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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December, 2004, 12:32 GMT
When speed dating and ambition collide
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News

Speed dating - where single people meet dozens of potential partners in a night - has spawned a vocational offspring. Have plenty of business cards at the ready and prepare for speed networking.

"Speed-networking, oh my God," a colleague comments, calculating the combined discomfort of speed dating while maintaining one's professional exterior.

The exact arrangements vary but basically one meets a potential contact for five minutes then gets moved on, before getting bogged down in the sort of awkward small-talk that overshadows informal business events.

At the end of the occasion business cards can be exchanged and the seeds of a healthy commercial relationship might have been sown.

Julian Beaney, of housing provider Derwent Living, credits a colleague with dreaming up the idea.

"A guy at work was sitting in a pub with his mates talking about speed dating and said, 'you know, we go to conferences and industry events - can the two come together?'. I think I told him he was mad."

But eventually Mr Beaney changed his mind.

It's just five minutes - that person you meet at the conference, you might be stuck with all day
Julian Beaney
Derwent Living

"You go to lots of business events, but only talk to people you have coffee with or meet standing in the lunch queue and there are probably people in the room who would be good contacts. But to walk up to an absolute stranger just doesn't happen.

"This is a way of providing a safe event to meet a number of people and you won't get stuck with anyone; it's just five minutes. That person you meet at the conference, you might be stuck with all day."

Derwent, provisionally a house builder, may claim it was first off the blocks with the idea, but it's by no means the only organiser of speed networking events.

Newcastle-based agency Contact25 goes a step further and gets speed networkers to rate each of the contacts they meet, on a scale of one to five on the basis of how useful they might be.

The following day results are e-mailed out with the details of the most useful contacts.

Making hard work easier

Contact25's founder, Antony Vila, began the scheme after starting an advertising business only to find there were limited networking opportunities.

Speed-networking - photo courtesy of Derwent Living
Five minutes to make an impression
A range of people attend his events - from lawyers and accountants to web designers and IT specialists.

"There's a body of people who are already up on networking who will go to networking events but I do want to expand it into other areas, such as the retail trade, because people who wouldn't normally network could benefit," he says.

Pamela Hardy, of Business Link for London, says the idea is a gift to people who otherwise find making contacts to be hard work. It gives participants three minutes to put their case, before moving them on.

"Some people find it quite difficult to network and it just makes that process that much easier when you've got people facing you - and you don't get stuck with someone and end up talking about the weather," she says.

Sometime however, it can feel more like a party game than a serious business event. Find yourself at a speed networking do organised by Norwich firm Felicities Promotions, and listen out for the whistle. That's the signal for everyone to move on to a new contact.

We encourage people to bring toys - one man hands out plastic goldfish
Alison Lowe
"It's great fun but it also means you meet at least 30 contacts a night," says Felicities' Alison Lowe.

But with so many faces in such a short time, does anyone really remember anyone else?

"We encourage people to bring toys, gifts and novelty items so they can be remembered," says Ms Lowe, drawing on the example of one participant who runs a massage business and gets people to sit in her chair. Another hands out plastic goldfish - entirely unrelated to his business but good for impact.

Julian Beaney says refining one's pitch - what they are going to say - is crucial given the lightning speed of the events.

Antony Vila concurs. "You should prepare a few lines that include who you are, your position at the company, what your company does, and who it does it for. Finally, remember to follow up contacts, even if they aren't going to lead to anything.

"Having a large network of small connections gives you the opportunity to match make without too much effort. What goes around comes around."

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