An Introvert at the Communications Conference

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Aside from the good work that is done at KU’s Center for Public Partnerships and Research (CPPR), one of the most rewarding parts of my job is the amount of support for our professional development. Opportunities range from internal lunch and learn gatherings, to outside workshops, and multi-day conferences. Recently, The Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation that supports CPPR among many other causes and nonprofits, presented an unexpected opportunity. Along with several of their other grantees, our center was invited to attend ComNet17, a communications conference in Miami, Florida. The Communications Network’s annual conference brings together nonprofit organizations to “improve lives through the power of smart communications.” I had the great fortune of being chosen to represent CPPR at the conference, and the experience has affected not only my professional development, but my personal development as well. I was able to bring back valuable insights for the team, and our mission — but also scored victories over my own anxieties about my skills and value to the team.

Three days of workshops, networking events, and keynote addresses brought together nearly 800 participants from nonprofits across the country. I was initially intimidated by the idea of networking with leadership and communications teams from some of the most well-known and effective nonprofits in the country: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Carnegie Foundation, and more. I wondered how I could effectively participate in dialogue with the stars of the nonprofit field.

Once I arrived however, I discovered my anxiety was largely unfounded, and that everyone has something to gain from sharing struggles as well as triumphs. I updated my business cards prior to the trip, making sure to include the address of CPPR’s Medium publication, Ideas in Motion. The publication is a relatively recent venture that aims to share the breadth of the work we do with a wider audience. Simply seeking feedback on the work of the many people at CPPR who have contributed to the blog, was a great starting point for discussion.

My experience at this conference reinforced the idea that as widely varied as people may seem, our experiences are far more alike than unalike. It seemed every conversation, even fleeting moments while moving from one session to another, led to unexpected connections. I met Jason, a V.P. at a Washington, D.C. educational advocacy group. He happened to sit next to me at dinner one night, and I discovered that his organization had recently completed a creative commons photo project similar to one our own team recently began investigating as a potential new endeavor. Their work is both a great resource for us, as well as a model for our own iteration. Jason also pointed me to a VR-based therapy device that might be of use to my autistic son — developed in part by a friend of his. There was Sande, Communications Director for a California health foundation, whose graphic recordings captured the attention of presenters. I immediately connected with her as an addition to the visual practitioner network of CPPR’s own Sara O’Keefe. Another chance meeting over a meal put me in touch with Will, a data strategist at The Great Plains Institute, also attending the conference through a Heising-Simons sponsorship. We both came to nonprofit communications from a background in video production, and I was able to share videos we’ve recently produced at CPPR. Over and over again, ideas were exchanged and connections made that will help our organization expand our network of resources and our ability to help the communities we serve.



Sarah Hurwitz’s keynote was profound in its simplicity. Hurwitz, a speech writer for many presidential candidates as well as First Lady Michelle Obama, gave concise and compelling examples of how to move listeners with visual storytelling. From Ms. Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention:

“I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?’”

To date, fewer than 50 families have occupied the White House — so relating to such a person’s life might seem difficult. But, just two sentences accomplish the extraordinary trick of putting us in those shoes, giving us an almost instant point of emotional connection.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo provided an incredible model to follow when telling the stories of the unheard, keeping them from degenerating into easily ignored “suffering porn”. “Don’t go where the camera’s already are,” she said. “Don’t use ‘perfect victims’ that fit into an already structured story. Give them their space, and tell their stories with nuance.” Lessons like these will help us keep our own messaging relevant and effective for the populations we help serve.

CPPR frequently participates in the staging of conferences, giving me an added appreciation for the planning and flexibility demonstrated by the organizers. While the keynotes had all been planned with an on-stage interviewer, one of the interviewers was unable to attend. With little advance notice, Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, changed his keynote from a dialogue to a TED Talks style presentation, complete with a hastily assembled powerpoint. It was an impassioned and inspiring speech. A great follow up to his opinion piece about Charlottesville.

There was an incredible diversity of presentations, but a unifying focus on storytelling and its power to motivate change was constant and personally, inspiring. In a spare moment waiting for Michele Norris’s keynote, I scribbled down notes in preparation for writing this blog. The first takeaway I wrote down: Data informs policy decisions, but stories can change hearts and minds. Or as Brené Brown says: “Stories are data with a soul.”

Michele Norris’s conversation with Communications Network president Sean Gibbons was prefaced by the presentation of an award to Dr. Clarence B. Jones. It was truly an honor to be in the same room as the man, who as Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer, smuggled the Letter from Birmingham Jail out of the facility on scraps of paper. He advised King, and helped shape the message of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. Jones’s emotional acceptance of the award added weight of the discussion that followed. Norris, well-known from her stint on NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke at length about her family’s history and The Race Card Project, her effort to collect six-word stories about race from people of all backgrounds. She found that limiting submissions to six words was an effective method to help people find the essential message they wanted to convey. This resonates with anyone in communications that labors at great length to boil down complex ideas to a few essential words. She quoted Twain, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”


Atlantic Media Strategies pre-conference workshop, Communicating for Change, was full of useful exercises. Historical examples from The Atlantic’s publication history showed effective examples of writing that ultimately swayed public opinion. Links to these articles can be found at the end of this post.

For me, perhaps the most important realization from the conference came during a session on building a winning communications team. As people were sharing the struggles of integrating communications within the larger strategies of their organizations, it became clear that whether you work for a multi-million dollar foundation, or a small non-profit, the same challenges (communications not being considered early enough in the process) and potential solutions (communications being part of the overall strategy) resonated with everyone. It struck me that CPPR was worthy of being in this company.

I loved the design and presentation of the event. I loved the consistency of message, the focus on storytelling. In fact, my only complaint is the embarrassment of riches presented. As the sole attendee from my organization, there were some very difficult decisions to be made when choosing which session to attend.

Coming to nonprofit work from a background in TV and film production, I had considered my storytelling skills to be only tangentially valuable to the organization. ComNet17 inspired me to believe that these skills are actually the most valuable. Valuable across teams, projects, and partnerships. It’s critically important that they be advanced by not only myself, but the entirety of our staff.

Next year’s Communications Network conference will be held in San Fransisco. Here’s hoping that the stars align, and we are able to attend the conference again.

Thanks to Sean Blake, for contributing to Ideas in Motion!

Sean earned his Bachelor’s degree in film studies from The University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He has provided web, print, and promotional design for a variety of projects at CPPR, as well as videos for IRIS and the Kansas Home Visiting Landscape.  Outside the office, Sean enjoys collaborating on video and film projects and nerding-out with family and friends. 

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