Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2014 communications conferences: Cool. Skillsy. Not the usual suspects.

Here, I'm chairing the European Speechwriter Network
conference. Max Atkinson is speaking.
"I have to recommend some conferences for myself to attend as part of my 2014 professional development," said my client recently. "Any come to mind?" When I asked for more guidance, she reeled off several subject categories in communications, then added that she was really "looking for something kind of cool so I am into it and not bored feeling like 'I have to be there'."

I look at conferences these days like theater subscriptions: There came a time, after attending a well-respected theater for 20 years, when I realized that I was able to accurately guess the director, lead actors and even the look of a production just by hearing which play they were going to produce...so I started going to jazz concerts, less predictable and more improvisational. So too it is with conferences. When I can predict who'll be on the panel or who's doing the moderating, every time, no matter how much I like the people, I start looking around for new ideas. 

Here's what I recommended to my client, expanded slightly. I hope you find a cool new communications conference to attend in my mix:
  • Blogging: BlogHer is huge, with thousands of women bloggers and bloggers on women's issues, not all of whom are women. There's overlap with every subject category here, and the networking is outstanding. Often the conference is preceded by one-day sessions on special topics like health or politics, but the joy of this conference is its focus on skills-building (camera work, understanding FCC marketing rules, writing and more). Whether you blog or want to reach out to bloggers, this is the place. BlogHer also runs several smaller, subject-specific conferences for food bloggers and other specialty areas.
  • Speechwriting: Get thee across the pond, Americans. I recommend the UK Speechwriters Guild conference (spring, this year in Oxford, UK) or European Speechwriter Network conference (fall, Brussels). Sounds like a long way to go, but the group always includes outstanding pre-conference workshops, and the overall content of the conference is at a very high level.
    Join the group for good discounts, plus the useful books and guides you get as part of your membership. (One pictured here, "Trade Secrets," is not for sale and only provided to members.) The group's active on social media and welcoming to newcomers, and the size of the conference is compact enough that you won't find it overwhelming. I've keynoted and chaired these conferences and am always focused on how to get back to them. You should be, too.
  • Reporters' conferences in your subject area: Some specialty journalism organizations like the National Association of Science Writers and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, which has a section of food journalist members, include communicators and sessions for them in their conferences. Others, like the Association of Healthcare Journalists don't admit PR types as members and charge them more for attending their conferences. Either way, find the specialty group of journalists who cover your subject area and find out whether you can attend, observe and chat up reporters in an atmosphere more relaxed than the everyday attempts you make to bombard them with info. Just behave yourself.
  • Specialty communicators groups: You'll find these just under the radar in your profession. One I'm fond of that is both longstanding and well-run is the Public Affairs and Marketing Network (PAN) of cancer centers funded by the National Cancer Institute, which holds its conference jointly with another group of cancer center fundraisers. I'm doing a pre-conference session version of my popular Be an Expert on Working with Experts workshop at the 2014 PAN conference. The Communications Network, for communicators working in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, is another good example of the specialized communicator's conference; it's meeting in Philadelphia in 2014. With any specialty group, of course, make sure you qualify to attend.
  • Negotiation: Good communications pros are negotiating every day, with employees, management, clients, reporters. I have found the training offerings of the Harvard Program on Negotiation helpful for a variety of management situations, from dealing with vendors to negotiating with employees or boards, to managing difficult conversations. All these sessions are run by negotiation lawyers, some with the authors of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. A huge value with excellent hands-on practice and thoroughgoing takeaway materials.
Got a go-to conference for communicators that's cool and unusual? Share it in the comments.

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