Picture the scene. The venue’s a buzzing conference hall. A group of smartly-dressed strangers gradually gravitate towards each other, as they swap bemused looks and fiddle with their fat wad of business cards. Before long they’ve bunched together to form a straggly queue. Neat rows of chairs – lines of two facing in towards each other – are set out just a few feet away. Perky, efficient-looking women with clipboards flit around and start ushering bums onto seats.
Welcome to the world of speed networking. You might think the idea sounds slightly bonkers and smacks of tackiness. But whoever thought of transferring the runaway success of condensed romantic connections to the corporate world was on to something.
When I registered for my first taste of speed networking at the Business North West event at Manchester Central last week, bystanders were reaching for their cameras and I felt a palpable buzz in the air. As I collected my free soft drinks token (‘You’ll be parched when you’re done!’ winked my clipboard lady), part of me felt inspired to rise to the challenge of creating a 60-second ‘elevator speech’ to market my skills and services. The other half berated myself for being drawn to the idea.
Guess which half I listened to? With the ‘USP’ mantra buzzing around my head, I duly became an attentive bum on seat. Then, with an undeniable comedic edge to his voice, I suddenly heard a man’s voice breaking through the polite chitter-chatter, bellowing: ‘Alright, you lot! Come on, we haven’t got all day…’ Dressed in a mock-army jumper and beret, our speed networking guru was taking us by the short and curlies. Blimey, he meant business!
The rules are simple, we were told. When you hear the first blow of the whistle, you swap contact cards with the person sitting opposite you (‘No shaking hands! We don’t want any swine flu!)’ and row one starts their 60-second sell. ‘After the minute’s up, you’ll hear another whistle, like so!’ we were told, before hearing another shrill toot. For the next minute, row two was to pitch. Whistle blow three was everyone’s cue to obediently shuffle two seats down our line. Then, row one were to launch into their pitch again, with a fresh equally-dazzled partner. ‘Right, got it? Are you ready? Go!’
I spent the next adrenalin-charged hour of my life, firing out my pitch, intently absorbing an array of spirited sells (only one networker wimped out by just handing me a leaflet, saying, ‘It’s all there.’), hopping over tangled bag handles and scattering business cards in my wake. All the while, our mock military leader cut us no slack. ‘Come on quick, quick! Get a move on!’ he spluttered, parading up and down, like a Dad’s Army extra on heat. Then, before I knew it, our time was up. ‘That’s it! You have been speed networked!’ barked Mr Beret. ‘Tell everyone. And remember to make that call, and take that call!’
After surviving such an intense sparring experience, I felt like punching the air triumphantly or jerking my arms into a Jerry-Springer style dance. But then I remembered the dozens of business cards I was clutching. ‘What did you think?’ one networker asked, as we wandered off to rejoin the diluted world again. ‘I feel…. networked!’ I joked.
I’ve gained many useful contacts and two potentially-lucrative connections from that surreal, sales-charged 60 minutes. And if I ever get stuck in a lift, I certainly won’t be lost for words.
November 4, 2009