Seattle: Thanks for Coming. Thanks For Commenting.
Guest Post: Minna Jung
So, last year I started sharing, on behalf of the Network Board and staff, what it takes to organize our annual fall conference, and I also posted last year about the results from our conference survey. So here’s my recap of the survey results about this year’s conference in Seattle that many of you (about 2/3) filled out, plus some additional ruminations/background on the Network’s revised mission.
Each year, some things stay the same with the Network conference, and then we switch other things up. This year, we still tried for boffo speakers that would knock your socks off, but we engaged only two—Sherman Alexie and Jane McGonigal—because we wanted to try a day of workshops preceding the conference for those of you who were yearning for flat-out skill-building or training, and we wanted to leave Friday to share our new mission in plenary session.
So how did you feel about this year’s conference?
In general, the overall positive feelings about our conference stay steady over the years, and the differences come out in degrees on particular segments. For example, we know that most of you seem to like coming back year after year. And, we get a good chunk of newbies each year. After years of reading these survey results, I like to spend the most time with the responses that give us insights into what we might do better or experiment with in the future. This year’s survey, for example, yielded great ideas for speakers next year. And we are always reminded that attendees expect quality speakers and want us to deliver breakout sessions that offer solid substance.
So onto the different days:
DAY ONE, WORKSHOPS: For the most part, these were rated pretty positively and they were super well-attended, too. Some people thought they got their extra hundred bucks’ worth, some people didn’t. One of the things for us to explore for next year — based on some of the comments — is whether these workshops should be offered again exclusively on the day before, or whether we intersperse them with breakout sessions during the conference.
DAY TWO, SPEAKERS/BREAKOUT SESSIONS: In 2011, we had six boffo speakers, although one didn’t go over so well. This year, we had two. Six felt like too many to us, and they were a nightmare to schedule, and speakers are often expensive. But two felt like too few to all of you. Also, this year, Sherman Alexie was a highly polarizing speaker. I don’t think there’s any response to that from our end—you know our criteria, we above all try to avoid speakers who will bore you to death. And we aim for diversity in our line-up. So all I’m going to say is, we’re aiming for less than six, more than two plenary speakers for New Orleans.
On breakout sessions: wildly uneven reactions to those. But there is one lesson that we’re learning over time, which is this: some topics are perennially hot, like anything that touches the digital space. As a Board, we can do a better job to ensure the quality of the breakout sessions that we know are going to be standing room only. Other topics are hot, but not so easily adapted to a breakout session, like the perennial program-communications divide we keep on talking about but don’t really know how to fix.
DAY THREE, MISSION PLENARY: Oh, where to begin? While we always get a wide range of reactions to our conference content, the comments for Friday’s plenary session, during which we unveiled the Network’s revised mission and asked you what you thought of it, had some particular heat behind them. A few observations:
–Well, number one, a lot of you weren’t there. Well over 300 people attended the conference—it looks like a little more than half were at this session. We knew that would happen: that’s why we offered an iPad giveaway. And, we were fine with a smaller crowd.
–Some of you had strong reactions to the “how” and the “why” of doing this session at all—like, if the Board already decided where the Network was going, what the heck was the point of asking you what you thought, if you couldn’t really change the outcome? (You all seemed to like the video, though.) Well, I take full responsibility for that one. I’ve been the lead on planning the conference content for years, and I knew it was a pretty dicey proposition to try and share the Network’s mission when none of you had the benefit of the research the Board commissioned about the Network’s place in the world and potential scenarios for our future, and none of you were sitting in the room while the Board and Bruce Trachtenberg, our executive director, were wrestling with options and choices. I simply came down on the side of, better to share than to not share—and to do it with a nod to history and where we’ve been as an organization (hence, the video). Really, I just wanted to give you all a chance to sort through your initial reactions and feelings, and have us learn from that. And that’s pretty much what happened.
–Some of you had strong reactions to the “what” of the revised mission statement. There were comments like, “Yay, bring in the nonprofits, more sources for good communication ideas!” And still others were like, “if the Communications Network brings in more nonprofit organization members, it will become dead to me.” I think we will learn a lot from who we can engage around our revised mission, and who we can’t. Isn’t that what communications is all about?
As next steps, Rebecca Arno, our board chair, is planning to share a video that explains a bit more about how we got to the revised mission, including the research and discussions, that informed our decisions. And then after the Board goes on retreat in January 2013, we’re going to commit to a set of activities, some of which we hope involve YOU. Stay tuned for more. And thank you, as always, for taking the time to come be with us in person and give us your feedback. You may love us and hate us (sometimes on the same day), but your passion for strategic communications and for the Communications Network is, ultimately, what keeps us going.
If you want to share your thoughts about the conference, the mission, or anything about the Network, please do. We really want to hear from you. We also hope to see many, if not all of you, at our next conference, Oct. 2-4, in New Orleans.
Minna Jung is communications director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and vice chair of the Communications Network.