Conference diary: Confab 2018

Wide shot of the crowd at Confab 2019, with 'Thanks!' displayed on the screens.
That’s a wrap on Confab 2018! Photo by Sean Tubridy.

Holy shit. So was that a conference or was that a conference?

I’m still reeling from the end of Confab 2018, a (the) content strategy conference held annually here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My employer, Brain Traffic, produces the event. My primary contribution leading up to Confab is to interject unasked-for advice into conversations I overhear the actual Confab team having. My two best interjections this year were suggesting those little instant cameras as speaker gifts (which was a trick, because I wanted one), and the idea for making an activity book for the attendee swag. I also came up with at least one content strategy related owl pun for the cakes that nobody ever sees because they get cut up before the cake break.

(Note that this is just me as a dude reflecting on his own Confab experience, not any official statement from Brain Traffic or Confab. I feel dumb saying that because no one cares but I’m saying it anyway because PROFESSIONALISM!)

The warm-up

Beautiful people in front of beautiful skateboards.

I had a full calendar for this Confab and I was glad for it. My friend Ida was in town early, and we spent Saturday as tourists all over downtown Minneapolis and eventually at Art-A-Whirl. We were lucky enough to see Sean make his first in-person sale for Modern Skateboards, his ridiculously beautiful line of custom, hand-painted complete skateboards. I got in some more Art-A-Whirl with my friend Michael the next day, and found myself daydreaming about renting a studio space somewhere in Northeast just for kicks.

Photograph of panelists at a meetup including Kristina Halvorson, Tracy Playle, and Andy Welfle.
A crowd gathered at Industrious in downtown Minneapolis for the local content strategy meetup featuring Confab speakers.

Sunday evening was watching Ida, Andy, Tracy, and the boss lady at the local content strategy meetup.

Workshop day

Large room full of workshop participants around banquet tables.
View from the stage during one of my workshop activities. Big room for a workshop but the A/V setup was great and I never felt like I had to yell.

Confab is three days long, with workshops on the first day. So I was up early Monday for breakfast before facilitating a brand-new workshop about being more user-centered as a content strategist. It went fine I think?? We’ll see how the evaluations turn out. Workshops are tricky because they depend heavily on the experiences of the people in the room, and because it’s difficult to rehearse them solo. Still! Confab crowds are attentive and inquisitive, and their good questions and contributions always help fill in some of the rough spots. My goal for a half-day workshop is for 80% of the participants to mostly enjoy themselves and leave with at least one good idea. For a full-day workshop it’s two good ideas.

I decompressed in my hotel room in the afternoon and did a bit of work. Later, there was a speaker reception at 4 Bells, which is completely gorgeous and has great service. Made a few new friends and caught up with some old ones. We met the new Facebook Fellows and I scored an excellent Baggu tote bag with a subtle Facebook Content Strategy logo they brought for the occasion. Got groceries with it last night and the clerk said, “This is such a nice bag I almost feel bad putting groceries in it!” Now that’s some classy swag.

Confab Run

11 people in exercise clothes posing before a run.
I gave the crew the option of taking the group photo before or after the run and they loudly opted for before. Bike people tend to go for after, in my experience. Learn something new every day!

Tuesday morning was a new experience for me: not being even a little hungover the morning after the speaker reception. Oh, and also: leading the official Confab run! I was downstairs at 6:30 in the goddamn morning to lead eleven lovely Confabbers on a 2.36 mile run through the Loring Greenway and park, around the sculpture garden at the Walker, up and around the Walker itself, and back. And we didn’t lose anyone! I don’t think.

Screenshot of a running route mapped on an exercise app.

I’ve never been on a group social run, let alone led one, but I was able to borrow experience from going on community bike rides here in Minneapolis, and from leading campus tours at Drake way back in the day. Which, now that I think about it, a running campus tour would be kind of cool.

The conference part of the conference

I tend not to take a lot of notes but then sometimes I do! It’s a mystery. Some rough sketchnotes from Dayana’s talk and Biz’s talk (both excellent).

Tuesday and Wednesday were the session days, and therewereSOMANY good sessions. The schedule was a little different with many more mainstage talks this year, meaning everyone at the conference watches them together, and there was also a Slack team just for attendees. So although it was a much bigger crowd than I’m used to at this kind of event, in some ways it also felt like a closer, more communal experience.

I never know what my practical takeaways are at a conference until I find myself needing them in my work a week or month or two years later. If I had to pick some personal themes, I found myself noticing points about:

  • The work being more important than the disciplines and tools (Gerry made this point rather explicitly in the first mainstage talk, and it echoed throughout many others)
  • The value and power of not just writing, but of designing with words
  • The importance of having a shared understanding of your content and business reality with the people you’re working with
  • The idea that inclusivity in content and design should be table stakes for any team, and that many teams don’t yet have the right people at that table
Trying to get that Everlane sponsorship money. (Photo by Sean Tubridy for Confab Events.)

Wednesday morning I delivered a talk version of my workshop, focused a bit more on the types of situations each tool was best-suited for. I stole a technique I learned from Ahava at a previous Confab and stood at the entrance to greet attendees as they came in the room. This helped me feel more at ease, and also to redirect a few of Monday’s workshop participants to another session, since the material was going to be so similar. Thanks to Zach (Zack?) on the A/V crew, Jatin, Lynne, Quentin, Tenessa, Lauren, and everyone else I’m forgetting that helped things run smoothly.

Final thoughts

This discipline of content strategy is evolving fast. Confab is always a smart crowd but this year it felt like there were more seasoned experts in every room (not just on stage), more people asking more advanced questions, and more casual conversations about content strategy victories, not just challenges. It was a little intimidating, to be honest, but also very encouraging. All that, plus the sheer number of attendees, speaks to a very healthy and growing industry. Can’t wait to see what’s next. (I have a sneaking suspicion something exciting might be coming this fall…)

Addendum: a few things I bookmarked during #Confab2018

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