During one particularly dull conference a few years ago, I had a daydream. The daydream – more of a bizarro scheme, really – involved setting up a circuit of pretend conferences.
Online and in marketing hogwash, the conferences would exist, in such desirable locales as New Orleans, Vancouver and San Juan. But in reality, these conferences would be a front. Yes, phony conferences as a means to enable employees to take a trip on their boss’s dime under the pretense of building skills or professional development or something to do with acumen.
Certainly, as a business proposition, phony conferences had a few kinks. Is there really a market for this? How would we let people know that these events were on the sly? What if the bosses caught on?
The answers probably had something to do with elaborate handshakes. Before I could work it all out in the daydream, I came to at my real conference with some undercard speaker prattling on about … something.
While absurd, this daydream was rooted in the lack of value I had found in the tech and writer conferences I participated in during the better part of a decade, first as a journalist and then as a marketing person. By lack of value, I don’t mean to say it’s unimportant to get together a roomful of smart people with similar interests. But how often does it really play out like that in the conferences you’ve been to? Of course, the networking and prospecting opportunities could be good, if that’s your thing. Roundly, conferences play out as an echo chamber of the same faces who miss the fact they are sharing important stories with other human beings.
The Conference That Mattered
… which brings me to Chicago last week. The Nonprofit Storytelling Conference was the best industry event I’ve been to. It wasn’t the best simply because I work on storytelling for a nonprofit. Surely, that didn’t hurt. It was also nice to once again admire the David Ligare piece at the conference hotel (pictured above). But it was the best conference because the speakers provided engaging, funny, compassionate insight on the topics that mattered to the humans in the audience. And there was not a single aspect of the event that couldn’t be replicated at your industry’s conferences.
A few examples are in order … Leah Eustace broke down storytelling into a science, without jargon and using just a few stats. In short, people naturally build narratives and arcs out of what they see and hear. The emotions behind those narratives and stories are what resonate at the end of the day. Even if you’re selling widgets, you’re selling them to people, who make gut decisions based on emotion a.k.a. the amygdala.
Susan Howlett, fundraiser extraordinaire, noted the sometimes blurred difference between “outcomes” and “output”. Behaviors and attitudes truly change in response to outcomes, whether it’s a sick dog who got well or the “everyday amazing” reflection on someone who could be your neighbor. Outputs, all quantifiable and numeric, show impact only in addition to the human tale.
Harvey McKinnon, master nonprofit storyteller and joke-teller, put it succinctly – the way you talk to your peers is not what motivates people who might give you money. As far as talking that talk, McKinnon said: “If you write about things no one cares out, you’ll raise less money.” Straightforward, yes, but completely applicable to the way any organization talks about itself.
The quotes and advice of these and the other great storytellers have stuck with me because each speaker told stories and talked to the audience throughout their 50-minute sessions. Each of them also asked questions of individuals and the group in the room. Imagine that, participation gets your attention!
In addition, there was no clunky speaking circuit-type keynote shoehorned in to cap off the whole event. (At one Wisconsin newspaper conference event about a decade ago, one of the people in Peter, Paul And Mary – hint: it wasn’t “And” – headlined for unknown reasons. I have never once regretted my decision to ditch that talk at the first strum of “Puff …” to go to the waterpark adjacent to the conference hall.)
Every single conference speaker should be able to weave a true story – you know, with characters, motives, conflict, triumphs – into whatever else they’re trying to convey. Humans, across industries, make decisions based on instinct and emotion – not technical reviews or stats. That is, they want you, as a person, to share a real story with them. Look no further than T.E.D. talks or serial podcasts for the rampant desire audiences have for a well-told story. Without major changes in engagement and storytelling, the existing, grey conferences across the professional landscape deserve to get ignored, skimmed over or bypassed by waterpark rides. And if you’re fine with that, then I’ve got a phony conference in Las Vegas that may be a good excuse to just get out of the office …