Blog: Why you should go to an ‘unconference’

When I found out I was going to an ‘unconference’ I had no idea what to expect. But I heard there was cake involved and that was enough to get me interested.

Arriving in Bradford for this year’s Commscampnorth I was greeted with friendly faces, goodie bags and mountains of cake that attendees had baked. Still a bit unsure of what was going on, I, with the rest of everyone else, sat down in the Kala Sangam Arts Centre to find out what the day would look like.

We all know what a conference looks like. Pick your chair in a big room and sit through a PowerPoint whilst trying to look interested, repeat per number of sessions with some coffee and lunch in between. 

To kick things off, Commscampnorth promised me something very different. A day where attendees pitched topics to the room, you cheer and clap on what you liked (whooping was heavily encouraged) and an agenda is made based on what everyone wants to talk about. No death by PowerPoint, just conversations based on what you wanted to know about.

I loved it immediately. But what to talk about first? There were multiple sessions going on each hour so you had to pick wisely where you wanted to commit your time. Or so I thought. A feature which I now want to have at every conference is the ability to just stand up and walk out of a session if you wanted to go and enjoy a different one that was happening at the same time. I promised myself I would do this at least once. Just for the thrill of it.

The first session I attended was on recruitment. Part of my job working in the Communications Team at Oldham Council is trying to get more social workers to come and work for us. An issue I found people from all around the country were also having so it was useful to swap ideas, hear what’s worked for others, and really just be reassured it’s not just a problem we’re facing alone. So far, so good.

One session down and I decided it was time for cake. I went in for a walnut brownie that the cake table organsier told me had been a favourite so far. It was delicious. I donated some money for the privilege and went to find the next topic to attend. 

Next up then was a session cheekily named ‘wokeness’ but really it was on equality and diversity. There were some very interesting conversations around raising awareness campaigns vs taking action, the ever sensitive topic of pronouns and the culture wars. Half an hour in and I remembered another session was going on at this time on media law in the wake of the ‘Wagatha Christie’ story. It was my time to move. I got up and walked out of the room and just as advertised nobody batted an eyelid. Revolutionary. 

The media law talk offered some useful tips on keeping your reputation safe when talking about controversial topics publically. What it really made me think about was how interesting it was to come from a topic like ‘wokeness’ into a conversation on media laws and regulations at the same conference. It really reflected both the unique way this conference was run (by us) and the range of the interests of the people attending.

It was time for the lunch 5k run. I’ll spare you the details but Bradford is hilly and the first half was painful but at least a breeze on the way back down. 

Endorphins pumping through me the next session was on the cost of living crisis. I’ve been doing a lot of work on this recently and what really struck me were the issues people were facing and how different they were. Urban poverty vs rural, stigmas and barriers to accessing support, creating guidance for areas with low literacy rates. It was a difficult topic to discuss but good to see so many people from around the country focusing their efforts on it.

Next up was a talk on an area I’d been avoiding. TikTok. I don’t use TikTok and like many other people didn’t really understand how to create content on it that works. Thankfully many people in the room did use it and shared some fantastic tips on who content should be aimed at, styles of videos to make and what to avoid. Here are some quick tips if like me you feel like you don’t understand it:

  • ‘Get it’ before you use it.
  • Use it for fun, escapist content – don’t make an advert.
  • Make it for TikTok – don’t port videos over from other channels and just stick them on there.
  • Take risks. Senior people in your organisations might not understand the styles of videos. Do them anyway and show them what works.
  • Build a back catalogue of content. Don’t make an account, post one video then wait 6 months to make another.

By this time it was 4pm and my energy levels were dropping. There were 30 minutes left for a session so I decided to go to something a bit different to the rest of the talks and go to a session on ‘emotions at work’. 

This turned out to be one of my favourite sessions of the day. We spoke about why we hide our emotions at work. Why some people feel like they can open up and why others don’t let their true selves out when they go into an office. How simply asking someone “How are you feeling today?” can make a big impact. Given the stressful nature of communications roles and the tendency for burnout in what’s been an intense few years, it was refreshing to hear people in our profession open up to each other. These conversations ended far too quickly but I heard a quote that stuck with me that I think applies both to emotional intelligence and communications work. “Don’t be afraid of being different. Be afraid of being the same as everyone else.”

Feeling slightly emotionally vulnerable it was time to end the day with what many had been waiting for. Awards for star baker and the very exciting ‘tat raffle’. I didn’t win anything which was a shame as I had my eye on a very attractive Harry and Meghan commemorative teapot. Maybe next year. The baking efforts raised over £500 for charity and over 120kg of food donations were given to Bradford Foodbank.

That was the end of Commscampnorth and my first experience of an unconference. I can honestly say I had a great time, all made possible by the brilliant people who came to offer their thoughts and insights. A big thank you to everyone at Commscamp for organising the event and for having us.

I’ll be the first in line for tickets next year.

Robin Marshall is a Communications Manager at Oldham Council and part of the 2022 Future Leaders cohort.


Upcoming event: Next generation social (Sheffield, 30 September)

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