The 2020 AMA Madison Annual conference was supposed to be at the Park Hotel on the square, with views of the capitol building and a lively downtown vibe. Instead, the conference — like so many others this year — had to make a change. No more breakfast sessions, no communal lunch, no after-conference happy hour in a pub teeming with newly inspired, energized people. Not only would the venue — and the community built around it — have to change, the topics would too.

I’ve been on the mailing list for the AMA since I went to a talk a few years ago. I’d never joined the organization and didn’t regularly attend their events. But this one seemed different. The title alone, “Renew with Intention,” struck a chord. It was clear that the organization had chosen these words, well, intentionally. I RSVP’d on the spot. As an extroverted introvert, I was looking forward to leaving my camera off and just taking it all in.

Becoming more open to new ideas is something you can learn

The day started with morning keynote Tom Farley, who talked about teams versus ensembles (the tuba and the flute play together, not in competition with each other), and about using communications tools to do more than just convey a message. He told us that improv is effective for helping troubled kids. No surprise, as the most general rules of improv — listen to understand, and learn to be more accepting of new ideas — could really be helpful for kids at a crossroads. Many of us have heard of the classic improv exercise where we replace the “No, but …“ that so easily falls out of our mouths when confronted with new ideas with “Yes, and…” Tom went deeper, explaining that this exercise isn’t necessarily about agreement; it’s about allowing someone to fit in. Turns out there’s an acronym for that, which we would learn about later in the day.

Next up was business coach AJ Sue with his session on how to be a great question-asker. The first thing he did was urge us to turn on our cameras and “Show our faces!” So much for my virtual comfort zone.

AJ talked about the quality of the questions we ask, but even more important, he talked about what happens when we don’t ask questions: no ideas get challenged, people are more likely to rush to conclusions, and everybody loses. If asking questions makes you uncomfortable, you need to (and can!) practice the art. His biggest tip on this? Keep doing it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. Build up the callouses to take the hits.

“Nice bag ya got there.”

After AJ came Sue Fuller of Oliver Thomas bags. She talked about the importance of relationships and how connecting with people is so much more than just having a network. Relationships can save you when things go south and you have to cancel a huge order.

See your connections as people, not just vendors or partners. Mutual trust and respect, along with quality and integrity, win the day every time.

How do you find these relationships and connect with like-minded people who want to do business with you? Wear your brand everywhere! Got a booth promoting bags at a trade show? Put one of them over your shoulder when you go get coffee. You never know when the president of U.S. Pro Tennis might be standing behind you thinking to himself, “That’s a great bag. I MUST know more about it.” Anyone who’s ever had a stranger compliment you on your outfit (“Hey, I love your dress.” “Thanks — it has pockets!”) knows that wearing what you stand for on your sleeve, literally, can turn a stranger into a friend, partner, and ally. (Note: at the end of her talk they raffled off an Oliver Thomas bag. I did not win. The only downer of the day.)

The next speaker was Karen Allbriten of Thinc, who introduced us to a new term: Sledgedozer. Got an old mindset, culture, financial model, or idea that needs a refresh? Don’t just polish it up, Sledgedoze it. Bust it up and move it out. She told the story of Kodak, who had the first patent for a digital camera but not a culture that embraced something so new and different. No, instead of Sledgedozing, Kodak just dozed. The company still exists but it couldn’t, or wouldn’t, evolve. Now it’s just another example of what not to do.

Experiences worth sharing

Then we heard from Josh Kell of Switch. Switch does experiential marketing – setting up what they call “experiences worth sharing.” Kell highlighted their work with Bosch Tools, doing pop-up events right at construction sites where workers could discover new products, try them out, and play games to win.

They start with a social media plan, and then conceptualize the events around it. The goal is to create that “sharable moment.” (We might still be calling these “Kodak moments” if Kodak Eastman hadn’t dropped the ball on digital.) One such moment was capturing a photo of workers capturing photos of fellow workers eating a cockroach to win a new drill. Gross? Maybe. But have you seen their drills? Totally worth it.

So how can we create the spirit of live events like this during a time of social distancing? There’s a certain kind of happiness you can only get from experiencing something with a crowd of people, and Switch knows this. The trick is to move beyond FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) to MEFI (Make Sure Everyone Feels Involved/Invited). And here we are back at Tom Farley’s idea of ensuring that everyone has a place to fit in. Make people feel like they’re a part of something, distanced or not, and they’ll eat a bug for you.

What’s your arc?

The afternoon keynote, digital storyteller Quentin Allums, capped the event by reminding us that we are in the middle of an epic story. Books and movies will be written about 2020, the global pandemic, lockdowns, and the entirely new way of life we are coming to know. He urged us to think about our own stories and how we tell them. What is your story? What is its arc? And how does it fit into the bigger arc of what’s happening in our world today?

Allums talked about innovation: that it‘s ok to evolve your narrative as your life pivots, and that if you feel tied to a history of not accepting or being comfortable with new ideas, you can shed your past and make innovation and change part of your “new” new normal.

His last piece of advice was to join a professional organization in your field; to expose yourself to new people and ideas and maybe even inspire a new idea for someone else. If you’re searching for a group to join and haven’t already, you may want to give AMA Madison a try. They’ve got good MEFI energy and at least one brand new member: me.

There were concurrent sessions I couldn’t attend, but from the energy I saw at the virtual happy hour (where I finally won a prize!), those sessions were stellar as well. The final consensus was that even though we missed seeing each other in person, the online conference was a worthwhile way to spend the day. Plus, nobody had to pay for parking, and we could have our pets at our feet while meeting new people and learning new things. In other words, we renewed with intention.

Kerrie's HeadshotKerrie JL Osborne is a continuity and user experience specialist with an extensive background in front-end web development, writing and editing, promotions, and broadcast communications. Her layoff from the University of Wisconsin–Madison takes effect December 1, but she’ll be a Badger forever. Find her at linkedin.com/in/kerrie-jl-osborne.