The Gatehouse Blog

Reflections on IABC 2019

In June, 1,400 business communication professionals from 42 countries descended on Vancouver for the IABC’s annual world conference. Matt Frost reflects on what he heard and learnt during the event.

For me, the IABC World Conference is the benchmark for everything a conference should be. Superb content, inspirational keynotes, networking aplenty and a non-salesy exhibition. Its secret weapon, though, is its relaxed environment, which encourages professionals to step outside their comfort zone to share stories, present views and challenge conventional thinking. All with the ambition to improve the business communication profession.

This was my fifth world conference and the third time I’ve made it through the rigorous selection panel and presented my views (this year, I proudly co-presented on the ‘Nine Hallmarks of a World-Class Internal Communication’ with Lee Smith).

Here are the key learnings ringing in my ears.

1. Stop looking at “change” as an initiative

In the last decade, the business world has changed at a frightening pace. Despite being the fastest rate of change that we’ve ever experienced, it’ll be the slowest we’ll ever know. Change is constant. Change is the norm. And change is necessary. Businesses have to evolve to stay relevant and to meet their customers where they are today, and where they’ll be tomorrow.

I’m often asked to help communicate a ‘change management initiative’ – often related to saving money, moving people around, evolving culture.

We need to change the optics and see communication as an enabler to keep stakeholders aligned and engaged with the constant evolution. Change is never a ‘one and done’ exercise

2. Be present. Listen to learn. And stop trying to multitask 

The most ironic moment of the conference came when I was sitting in a session, trying to listen to the presenter at the same time as sending an email. We’ve all done it!

It was ironic because the presenter was sharing proof that biologically we can’t multitask. So, I put my phone in my bag and I intently listened to the rest of the session – and every one after.

It was a stark reminder that we need to be present. Almost every task in business requires us to be present and focused – whether it’s contributing to a meeting, listening to someone to learn, having a conversation, doing email.

In the same session, I learned that 25% of people check their phone in the shower. And 10% have checked it during sex. If you’re one of these people, please stop. It’s weird.

I learned that 25% of people check their phone in the shower. And 10% have checked it during sex.

3. Give leaders proof

It’s a common scenario: a communicator presents a new idea to the leadership team, only to be shot down by the CEO. “If you bring your opinion to the table, I’ll use my own. If you bring facts and stats, I’ll listen.” You could argue that this arrogant (or ignorant) behaviour is the reason why some businesses flounder, but the reality is that leaders have to make decisions about what a business should or shouldn’t be doing every minute of every day.

Leaders need help to understand the correlation between communication, employee experience, consumer experience and profit. You can’t have one without the others. The challenge lies in how we, as communicators, present the business case for why investment is critical – be it in time, money, people, infrastructure and so on.

We won’t win over leaders if we focus solely on outputs – such as creativity, channels and messaging. That’s all important, but the data points, desired outcomes, organisational efficiencies and behavioural changes that will be driven by the communication are what leaders need.

Leaders need help to understand the correlation between communication, employee experience, consumer experience and profit. You can’t have one without the others.

4. Step up and own it

The best session of the week was the closing keynote. Founder and Group CEO of Karrikins Group, Peter Sheahan, is known internationally as a top-rated keynote speaker, innovative business thinker and thought leader. A big billing, and he didn’t disappoint.

In his session, he laid out the contrasting fates of businesses such as Domino’s, Nike and Sony. Domino’s and Nike have a mindset to embrace and own their changing marketplaces. Sony didn’t – and is still paying the price. (How many people go for a run with a MiniDisc player strapped to their arm?)

It took bravery for the CEO of Domino’s to openly admit that “Our pizzas taste like cardboard, but we’re going to change that.” And Nike’s confidence to choose Colin Kaepernick as the face for its ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’ campaign is something that still gives me goose bumps.

Bold moves, absolutely. But people want to work for, work with and invest in businesses that stand for a higher purpose and are relentlessly determined to make that happen.

Peter left the stage with the challenge for the profession to step up and own it. “There’s never been a more important time to be in communication. It is the glue that keeps businesses authentic and relevant.” I love it.

As communicators, we have an ‘Access All Areas’ pass into all parts of the business. We have the ability (and responsibility) to work between the traditional siloed operational teams and share insights and stories that unite the workforce, customer and shareholder.

That’s communication adding real power and value to a business.

Next year, the IABC will be in Chicago. I’ll be there for sure. And if you’re a communicator, you should be there, too. Irrespective of your specific role (PR, external, internal, brand, digital, list goes on forever…), you won’t regret it.

5. Tell sticky stories

Storytelling is the hottest buzzword in the communication industry right now. And for good reason. Stories have connected people for all of humanity. There’s nothing that unites and inspires people more. Unfortunately, corporate communications often lack the basic principles of storytelling.

People don’t want (and won’t read) corporate drivel. I could talk about this forever but, for now, here are the two points that jump out most to me:

  • The idea that people are too busy and just want the six-second sound bite is simply not true. People want to learn. Context, personality and authenticity matter more than squeezing info into a sound
  • For a story to land, it has to come from a place of And trust is built through emotion. Businesses need to communicate from the heart. Reveal weaknesses, talk about vulnerabilities, share challenges and stand up for what you believe in.
Biography: Matt Frost
Matt Frost is Sales Director at Gatehouse and Gallagher Communication. He had more than 18 years’ experience working with organisations of all shapes, sizes and sectors. Matt’s passion for clear, honest and creative communication has helped some of the world’s leading organisations successfully engage their employees at an emotional and intellectual level and, in recent years, he has been heavily involved in a number of high profile cultural and change management programmes.@frost_man_bing