How I stumbled towards progress with Dare Conference

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I’ve organized web community events for three years. I started in a Shoreditch basement with “Content Strategy, Manhattan Style” in 2010 (video), organized Content Strategy Forum London in 2011 with Destry Wion and Randall Snare, started London Content Strategy Meetup with Richard Ingram (over 1300 members and 18 events so far), and together with Brain Traffic brought the US content strategy conference Confab to London in March 2013.

I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about their work and why they come to events. I’ve learned that while almost everyone gets something from community events, the people who benefit most are ready for change when they show up.

Two types of learning: solutions vs. support for change

When we attend an event we’re in one of two learning states: in state 1 we’re looking for solutions, in state 2 we’re ready for change. Most of us are in state 1 most of the time, and we fluctuate between the two.

When we’re in state 1, we want techniques and solutions. We want speakers to be experts with bullet-proof strategies we can use immediately. We’re here to make our work more effective, without too much discomfort or risk.

When we’re in state 2, we’ve decided to change the way we work, even though that’s risky. We’re here to be inspired and to support each other through change by sharing war stories (good and bad). We see speakers as peers who are being brave by sharing what they’ve learned. Forming relationships is as important as knowledge, so we’re more likely to come to future events and to stay in touch.

To see why we choose state 1 so often, consider school and university, where “learning” is a teacher pouring knowledge into the brains of students. We tend to fall back on this model whenever we prepare to learn. Event organizers accommodate us by calling speakers “experts” and emphasizing the concreteness of what we’ll learn.

Community events help people who are ready to change

When we’re in state 1, community events don’t help us much. We might gain some tips or a case study to take back to the office, but that doesn’t justify our time investment so we’re unlikely to come back. When we need this type of learning, we’re better served by traditional conferences or by reading books and blogs. (Today most professional events cater for state 1, so we’re spoiled for choice.)

When we’re in state 2 we get incredible value from community events–and we tend to contribute as much as we benefit. I realized that the people my events were helping most were in state 2: ready to change. And because I was trying to serve everyone, I wasn’t doing the best job for the people I could help most.

I created a new event to focus on change

The great thing about monthly meetup events is you get a lot of tries and people forgive your mistakes. So we tried to describe the value of meetup events more clearly: this is a community, it’s about relationships and peer support, you’ll benefit more if you keep coming back. We’re experimenting with a new format, the Community Workshop Sessions, where we focus on helping each other over a two-month period.

Something else occurred to me. What if I took the concept of a community of people supporting each other through change—which works so well at content strategy events like Confab—and zoomed out to include other digital disciplines? Could I organize an event about change itself—changing culture, helping others face change, taking risks—without focusing on a specific discipline?

I sat down with my colleagues David Caines, Rhiannan Walton, Daniel Howells, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher and we created the Dare Conference, with the strapline, “let’s be brave together”. We talked about revolution, being a troublemaker, changing culture, and doing work that matters.

I was overwhelmed by speakers’ courage

When you take a risk, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Dave Gray and Karen McGrane agreed to be keynote speakers, and advised us on how to improve the event. The Spontaneity Shop agreed to lead a workshop on improvisation for digital professionals. We booked one of London’s top venues, the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre.

We held an open call for speakers, suggesting themes and encouraging people to be brave with their ideas. We weren’t prepared for the response—it was overwhelming. We had braver submissions than we could imagine and we had to say no to many excellent talks to put together our lineup. To pick just three:

Take a look at the schedule to see the sheer courage on display. It makes me shiver each time I look at it.

We didn’t sell many tickets

It was working! We had the most incredible lineup I’d ever seen. People like you, taking a risk to share their challenges with you. We were all set—right?

But we didn’t sell many tickets.

Some people signed up right at the start–early adopters, if you like–and I’m grateful to them for supporting us, for seeing the value in what we’re doing. You rock, guys. And as time passed, I realized that word wasn’t spreading fast enough to make Dare a viable event. Something wasn’t working.

So I asked my friends and colleagues for help. They told me that the way we were talking about the event didn’t match the themes of the presentations, nor did it seem relevant to the practitioners we were trying to reach:

  • “Why are you talking about starting a revolution? I’m not Che, I’m just trying to get better at my job.”
  • “The site says that everyone should participate. I’m an introvert, can’t I sit down and watch a talk?”
  • “I don’t want to talk about my feelings! How will this event help me?”

My original vision and wording, which worked so well for inspiring people to submit talks, didn’t suit the job at hand: selling the event to people who’d benefit from it.

I changed the message to fit the reality instead of the vision

Everyone agreed, though, that the talks were awesome. I needed to “pivot” the message to fit my reality instead of my vision. I went back to the talks and figured out what they were actually about:

  • We know we need to make change, and it’s hard.
  • We need to talk about hidden barriers.
  • We can learn how to build on each others ideas, ship great work together, and take responsibility for change.

I asked friends on twitter for help, and ended up with this pitch:

Learn how to make change

Do you work on digital services that improve people’s lives? Is change important for your team’s success, but difficult for everyone? You’re not alone. Our speakers will dare to be honest about the hidden barriers—our fear of being vulnerable, learning from mistakes, and dealing with uncertainty—and show you how to keep going despite these challenges. Join us for a two-day conference (with an optional workshop) where you’ll learn to build on each other’s ideas, ship great work together, and take responsibility for change.

I’m stumbling towards progress, and that’s OK

I’m stumbling towards progress, and that’s OK. If I hadn’t “failed” to sell tickets I wouldn’t have asked people to help me improve. Through asking, I learned that people see a need for Dare, and the talks will be relevant and practical—we don’t talk about these topics, and that slows us down. And I’ve learned that I have to work with what I have in front of me rather than trying to fulfill my original vision.

The happy ending: that’s where you come in.

The story isn’t over yet: that’s where you come in. I’m confident that we can make this conference work, and I need your help to do it. Yes, you—you’ve read this far, you’re the person who can help us. People from seven countries are already attending, and they rock. We don’t have enough people to make the conference viable yet—but we have two months to go. And we have awesome people like you to help us.

Can you come? Or can you help us reach people who would benefit from coming?

I’d love for you to be part of the Dare Conference. Help us to make this a happy ending.

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