Observations from my first IABC World Conference

Janet Swaysland at World Conference 2017

A bright red “First Time” ribbon on my badge hangs around my neck. That’s the first thing that struck me about participating in last week’s IABC World Conference in Washington, DC. I thought – hmm, either everyone walks up to you and says, “Welcome! How can I help you?” or it’s some kind of newbie hazing identifier. Of course, it’s absolutely the former. Nothing but nice, interesting people, generous with their ideas, experiences and contacts.

“Conference” (as the veterans call it for short) was a terrific experience, and I encourage you to participate whenever you can. Here I’ll share just a few observations and learnings from my first World Conference, in three big ways that made it really meaningful: Sessions, Social and Self-discovery.


Conference was designed with a great mix of keynote headliners, practical how-to strategies and innovative discussion formats. Of the dozens of excellent sessions, here are a few that especially caught my attention.

Global Business: Lead Communication – Make Real Impact

Not the catchiest theme for a conference, but there was real discipline across the sessions for us as communicators to pick our heads up out of the day-to-day weeds and focus on supporting strategic priorities at our companies. After all, “making real impact” depends on knowing what you’re trying to solve and knowing how well you’re accomplishing it. Sessions like Angela Sinickas’ “Research to Fine Tune Your Strategies” gave us practical ways to infuse our work with insights to help plan better, test better, nudge employee behavior better and measure in more meaningful ways.

A focus on our role as communicators during these times

One of the most innovative sessions was a “World Café” format where, in small groups, we dove into three questions about ethics and communications, starting with “What does ethics in communication mean to you?” I think this was part therapy for us, as in our roles we are often balancing complicated and competing interests in what gets communicated and when and how, and it’s helpful to define our own standards and build on others’ views. (The World Café format is an example of newer ways to foster idea-sharing and problem solving, especially around challenging topics, one to keep in mind as we are sometimes conveners and event designers in our organizations.)

On keeping up with new technologies – both Chuck Gose and Shel Holtz shared their sage views on what’s hot and to keep an eye on, including chatbots, Bluetooth geolocation, AI, VR, blockchain… Yep, it’s all coming to your toolbox.

Storytelling gets real

I don’t know about you, but if I don’t hear the word storytelling for a very long time, that will be fine with me. Who doesn’t agree that stories work better than bullet points or corporate speak? The question is how to source and bake more stories into our communications? A number of sessions got practical on this, especially Shawn Callahan’s “Making Your Strategy Stick” session. He’s got a simple formula for explaining a company strategy or big change in ways that actual humans will understand and care about, and he actually encouraged us to replace the “S” word with sharing “experiences,” or “what happened” as prompts for surfacing stories. His book, “Putting Stories to Work” has all his frameworks and how-to’s.

Social: Getting to know you

Ample breaks for food and conversation (and food) and an open “hub” physical space made it easy to mix and mingle throughout the entire conference. Each IABC Region hosted a reception for members, and I was thrilled to meet some of our Heritage Region colleagues for the first time. (By the way, our region conference is November 5-7 in Pittsburgh.) A recent favorite feature of Conference is the “Dine Around” dinner experience, where attendees could sign up at any of a range of local DC restaurants for group dinners. And the IABC World Conference app made it easy to find people, connect with people and play some social games (not to mention keeping track of your schedule.)

Self-discovery (and a personal action plan)

Filling a notebook with new facts and trends and methods and cool tools and case studies is great, but even better is coming away with new habits and actions you personally bring home with you. I found that most Conference sessions urged active thinking about how to adapt and apply the ideas to what you’re facing at your companies and in your work – what three things can do now, or differently, or next? for example. One of the keynotes, Denise Jacobs, introduced the concept of “Tiny Habits,” based on behavioral science, ways to get over inertia or otherwise make more progress through small, incremental, but effective steps you commit to. I listened to every subsequent session through this lens, and am keen to follow through!

The World Conference website is now updated with highlights from the event – check it out, and ask me anything about my experience there or shared here. You can reach me at janet@bluefirepartners.com.

 – Janet Swaysland, IABC Boston VP Programming


  1. Elise Mesedahl says:

    Thank you for the take-aways, Janet!