Prong #1 of the Utility Platform.
Information is useful!
You're probably too young to remember this, but back in the days of three networks and phones with cords on them, my granny and grampa used to send me fascinating things called "letters" via the postal mail. They'd contain news of what was going on back home, occasionally (while I was in college) a "fiver", and almost always, some article of purported interest to me.
Now, some of these articles were more about what they wanted me to take interest in -- finding gainful employment, let's say, or a husband. But occasionally, there would be a cool profile about my favorite actress or some great story from the New Yorker or a trend piece from Time or Newsweek (back when newsweeklies were newsworthy. I am old.)
These days, hooking people up to great information they'll find useful is much easier, thanks to email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But there are plenty of other ways to deliver information, podcasts, newsletters, streaming video, as well as those good old-fashioned ones we tend to forget, like in-person meetings, phone calls and actual printed items.
What information will they find useful?
Before you go on an emailing, Facebook-inviting rampage, remember that sharing information about yourself is most likely not useful to other people, but to yourself. Information about you -- your projects, your plays, your appearances, etc. -- is not useful until the point that the person you're sharing it actually needs or wants it. Providing easy-to-find contact information on your website? Useful! Putting me on your email announcement list without my permission? Not useful! Also, dangerous, unless you want to become That Clueless Guy Who Annoys People.
Becoming a provider of good information takes some time and effort. It is very easy to whip out a newsletter full of news about you, you, you; it is much harder to come up with a concept for a newsletter (or blog, or web video series, or book), much less to make sure it is consistently filled with high-quality, useful information.
But if you are the person who becomes known for always knowing what the very best comedy shows are, or who produces very best film reviews podcast, or who aggregates the most useful information for other actors on her blog, you win. I have often wondered why some intrepid troika of working actors hasn't created a "parking info" resource listing meter info, street cleaning details and artery-route closures; I can only imagine the insane traffic that might help drive to their blog, production site or YouTube channel.
A brief word on your own stuff
Obviously, you are a business with your own agenda to promote. Am I saying that you should never promote it? I am not!
What I am saying is that you need to watch the ratio of useful stuff you provide to time spent yakking about your own stuff. For personal reasons, I fall firmly on the side of providing far more of the former, but common sense and plenty of experts back me up on this. After all, what makes the sale faster: you telling me you're awesome, or you being so awesome that other people sell me on how awesome you are?
I'm an adherent of Biznik's 95/5 rule: 95% of your efforts should be somehow useful to others; 5% can be shameless self-promotion. For a typical actor on Facebook, that basically boils down to being human most of the time and shilling your stuff a heckuva lot less. (And for the love of all that's holy, never, EVER "friend" someone you don't know and immediately start sending them invites to your stuff.)
Next month: Turning support for your fellow man into quality attention for yourself.
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BOOK OF THE MONTH: Poke the Box, by Seth Godin
Part pep talk, part how-to guide, Poke the Box (by marketing guru Seth Godin) is sort of a 2011 companion piece to Steven Pressfield's insanely great The War of Art : it reinforces the importance of regularly hammering away at your core competency, but it really stresses the very modern need for artists to "ship", to make their own projects and put them out there, rather than waiting for Prince Charming to hand them an agent, acting job or statuette. Yes, many of the examples are from business, but the book is well-written, and the stories are easily translatable to acting. Plus it's SHORT and inspiring: you could (and possibly should) read it once a month, just to keep yourself going. Get Poke the Box in hardcover or for Kindle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.