A guy I used to worked with gave me a real shock once. When it came to presenting he was one of the most natural performers I’ve ever seen.

A relatively senior guy at the agency, he was especially excellent at that most particular of skills, hosting the company meeting.

He had a great mix of the witty and the self-deprecating, which meant you really warmed to him even as he (gently) mocked you.

But he revealed to me once that this apparent natural confidence evaporated when he found himself talking to people in less formal, more social settings. He felt incredibly self-conscious. He found it awkward approaching a group of people, for instance, in the pub.

I was surprised by this disconnect, but it was something my colleague had grown used to. He had developed a strategy to get over it, too.

He asked questions.

Seems obvious, but he’d realised that people felt engaged if you showed you wanted to know about them. This approach deflected his self-consciousness and focused instead on the circle he’d joined.

It allowed him to stop worrying about his own ‘performance’ and instead demonstrate he was someone who made people feel valued.

In his words, his mantra was “don’t be interesting, be interested.”

Not only is this a useful anchor for ensuring you don’t feel like a spare part amongs friends and colleagues, I think it’s also a design for life.

And for those of us in this business I think it’s imperative.

One of the inspiring reference points for this blog is Joe Strummer’s wonderful maxim ‘no input, no output’. My current obsession with combinatorial creativity relies on curiosity. Six years on, I’m still sharing Russell Davies’ post on ways to notice the world around as creative stimumlus.

But I’ve started wondering lately whether a similar re-frame is something that brands are crying out for, too.

Brands and their marketing mainly – still – attempt to cultivate interest in what they do, as opposed to demonstrate a curiosity about their customers. You might get the odd bit of curatorship, or some community management, or some customer service, but ultimately the brand still considers itself at the centre of its universe.

Consider the alternative path my colleague might have taken.

Imagine if before each social engagement he had felt it necessary to generate some ‘new news’ with which to regale his audience. Imagine he felt it incumbent upon him to decide on a ‘messaging hierarchy’, based largely, of course, on what he thought would be most ‘motivating’ about him to his friends. Imagine if he treated his nights out as part of his ‘customer relationship management programme’.

Imagine if, in essence, he decided to apopt the brand marketing approach.

This, of course, is absurd.

And equally I don’t really believe that brands could fully adopt the ‘act like a friend’ approach. That’s been done to death.

But they do call it ‘social’ media for a reason. And while people don’t want to be friends with brands, brands that understand social dynamics, and think of their audience rather than themselves, will do better in the new social landscape?

And if, the future of marketing is “many, lightweight interactions over time“, then brands need to find ways to talk to people that don’t leave them looking like the pub bore.

With good timing, Phil was telling me recently about some community management work his agency had been doing lately. Their experience suggested that even the best brand-centric content, no matter how well produced it is, doesn’t fly like the content that builds on conversations people are already having. Listening and responding is more likely to make recipients take notice of your content, and therefore your brand.

In other words, being interested in people is more effective than trying to be interesting.

So, is your brand interested in people? How do you ensure that interest in its consumers is exhibited in its behaviour? What does it like to do with its spare time? What is it curious about? Where it does it look to remain interested in people’s world?

What’s your brand’s social life?