Interview: Oli Barrett – Joining the Dots of a Human Canvas.

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Oli Barrett brings a lifetime’s experience of making creative connections that change lives to his role as master of ceremonies at the Like Minds Ideas Festival.

This is one of a series of interviews leading up to Like Minds, Bristol – powered by Barclays  which takes place on September 8th & 9th. You can learn more about the event and book tickets here.

He has been described as “the most connected man in Britain”, but Oli Barrett’s real passion is meeting new people then introducing them to others – something he has turned into an art form.

He will get an opportunity to create his own masterpiece on a very human canvas in Bristol as master of ceremonies at the Like Minds Ideas Festival, an event he has watched mature as a crucible for original ideas.

“I have admired Like Minds for years and that’s why I am so looking forward to it – it’s a splendid opportunity to meet some of the most innovative people in the country,” he explains.

To achieve just the right tone and composition, Barrett will draw upon unrivalled experience making connections fuelled by a genuine love of enterprise and starting new projects.

Energetic, optimistic and unflappable, he is the co-founder of award-winning social innovation agency Cospa, of the campaigning organisation StartUp Britain, and of the enterprise education challenge Tenner. He has hosted 11 international trade missions and has been involved in numerous other projects to help young people and communities.

As if that is not impressive enough, Barrett is also the man who introduced “speednetworking” to the UK – and plans to warm up those travelling to the Like Minds conference from London with a speednetworking workout … on the train.

He first realised his calling when working as a young man at Disney World in Florida.

“I discovered how much I love meeting people. I spent these amazing six months in Florida working for one of the most interesting companies in the world, which is passionate about guest service, and my job was to meet families who had often been coming for years, introduce myself and have a conversation. It was not something I had done in the UK on that scale, and I just realised that I really enjoyed meeting people for the first time and having conversations.”

Extensive experience since has equipped Barrett with real wisdom about the nature of networking, starting with the term itself – he points out that people often prefer to be referred to as “well connected” than as good networkers.

This knowledge means that if there is such a thing as a guru in this field, it is Barrett, who offers many lessons on how to build a brilliant network.

“To most people, meeting others is enjoyable – it’s just the perception of it can be daunting. So I would say, first and foremost, remember that you are meeting another person regardless of what they do for a job.

“Also, people tend to think networking is all about meeting new people, but it isn’t really – 90% of networking is actually keeping in touch with the people you already know. It’s like a garden  – you can’t neglect it.”

Barrett’s interest in speednetworking developed when he noticed how many people he was talking to were getting stuck at events – they would often have just a couple of 25-minute chats in a 50-minute session.

“What I like about speednetworking is that it gets the energy up and exposes you to lots of slightly more random conversations which you can then follow up more slowly later on.”

He believes the key to developing a brilliant network is diversity.

“Creativity is putting two different ideas together – what fascinates me is the notion of cross-pollinating ideas.”

To achieve this, innovators can benefit greatly from opening up their networks beyond the organisation in which they operate.

“One idea may be to make some desks available for growing startups to share your space. Maybe, at events that you host, rather than having a very strict guest list you say to every guest ‘Feel free to bring someone you’d like to introduce’.”

Such techniques demonstrate that building connections should not be seen as an afterthought – but as an essential strategic activity.

“I would encourage people to think about are how they are growing their network – can they be more adventurous? What do they notice about their network – perhaps it’s quite young, predominantly private sector? Well, if you want to innovate, perhaps that needs to be more diverse – so how can they reach out into new environments?”

In order to keep your connections warm, says Barrett, find techniques for staying in touch with a core of, say, 100 people.

“Can you regularly send them an article that you think might appeal to them, or send them updates which are fairly personalised … probably better than an email blast. The single most effective technique I have found to keep in touch with people is hosting informal events from time to time, even if it’s just in a coffee shop or a room above a pub.

“And don’t be afraid to write to people out of the blue if you see them doing interesting things. It really does work.”

Expertise comes in many forms, and Barrett’s skill is akin to that of a horticulturalist with a keen eye for the fruitful potential of hybrids – even when bringing together thorny varieties.

“It can be discord, sometimes disagreements, that lead to breakthroughs: all you have to do is find the best way to manage that. When you introduce people, you are not always going to wonder whether they are going to be best friends – but will they have an interesting conversation and can they help each other?”


To hear more on this from our stellar line up of speakers, come and join us at the Like Minds, Bristol, “Innovation & Ideas Festival” – powered by Barclays on September 8th & 9th. Read more and book tickets here.

About the author

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Gavin O'Toole is Consultant, Head of Research at Onyx and a journalist, author and copywriter with a specialism in finance and business.