red velvet cake

Confab 2013: Not An Argy-Bargy

In sum.

A Paul Ford slide

I went to the Confab content strategy conference and came back wanting to get good at handstands by the end of the of the year.

It’s the truth. The weird truth, but there you have it. Inspiration works in strange ways. Alas, I also left the Minneapolis Hyatt last Wednesday evening inspired to dig into content strategy (if you don’t know what it is or why a designer/yogini/traveler like me is interested, read this great explanation of the field/topic). Here’s what was great about Confab: 

Hello, I’m … friendly

Really, really nice and interesting people were there. I think there was just one instance in which I sat down and did not immediately find that the person next to me wasn’t also about to introduce him or herself. That one instance was likely due to the fact that the woman was busy doing same with the woman to her left – and I’d already met her. Now, perhaps the personal expense of the conference and my glee over heading over to my old haunt of downtown Minneapolis gave me an injection of extroversion, when normally I’d be a wallflower. It’s also possible that most of the people I met were not Minnesotans; Minnesota n’ice can be a sad, powerful thing. At any rate, there was a light in everyone’s eyes and that really invited introductions.


Perhaps the sparkling eyes condition was due to the promise of or recent indulgence in cake, something that probably should not be so high on this list. However, I have a hell of a sweet tooth so I won’t ignore it, and besides, it was good cake. This was one of the major differences I noted between this and other conferences I’ve attended – which cover a somewhat wide range: arts, nonprofits, design, technology. At those, snacks were minimal, as transition times were also minimal or non-existent.

Betty Crocker Gender Reveal Cake

I ate a cupcake version.

About the cake: I’m guessing that cake (or something else that was sweet) was available at every break between breakout sessions because the organizers are cake fans. However, that alone really isn’t enough to bring out the pastries, even if I were in charge. I can’t seem to find it in my notes or the web, but I vaguely recall a content strategist writing somewhere that good food is a great conversation starter, and if there is one thing that is helpful to successful content strategy, it’s conversation. If you need someone to tell you more about what they care about, flavorful and colorful food can be a great instigator.

And so, there was a Betty Crocker table in the lobby/vendor area where we sidled up to the treats, every hour or so. The rep there was eager to answer questions, and had some new test kitchen “results” right there on display (it’s pictured above; details on how to make it are here).

Let’s talk.

Several of the breakout sessions emphasized the importance of knowing, not guessing, what your client and/or end consumer want, and the main way to find that out is to ask them – and in a language (a voice) that is comfortable and welcoming to the individual or group you wish to reach. Tiffani Jones Brown, from Pinterest, spoke at length about voice, and the way Pinterest uses it to keep momentum in that community. It was only after this talk that I remembered the most unique and memorable thing I discovered with that site: in the very first registration step a year or two ago, I was prompted to “ask” to be sent an invitation. It made the registering process seem more human and more inclusive, in a good way. I remember it because it was unorthodox. (Since then, it appears to have changed – Open Auth methods are “friendlier” ways to initiate relationships, these days.)

Steve Fisher and Alaine Mackenzie also spoke about getting into the customer’s heads, when exploring needs and content in the discovery phase. Spending time with stakeholders in their physical world and getting a handle on their mental models (Optimal Sort was recommended as a helpful tool) is vital to delivering consistently usable content. Those conversations are also important to longterm content sustainability, post-launch. The project they presented was a new responsive design for the Surrey, B.C. community web site.

Human interest, delight, and love (well, not hate)

Also in synch with the conversational, human theme was Melissa Rach‘s presentation, titled “Well, This IS interesting.” Her talking points broke down some of what I learned in the Content Brew social media marketing course earlier this year. In that class, we were encouraged to grab people’s attention, by using catchy, appealing headlines and content. Rach explained what makes things appealing, which included: infographics in which the reader sees herself in the graphic; gaps in her own knowledge, found and filled; and content fueled by a curator’s hungry curiosity, empathy, and authentic interest in the visitor’s satisfaction. One of the beautiful things about storytelling is that it invites an exchange of information, which can fuel further exploration and inquiry. Oh my, that is interesting!

Confab preso

Packed room. Great hair. Taller than me.

The fact that Jared Spool was on the list of presenters was one reason that I registered for Confab: I’ve been following his writings for years, and suddenly, here was an opportunity to see him in person. He did not disappoint: His day three opening keynote encouraged us to create content that doesn’t just not suck, but to create content that delights. We know better, and we can do better. It will be worth the effort to great happy, satisfied content consumers and a more concise, elegant, and easy-to-navigate internet landscape.

Lastly, the image at the top of this post is a slide from Paul Ford’s closing keynote. He spoke of many things, and had some great examples of trends both good and bad that we need to observe and to which we should react in an appropriate, thoughtful, inspired way. The slide spoke volumes, in terms of how technology has made it all too easy to be mean, and to forget the human behind every pixel of content that is published on the web. Approaching and setting up those interactions always needs to be done in a loving, or at least compassionate way.

Fabulous. Trains. Handstands.

After Confab, I had to look up “confab.” This event was so unique in its social enabling, peerless presentation quality, and relevance of topics, that I wondered if I’d misunderstood the term. Similar words include the more boisterous argy-bargy, the more concentrated symposium, or the more combative summit. “Confab” was the right choice: Fabulous, yet informal. Well done, Confab Events!

This has almost nothing to do with Confab itself, but the high downtown parking prices and my need for some walking proved to be just the right push to take the light rail there, on days two and three. Doing that from downtown St. Paul still requires the use of a car or at least 3 bus transfers, but it (the former) was still worth the extra time, as I love riding trains. Confab gave me a great little urban travel adventure.

As for my vow to get good at handstands by next year? Maybe it’s not the only thing that will happen in that time frame. I’m inspired, and have plenty to on my 2013 plate that could benefit from more conversation, discovery, compassion and delight.


One thought on “Confab 2013: Not An Argy-Bargy

  1. Brilliant. Also, using “argy-bargy” in the title makes me think of that Squeeze album that has the “Pulling Muscles from the Shell” song, which we always reinterpreted as “Pulling muscles from Michelle” and how unpleasant for her, really…

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