CPD with a difference – what we learned at Comms Unplugged 2017

Cartoon of tent, fire and clouds with text comms unplugged“Taking a punt” is a phrase we have used a lot when describing our concept to our delegates and sponsors (now collectively known as “Unpluggers”).

cartoon of direction sign in brown with word 'Dorset' across it

Comms Unplugged is a conference for public sector communications folk, with a vibrant and refreshing programme of professional development sessions, taking place during two days in September in Dorset. It is run in marquees with wellbeing sessions held in a field, with no tech or wifi and delegates camping in actual tents.

The CIPR agreed that any members who attended would earn 10 CPD points. Along with our fresh and inspiring line-up of speakers and workshop leaders, this endorsement from a respected professional body gave our new event added credibility.

It was a challenge to convince some that this event represented work. Thirty per cent of our Unpluggers (collective name we have used for our delegates and sponsors) paid for their ticket themselves as they did not think their employer would regard their attendance as ‘work’. Being ‘Comms Unplugged’ was not ‘a jolly’, but a genuine CPD opportunity. Assuming you agree that having fun whilst being inspired and learning are possible and indeed desirable concurrent states of play!

Presenter Matt in a grey suit and white shirt talking to delegates
Delegates in a workshop with Matt Prosser, Chief Executive of Dorset Councils Partnership

The similarities to a standard conference are all there. We had a keynote address & workshops – not led by the tried-and-tested circuit presenters but by speakers who were different and new.

We had evening networking and socialising – round a campfire under the stars instead of in an overpriced hotel bar; there was catering – fresh wood fired pizza prepared and cooked on site to order and devoured in the open.

But for me and, I think it is fair to say for all our Unpluggers, it was the things that were really different to a ‘normal’ conference that made Comms Unplugged so rewarding. They brought added value to their experience.

The two things that set Comms Unplugged apart as unique (aside from the camping, marquees and field!), the things that enhanced, encouraged and facilitated learning , were the absence of tech and wifi (no PowerPoint, no signal, no email, NO TWITTER!), and that around half the programme focused on delegates’ wellbeing (personally I would rather meditate in the woods at 4pm than rush, stressed, for the train home, wondering if I’ll get a seat or not).

group of communications professionals sat relaxing in a field of grass
Taking time to focus on their lives and careers – delegates during Fresh Air Fridays’ wellbeing sessions

Not checking work emails or feeling the pressure to tweet a witty or insightful observation about the current speaker as quickly as possible was completely liberating.

Feeling uplifted and refreshed whilst taking time to reflect on life professionally and personally, through or wonderful Fresh Air Fridays wellbeing sessions, gave many delegates a new and more positive outlook on their working lives.

We all spoke to each other.

Listened to each other.

Made great and genuine connections.

Laughed and learned concurrently.

91% of those who came say they have gained something they will use professionally. The insights behind that stat go something like this:

  • “I really liked not hearing from ‘comms people’ – they were people who understood the power of good communication, but weren’t in the job as such. It was refreshing.”
  • “Really feel like I took more away than I usually do from a conference. Excellent speakers, v on point.”
  • “The workshops were highly interactive, which was brilliant.”
  • “I liked the fact that some of the sessions talked about digital, but in an analogue session. And I wasn’t thinking about what to tweet during the sessions. I was fully in the moment.”
  • “I loved that I very quickly recognised people from the comms community online. For me, the power of social media to bring like-minded people together and then the juxtaposition of us all unplugging from the thing that had brought us to the field, was fantastic. It couldn’t have been any better. It surpassed my expectations.”
  • “I think when you challenge Comms people to be creative outside of the proverbial box, you get something really special. At a times when public sector is under such pressure, this is a timely message.”

When asked what they and their employer has gained from them being at Comms Unplugged, this is what people have told us:

  • “I came back feeling energised and empowered. I feel like I can do my job better thanks to this.”
  • “An absolute ton of knowledge and techniques, a genuine network of talented professionals and a much more enthusiastic me.”
  • “I’ve come back refreshed. I was wading through treacle before going. It’s been a real pick-me-up and put me back on track.”
  • “I’ve returned refuelled and reinvigorated, which is contagious.”

My final reflection on Comms Unplugged is about those connections I mentioned. The absence of technology, and emphasis on delegates taking time to focus on themselves, somehow created a sense of community in that field that was tangible. It’s enduring still, and will carry through to our 2018 event – where we hope to grow our community and welcome more Unpluggers to our Dorset field for more learning, CPD, fresh air and personal discovery.

And really finally, my most loved feedback comments is simply this:

“My fave thing about Comms Unplugged was Comms Unplugged.”

If you want to boost your CPD and guarantee yourself a place in the Comms Unplugged field in 2018, stay up to date at:

> Twitter @CommsUnplugged
> Facebook @CommsUnplugged
> Instagram @CommsUnplugged

Blog by Georgia Turner

Georgia Turner (twitter: @georgiaturner) is Shared Head of Communications & Marketing for Bournemouth Borough Council and Borough of Poole.

She is a co-creator of Comms Unplugged along with Sally Northeast (@salzasal) and Darren Caveney (@darrencaveney)

Georgia on CPD

I have been attending CIPR CPD events, on and off, for more than 20 years. It’s important to invest in skills and my preference is always to benefit from the knowledge of a chartered body. When Sally Northeast, Darren Caveney and I decided to create Comms Unplugged, we wanted something different that blended learning in an informal setting with fresh speakers and inspiring workshops, along with a focus on personal well-being and the benefits that can have on our personal and professional lives. We think we created something special and already can’t wait until 2018.

Graphics and photographs on this page have been provided courtesy of ‘I Am Alive’ and Comms Unplugged which retain the copyright. Thanks to Abha Thakor and Non Stop News UK for her work on this feature and website.