Telling people what you need is scary

Jonathan Kahn opens #dareconf mini
Photo: Paul Clarke

Just over a year ago I announced an open call for speakers for the first Dare Conference with the strapline, “let’s be brave together.” It was about taking risks, being vulnerable, and becoming an agent of change. I wanted speakers to share their vulnerability on stage instead of presenting the tidy success stories you normally see at conferences. I called it the “hard part” of digital work. My note on the submission form said, “tell us how you failed.” Reading that now, I cringe.

The call got people’s attention on twitter and I received many more submissions than I had space for. I was shocked at how brave they were: these people were willing to share their most vulnerable moments in front of a room of peers. With a colleague I chose the talks that seemed both brave and relevant to the topics I’d chosen—we had to make tough decisions—and announced a lineup of 28 speakers across main-stage and breakout sessions.

The conference was simultaneously the piece of work I’m most proud of and the cause of a major financial loss. That’s another story. Today I’m going to tell you what I learned afterwards. Because of the difficulty I’d had selling tickets to the event, I focused on finding out why people came and what they got out of it, so I could get clarity about what resonated. There was a clear theme in the feedback: while listening to vulnerable talks triggered a strong emotional reaction—one person called it “cathartic”—most people struggled to apply speakers’ stories to their own situations. It was emotional but it wasn’t actionable.

Neil Williams at #dareconf
Neil Williams at #dareconf

However, one talk in particular stood out for attendees: “Change on the Inside: My Part in the Digital Government Revolution” by Neil Williams of the Government Digital Service. Neil told the story of his initial resistance to Martha Lane Fox’s proposal for a single government website—“over my dead body,” he said—and took us through his journey of transformation from comfortable civil servant to subversive digital insurgent. Neil used a three act structure of setup, confrontation, resolutiona tool from screenwriting—and scattered in tools he’d learned along the way. (I found out later that Neil’s wife is a writer, and she’d suggested this narrative structure.) People saw themselves in his transformation story and were inspired to make changes in their own work and life. I learned from Neil’s talk that to develop people skills, we need to learn a practical tool and hear a transformation story.

I wondered whether my role as organiser was to create a space where people could tell this type of story. And then the fear set in. How dare I? Who was I to tell speakers how to tell their stories? Surely they’d refuse. And who would buy tickets to this type of event? Perhaps I was imagining all of this, over-generalising from the feedback and becoming arrogant about my abilities.

Then I remembered the overwhelming message in the feedback: “you must do this again”. I couldn’t afford to lose money again, though: I needed to make #dareconf sustainable. I realised that I couldn’t give up: I had to believe in my instinct. Attendees were telling me that they needed transformation stories, so that’s what I needed to give them, however scared I was to try. My job was to first to get them in the room and second to collaborate with speakers to create talks that would meet their needs.

I committed to this plan by launching a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), an experiment to test my assumptions about my audience’s needs. I asked nine friends and colleagues if they’d be willing to give a talk at a mini #dareconf event in January 2014, each on a specific “people skills” topic, using the narrative structure that I’d learned from Neil. If I didn’t sell 50 tickets in a month, I’d cancel. They agreed, and I was both excited and scared.

Working on the talks with speakers was a learning curve for me. I wanted to take the process Neil had discovered and apply it to the new talks, in collaboration with the speakers. I came up with some milestones and deadlines—a project plan for writing the talks—and asked the speakers to follow the process I’d outlined. I quickly encountered challenges:

  • In a normal professional context you don’t hear the stories of personal transformation that I was asking for. These stories are vulnerable, which makes them scary to deliver, and personal, which makes them difficult to write.
  • Experienced speakers have established methods for writing talks, and they generally work alone rather than collaborating with organisers. Working in the way I proposed jarred with people’s habits and also took a long time.
  • Although it sounds simple to combine a personal story with a practical tool, most of us have difficulty pulling it off, because we’re not used to telling stories about our growth and transformation. I was asking people to share a vulnerable story while simultaneously stepping away from it to consider how it might help others. That’s a huge request and challenging for anyone to pull off.

