– Turn up, tune out – learn more –

‘The most important thing people did for me was to expose me to new things.’ – Temple Grandin

What do you think is the best thing about attending a conference? Engaging speakers? Networking with people? Perhaps the goody bag or, if you are lucky, a night in a hotel? So how does two nights camping in a field in Dorset sound?

Comms Unplugged is a simple but challenging concept: turn up, tune out and learn alongside your peers without any technology, internet access, hash tags etc. For Comms professionals who are constantly trying to get buy in for digital channels, it seems almost an oxymoron. Yet sometimes you have to dare to be different.

So it was that Kate Ayala and I found ourselves heading to a remote spot on the Isle of Purbeck, part intrigued, part enthused and part apprehensive about what on earth we’d signed up to. When we arrived at the conference venue, it consisted of two marquees, four portaloos and a whole lot of grass.

Those of you who have been around long enough to remember the First Ever Trust Conference are probably already breaking out in a sweat at the thought of pitching tents. I probably should point out here that I’m pretty used to camping, but it felt good to sit back with a coffee having created our space. Before long there were others arriving, little tents popping up everywhere and people mucking in to help.

Getting together, collaborating, helping, shared experience, think differently – these were all key themes to the weekend. There’s something uniquely disarming about sitting in the sun with a bunch of strangers and a breakfast butty, and we were soon discovering public sector covers a wide range of businesses yet with similar challenges: Trossachs National Park, Bradford Council, South Wales Police, Radioactive Waste Management…

Still, it’s all very well taking time out of the office to drink coffee in the sun with peers, but we were there for a conference, so would the content live up to the hype?

Short answer is yes, very much so. The organisers had managed to secure speakers of exceptionally high calibre, ironically recruited via Twitter, and each one delivered a really excellent, useful session. They included Matt Prosser, CEO of Dorset Councils Partnership, and Simon Enright, Director of Communications for NHS England.

Their messages included ‘removing our cultural anchors holding us back from moving forward’; ‘telling stories is important – we forget it at our peril’ and ‘Modern leaders can’t get away with saying ‘I don’t do digital’’.

Other workshops were delivered by DXW, creators of Thames Valley Housing’s self-service portal, and Perago Wales who will shortly be working on digital transformation for Welsh housing associations. The organisers had even thought of our wellbeing, so the long day didn’t feel quite as long after yoga and a ‘Fresh Air Fridays’ woodland meditation.

A good Comms practitioner will always measure outtakes, so what were mine?

Make space. Taking time to think isn’t a waste of time. It’s essential to both delivering the day job and personal wellbeing, but it’s the first thing that suffers when the pressure is on. And when is the pressure off at the moment?

Reach out. No Comms Team is an island, and someone somewhere is facing the same issues we are or has a brilliant insight that can be repurposed here

Fresh air = fresh thinking. We are constantly assailed by information from the moment we get up, until our senses eventually switch off to it. Getting outside can reset your battered brain. Next time you struggle to find a meeting room, wrap up and take a walk outside, find a green space and do it there.

Twist, don’t stick. It’s very easy to keep to a known formula, especially when it’s successful because that saves an awful lot of time. That’s often at the expense of creativity though, and a creative spark can take something from successful to ‘OMG, I can’t WAIT for next time’ – which is exactly what Unplugged did.

I’ve never come away from a conference with so many new contacts, so much useful information and so energised to start putting what I’ve learnt into practice.

It was also a refreshing change to attend this type of event and no one is trying to get you to buy anything (apart from raffle tickets)! It rocked value for money – it cost less for two of us to attend a two-day conference in Dorset than a ticket for one to the conference we usually attend.

The unplugging didn’t last that long – we’re all back on Twitter and WhatsApp now (with a 9pm voluntary curfew!), but we’re still raving about the event, and crucially we are still talking to each other and sharing ideas. Most of all, we are looking forward to Comms Unplugged 2018, which aims to be bigger and (if it’s possible!) better.


Blog from guest #Unplugger Jill Spurr, External Communications Officer, Vale of Aylesbury Housing