Source Unsplash Credit Evangeline Shaw

Networking without losing your soul

as heard at The Digital Day England

David Kean, Co-founder of Catalyst opened the day at The Digital Day England, talking about networking. There was shuffling in seats and for some that familiar awkward feeling at hearing the word, but David shared his words of wisdom and the next coffee break was a buzz with positive chatter and enthusiastic networking!

He gives a review of the day and shares his techniques with us.


Judging by the show of hands in the room, networking is not something most people feel comfortable doing. Only 4 out of 113 people at the Marketing Society’s The Digital Day England, raised their hand when I asked who in the room enjoyed it. This isn’t unusual - networking has a bad reputation. Apart from the fact that it plays to a massively deep-rooted series of insecurities shared by humans all over the planet - the fear of rejection - the nomenclature is also offputting. ‘Net’ implies a trap, as if the purpose is to catch people like so many fish, and ‘work’, well, it sounds like it’s at the hard end of the spectrum. And then there’s the pressure we put on ourselves. Surely, successful networkers can effortlessly close a deal within seconds of first meeting a stranger (no they can’t and nor should you try)? Finally, we assume that there are natural networkers and the rest of us. Naturals, we believe, glide around the room effortlessly, spreading bonhomie and entertaining everyone they meet with boundless charm and rapier-like insight. No. The self-deluded tribe of people who think they are naturals are often boorish and blatant; they crash on about themselves, show scant interest in anyone else and constantly graze the room with their eyes looking for more important prey on which to settle other than you. Who needs that? 

Is it any wonder, then, that when most people arrive at an event, they cry an inaudible ‘hallelujah’ when they spot someone they already know, make a beeline for that person and stick to them like glue for the rest of the day? 

If this is you, it’s time to reframe networking. You’re missing out on the joy. Think of it as simply playing with people, or just as connecting. No pressure. No pressure to close a deal. Simply to be interested in other people’s stories - everyone has a story - and ask loads of questions. People like being asked about themselves (quelle surprise). So arrive armed with curiosity and questions. ‘What brought you here today?’; ‘How do you feel about events like this - what are you hoping to learn?’; ‘What did you think of the last session?’; ‘What do you do outside of work?’. 

The other purpose of networking, or people playing, is to be helpful. It is not to sell (phew). Stop selling, start helping. Why? Because the currency of company is generosity. Everyone in the room will have special talents, rare experiences, and unusual gifts. And, by and large, people are usually kind and willing to share. So, find out how you might be able to help. Remember the story of Mike, the solicitor in the dining car of the 1806 Paddington to Penzance Express. He helped his fellow diners by finding out what they did and alerting them to any new changes in the law that might affect them in their line of work. He didn’t whip out his laptop and show them 90 slides to prove how brilliant his firm was at law. His reward? All of his companions asked for his contact details when they got off the train. He helped, he didn’t hunt. They came to him. 

And if anyone does bother to ask your story, try this for size: instead of giving them your name, rank and number…or company and job title…give them an alliterative adjective to associate with your first name: Speedy Sophie or Provocative Pardeep. Something that’s true to the experience they are likely to get from talking with you. And come prepared with a couple of fascinating facts about yourself - something you adore doing, an unusual skill you have, an achievement you’re proud of or an interesting thing that has happened to you. That way, you’ll never be stuck for a way to introduce yourself and the other people in the room will remember you. And if anyone does ask you what you do, think of a metaphor to describe it. We give ourselves fancy job titles which often obscure rather than clarify what we do. So make it easy for everyone - turn your job into something that’s easy to understand. Metaphors make memorable moments. 

Not so bad, really, this networking thing - if you set out to help rather than sell, do it with a smile on your face and simply ask questions to catalyse the conversation.  


Given my schtick, it might not surprise you to hear that I was as interested in the networking going on at the coffee breaks as I was in the content being presented in the conference room. It’s a treat to be back in real life meeting people and although the lockdown days feel a long way back, it’s still exciting to be doing business in that most human of ways - personally and in the flesh. I was lucky enough to meet two lovely companions over early morning coffee, one from Tesco and the other from Diageo. We bonded by talking about travel and sharing our hopes and expectations for the day. Ironically, I had happened upon two of only four people who later, in my session about networking without losing your soul, put their hands up to admit that they enjoyed networking! The coffee break also brought me back into contact with someone I last met in Singapore when they worked there and I did a talk at their company. Twelve years ago. I love that we orbit around each other and serendipity takes care of the rest. Bumping into strangers and old acquaintances alike is the essence of why business is such an enjoyable human activity. 

The Marketing Society events always crackle with expectation. When you get lots of bright people in a room together, you’re going to get good intellectual energy, and given the environment of the IBM Innovation Centre, that expectation sets a great stage. I learnt loads. Gaming, not something I do, it seems, is like all other forms of interaction people feel precious about: brands which simply try to hijack the format for their own blatant commercial ends get rejected. Brands which enter the gaming world referentially, talk the language of gamers and play knowingly with the audience, reap the benefits. Like networking really - people respond positively if you think about them and their needs, not just your own. The same with sustainability. We all know greenwashing when we see it. But Leo Rayman talked through a much more interesting challenge: changing the business model. Then there was the Linkedin man - James Potter - who practises what he preaches and with whom I see eye to eye about connecting with people. His message - say what makes you an interesting person and state clearly what you’re good at on your Linkedin profile so that you can help others who might need what you do. So many Linkedin profiles are either absent - those people are invisible - or a string of polysyllabic words flung together in business-speak soup which say nothing. His mission: to help people stand out on this most important of media for the business community. 

It’s a credit to The Marketing Society that the focus was on human as well as artificial intelligence. For surely the future belongs to those who can fuse the two inventively - as was amply evidenced by the practical demonstration of how Santander are using AI to test and iterate their messaging so they strip out time and waste from the process. But nowhere did they say that human ingenuity wasn’t required nor did they delegate judgement to machines. Instead, they demonstrated an impressive model for how collaboration with machines will make human communication more efficient and, hopefully, more effective as well. 


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