As the date got nearer, I realised that the speakers were interpreting my requests in different ways. Some embraced the screenwriting tool I’d suggested, collaborating with me throughout the process. Others chose elements and free-styled, and a couple didn’t discuss their story with me at all, choosing not to reveal it until the talk itself. That was reasonable: I’d approached each of the speakers and requested that they present, without going into detail about the narrative stuff or the time commitment—I was learning as I went—so I couldn’t expect everyone to embrace it. I was still scared, though. Would the story structure work? How would the audience react? Would it help people?

Elizabeth McGuane at #dareconf mini
Elizabeth McGuane at #dareconf mini

The day of #dareconf mini came. After Elizabeth McGuane gave the opening talk, somebody tweeted that they now understood “why it’s called dare”. Attendees were surprised, inspired, challenged, and moved. The narrative approach worked, holding people’s attention and bringing the techniques to life. Although each of the speakers interpreted my requests for narrative in their own way, I know from the feedback that every talk helped some attendees to develop people skills. The event passed the MVP test and went on to make a modest profit, a big deal for me after the previous loss.

I’d done it. I’d created a space where speakers told transformation stories and attendees were inspired to develop people skills. The success of the event validated my hunch about the power of Neil’s narrative technique. After the event, I saw in the feedback that my audience has a broad range of needs. Some realised that they could ask for coaching at work. Others wanted to develop their listening skills and take a new approach to “difficult” conversations. Others wanted to overcome their excuses and commit to taking themselves more seriously. As I read this feedback, I felt overwhelmed and tired. Witnessing all these unmet needs made me realise my own unmet need for appreciation. My audience focused on their own needs, not on mine as organiser: that’s how I’d set it up. I needed to give myself that appreciation by being kinder to myself and taking my contribution seriously.

#dareconf mini
#dareconf mini

Now that I’d validated the concept at the mini event, I needed to bring the same approach to the main event in September. I couldn’t continue to ask friends to commit time and energy as a favour. I needed to find people who were willing and able to develop this type of talk in a way that would meet my audience’s varied needs.

I decided to launch a 20-week talk development programme. In contrast to my previous approach—essentially, “send us a pitch and we’ll say yes or no,”—people who apply to this programme are committing substantial time and energy to developing a #dareconf-style talk, in collaboration with me. In the application form I ask people to choose one of 12 topics that I derived from audience needs, suggest a few tools they’ll teach in the talk, and outline their personal story of transformation to go with it.

As I wrote the copy, I felt scared. How would people react to me stating my needs in public? I know that most of my audience aren’t aware of what goes into preparing #dareconf—they have no reason to be—so would they think me ridiculous for asking for these things? Would past speakers interpret my requests as veiled criticisms? Would anyone bother to apply given the amount of work involved? 

I knew that unless I stopped apologising for my needs, #dareconf couldn’t continue. So I pushed through the fear and published the application form. The reaction was strong. The first person who commented on twitter said it looked like a job application which put him off: fair enough. Most people where enthusiastic though, some saying that it was inspiring and “raised the bar” for other events. A few people said they’d run through application process even if they decided not to submit, because it seemed so valuable. The Ladies in Tech podcast interviewed me about the programme.

I got pushback from some friends who participated in my first events. They wanted to contribute to #dareconf and were surprised by the programme, describing it as prescriptive and controlling. Why does it take so long to prepare, they asked, why do talks need to follow the same structure, and what about people who don’t have half a day per week to spare? Was I excluding people who could contribute?

I realised that although these friends had put time and energy into supporting #dareconf, they didn’t understand my needs as an organiser. Rather than reading my talk development programme as a statement of my needs, they saw it as a rejection of their offer to contribute. They didn’t show empathy for my challenges and they didn’t understand why I was making these requests—perhaps because I hadn’t explained.

That’s why I wrote this essay. I’ve learnt that #dareconf is a collaboration between me and the speakers. I get the audience in the room by understanding their needs, then I collaborate with speakers to create talks that meet those needs. That collaboration only works when both the speaker and I understand each others’ needs. I launched the talk development programme to explain what I need and find speakers whose needs align with mine.

I’ve learnt that to find meaning in my work, I need to collaborate with others. That demands that I find out what I need, be kind to myself, and be brave enough to express my own needs.