CTN is an exciting event for students, artists and professionals. Students get to mingle with the industry and make connections, artists get exposure and sell their art, and professionals share what they’ve learned and even recruit talent. There’s a lot of opportunity to be taken advantage of if you’re prepared and handle yourself correctly. There are also the chance to make negative first impressions and fade into the sea of hopefuls filling the convention. I remember my first time and how overwhelming it is, and want to help guide you through how to present yourself in a way that will make it a positive experience for you and those you meet. If you’re a confident, self-assured person who can command attention in a room, I’m sorry but today’s article isn’t for you. This is for everyone else who, like me, struggles in high-pressure social situations. You’re not alone.

I went to my first CTN in 2013. It was right after my internship at Pixar, and I really, really needed a job. I walked in hoping that the second a studio saw the Woody and Sully characters on my reel, I’d have a job offer and things would be back on track for me. But this expectation only added to the pressure, and I started to fall into the trap that I most want to warn you against here. The LAST thing you should do is shove your tablet at someone for their opinion along with a business card and resume. Literally, this should come last in the interaction. I look back and realize that this is exactly what I was doing, because I just wanted them to see those characters and that line on my resume that would surely grab their attention. What I didn’t do, though, was introduce myself properly as a person, or treat them like they were one too. I naively thought that what mattered was the video I was peddling, instead of me.

When I’m nervous, I tend to close off and get very quiet. This can give the wrong impression real quick. Now that I’m a bit older, I can recognize it when it happens and compensate somewhat, but it’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t help that I suffer from a condition commonly called “resting bitch face” which when combined with a bald head, goatee, and strong build, can make me look less than approachable. Internally I’m just a kid that’s trying to do good and be nice to people, but I have to be very conscious of the vibe that I give off. I’m not being self-deprecating, just observant and realistic about how I come off in initial impressions. This awareness reminds me to smile, have an upbeat tone of voice, and make eye contact. Anyone who really knows me probably knows exactly what I’m talking about.

I think it would help anyone going to a networking event to take a step outside themselves and do an honest assessment like this. This is not to beat yourself up, but to identify your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. Say it’s finally your turn in line to talk to an animator that you admire and you’re shaking. I’ve been there. Holy shit have I been there! You think that you’re meeting a deity that knows it all, and is going to see right through you immediately. Please try to remember that imposter syndrome holds a place in all our hearts, and chances are this person doesn’t think of themselves as being “above” you at all. And also remember that this is what they’re there for, and they were once in your shoes! You likely have common experiences, believe it or not. Greet them with a smile and a handshake, and just say hello. Start with a personal connection before you ask them for anything! They want to know you. They want to know what you’re passionate about. They want to help you. What they don’t want is for you to be shivering while you talk to them, afraid that they won’t like you. If you find this happening to you, just confide in them that you’re nervous and having a hard time with this. I’d bet real money that they will immediately drop their guard and do their best to make you comfortable. This is far better than to fight it and tighten up, becoming silent and awkward. Trust me, this can mistakenly come off as arrogance, and at that point no demo reel is going to help the situation.

Overcoming shyness is extremely hard, because it’s closely tied to who you are. Being an introvert, I’m happiest alone or hanging out with my wife because of the level of comfort and trust we have with each other. Anything beyond that can take real effort to get through, and I have a finite amount of crowd tolerance that I have to deliberately manage. Socializing can be really fun in small amounts, but leaves me exhausted. I’m not getting at any real lesson here, just reduntantly stressing that it’s not just you.

When you do hand your tablet, laptop, or phone to them, don’t look to be lavished with praise. Hopefully they are kind and constructive, but what you’re really there for is honest feedback. My reel isn’t perfect, and neither is yours. There is always something to improve, and this is your chance to hear what it is. Take both their praise and criticism humbly and with a smile. Even if they’re tearing it to shreds and recommending that you scrap your 3-character, 5000-frame masterpiece and go back to bouncing balls, you should be thankful for their honesty. And if they tell you that your work is wonderful and they have no notes for you, don’t let them off that easy. Ask specific questions about things that you want to improve, and show them that you really want to get better. Showing that you can handle feedback enthusiastically is incredibly important demonstrate that you can work as part of a team. Even if your work isn’t ready yet, they’ll at least see that you have the desire and potential to get there one day.

Just as difficult as starting a conversation is ending it. You want to take advantage of your time with professionals, but not overstay your welcome. There are a lot of people in line, and we’ve all been in a conversation that’s gone on too long and gets awkward. If you feel like you’ve made a good connection with them personally, exchanged some pleasantries, and gratefully taken their feedback, you should thank them for their time and end it with another smile and handshake. Just like demo reels, short and sweet is better than drawn out and uncomfortable. Once you’ve left your best first impression, get out. If your reel is good and they had an enjoyable few minutes with you, that’s the best you can reasonably hope for. Don’t ask an animator for a job, because that’s not their call. You can follow up with a recruiter if one is present, because answering questions about jobs and how to stay in touch is why they’re there.

My best experience at CTN was in 2016, when I went there for fun and not to find a job. I was working at Telltale, so the extra burden of job hunting wasn’t weighing me down. I still submitted my reel to the recruiting thing, almost for fun. Feedback is always good to get, so why not give it a shot? To my surprise, a couple studios wanted to talk with me, including Blizzard. While I definitely felt some nerves talking to them, I was able to come into it infinitely more calm and relaxed, and the interview went so much better than any I had in the past, and resulted in a job offer later in the month. I remember being in the waiting room and seeing the other applicants sweat it out, and I felt grateful that I did not have the same pressure and empathized with what they were feeling. Now, this is great if you already have a job, I know. But if you can detach yourself a little bit and focus on relaxing and enjoying the experience, you’ll do better. I think that a friendly, casual confidence is the key to a good interview, even if you have to fake it and then have a breakdown once you leave the room. Speaking from experience there, too.

At the time of this writing, CTN is in one week. I hope that I get to meet you there, and that this post at least helps you feel comfortable chatting with me. I don’t go there for any benefit of my own, other than that I love meeting students and offering whatever advice I can. I’ve heard it referred to as “sending the elevator back down,” which I think is the responsibility of anyone who’s reached where they are thanks to the support of others. Many great people have helped me along the way, and my goal is to pay that forward every chance I get. So head over to the About page to see what I look like, and PLEASE stop me if you see me. That’s literally what I’m there for, so if I don’t get to talk to anyone it will be a wasted trip. Safe travels to everyone coming out, and I hope you have a great time!

-Chris