Disruption and storytelling: thoughts from the IABC World Conference

Ten years ago I visited the vibrant city of New Orleans. I drank some cool cocktails, ate too many beignets and brought home a lot of festive mardi gras beads (side note: this is a PG blog, no untoward tasks were performed to obtain such tacky plastic jewels). Oh yeah, and I went to the IABC World Conference.

A few weeks ago I got the news that I had won the IABC Ottawa member draw to attend the World Conference. It was through this stroke of fortune that I found myself once more in attendance at this conference, again held in New Orleans. I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember what it was like the first time I went but I’m coming up short on details. I remember meeting kind people who were grateful to IABC for not cancelling our conference in the aftermath of Katrina. I remember feeling thankful to my workplace for sending me, and excited about the learning experience. Oh, and the Canada party…that was a good time.

I was a bit disappointed that ten years of communications and life experience seemed to have swept away all the particulars of the conference itself. And then, as last week’s sessions proceeded, I was reminded of the very point of what we aim to do as communicators. We try to make people feel. The words and the details – while oh so easy to get wrapped up into for far too long – don’t really matter. What matters is how our audience feels.

It was the opening keynote session by Helen Marriage of Artichoke that made me have ‘all the feels’. At first I didn’t get it. I’d expected a keynote from some prestigious high-level communicator. This was someone talking about public art installations in London. Cool stuff, but I’m neither an artist nor an event planner. But after watching her work through examples of connecting individual citizens, various public institutions, lawmakers and artists, I was not only seeing the relevance of her work to our work in comms, but I was completely choked up. This session alone was worth the trip to the deep south. Helen talked about the notion of disruption, which could not be more timely or relevant to me in my work at Shopify – a company actively looking to disrupt the norms of the commerce world. Helen told a few stories that all sounded something like this: she approaches a group of traditional authority figures and describes a big wild, ridiculous idea. They respond with dropped jaws and statements like, “but we couldn’t possibly!” to which she then asks, “but can you imagine how great it would be if we could?” and “what would it take to make it happen?”

I found myself returning throughout the week to that one question. What would it take to make it happen? The last session I attended was a hands-on change communications and engagement workshop where we worked through various scenarios, trying to help each other solve real-life change issues. A fellow communicator brought to the table a pretty common challenge traditional workplaces are dealing with these days: how do I convince my senior leaders to ‘let go’ of social media and give up some control over it. Our group went to the proactive, problem-solving place we’re all comfortable in: start solutioning! We all had ideas to throw at her. Did you try this? Try that! We did this, and it worked, you should do that! And every ’solution’ we threw at this poor communicator was met with a gracious reply but it was obvious she’d already thought through these so-called answers. And so, I returned back to Helen’s simple question: what do your leaders need to make this happen? And this is where the conversation took on a more thoughtful and strategic angle and we were able to make some headway as to how this individual might disrupt her organization to achieve her communications goals.

I like to think it’s not happenstance that the first and last sessions I attended last week were the two that most resonated with me. It’s said that every great story needs a gripping intro (a set-up), a solid middle (a build) and a strong conclusion (a payoff). This year’s IABC World Conference was no exception to this rule of storytelling.

Shannon O’Brien, Internal Communications Strategist at Shopify, and IABC member.