I’ve been blogging on Splodz Blogz for nearly a decade, but rarely do I mention my professional life on here. Splodz Blogz is my hobby, my creative outlet, an opportunity to tell the story of my life away from the work environment that takes up my nine to five (and more). But along comes an event that is so relevant to both my professional and my personal development that I simply can’t keep them apart any more.
Comms Unplugged is a not-for-profit comms person’s retreat and opportunity to connect and develop in a unique setting. And by unique they really mean it; unlike most conferences and networking events run in pretty much any sector, where you are based in a moderately fancy hotel with fluorescent lights, PowerPoint presentations and sweets on the tables, this one is run in a field in Dorset, where delegates camp, the breakout rooms are marquees, and the food is street style. I’ve had my eye on the event since it began in 2017, liking the idea of combining my professional work with my love of the outdoors, and am very thankful to my employer for allowing me to attend this time around.
The premise is that we communicate for a living, and so in order to find the peace and calm needed for personal and professional development, we have to take a break, step back from everything, and put in some effort for our own sake. There were no projectors, no screens, no work phone calls being taken halfway through sessions, no stuffy conference rooms, no suits and ties, no formal dinner, and no flip chart paper-based breakout sessions. Being based in a field in the middle of nowhere, with little or no mobile phone signal, means you really have no choice but to engage with what is going on fully – and that has to be good.
The sessions over the three days were all very different to each other. Some had a definite leaning towards professional development, some were very much more about the personal side of things, but every single one came back to an element of good communication – like a series of object lessons one after the other with the same overall message. We had sessions on organisational culture and change, being unconsciously disruptive, “feel good” photography, having big conversations and preparing for big moments, and mental health (an amazing talk by Jonny Benjamin I certainly won’t forget in a hurry) – and these were just the sessions I chose to attend, there were others such as the one on having a good relationship with the BBC that looked equally as interesting, but you can’t be in more than one place at a time. The theme running throughout was one of storytelling, and being disruptive in that storytelling, whether that be telling your own personal story in order to help others grow and develop, or not being afraid to use your personality when communicating for work.
The event is hugely self-indulgent in a lot of ways, especially if you’re like me and love any excuse to go camping and spend lots of time outside. The message of the outdoors being good for our physical and mental wellbeing was one that aligned fully with my values. Add the fact that I was “at work” but was not checking my emails or looking at my phone meant it didn’t really feel like work at all a lot of the time. It was a real mix of serious professional development workshops and opportunities for personal reflection, which absolutely have to go together if the desire to improve and progress is to become a reality. And it was an opportunity to look in places other than textbooks for communications learning…
On the Saturday morning we went on a bird watching walk. We were each armed with a pair of binoculars and followed our very knowledgeable local guide for a couple of hours around the woodland and healthland of this part of Dorset. We saw Goldcrest, Firecrest, various Finches and Thrushes, a Buzzard, a Raven and a Kestrel. I think the Kestrel knew we were watching as it swooped down right in front of us, caught a lizard, and took it up into a tree within easy watching distance to eat it. Most importantly, we learnt about how birds communicate with each other and with us; at this time of year (early September), birds other than Robins don’t sing much – their communication is saved for danger calls as they work hard in their nests and gathering food. Like I say, a communications theory object lesson at every turn.
The biggest benefit for me in both my personal and my professional life was the opportunity to network with other people in the communications business – actually meet, chat to, and get to know. As an introvert, someone who will do everything to avoid networking situations, I can’t stress how huge that actually is. At a normal conference I’d have happily hidden in my room, or more likely gone out for a walk in the local area to get some outdoors time, rather than sitting in the lounge trying to find answers to the inevitable meaningless questions of small talk. But Comms Unplugged put that uncomfortable-for-me situation in my natural habitat, and in that sense it was genuinely the best professional learning event I have ever been to.
I came home with a lot of personal takeaways, a long list of things to try at work to up my game there, and even a potential communications development workshop idea of my own that might see the light of day at some point in the future. And, probably most importantly, a whole bunch of new friends and colleagues who have already proved their worth by answering questions, giving advice, and providing mentoring to myself and others in the weeks since we met.
Thanks to Darren, Georgia and Sally for putting on such a great event. I very much hope to return in 2020 for more field action…
If you’re reading this because you work in the communications profession, you should get 10-12 September 2020 in your diary. I’ll see you there.