World Conference Sunday recap: Jump-starting the right and left brain

by Shea Sullivan

Every time I attend the IABC World Conference, I always feel like the first sessions are brushing the cobwebs off my brain. Two of the pre-conference workshops not only dusted it, but jump-started it. And these were two sessions that engaged both sides of the brain in very different ways. If this made some uncomfortable, then good. We shouldn’t come to conferences to stay in our comfort zones of knowledge.

My left brain charged first. Jim Shaffer’s presentation “Reinventing Communication for High Impact and High Value” was in my wheelhouse. Let me warn you: I’m a nerd. I love strategy, numbers, and results, and most importantly, I love proving value, especially when it’s not expected. It’s not only helpful to my organization, but in many cases it’s sweet vindication that what we do matters.

It’s also where many of us struggle within our own organizations—tying what we do to hard business results. Common obstacles of corporate communicators are that we’re not seen as an added value to the organization, that we focus on the wrong priorities, and (most importantly) we must recognize where we have competency gaps, especially in change management, leadership coaching, and business acumen.

It’s an honest assessment. Jim implored us to dive into the operations of our businesses to find opportunities to achieve real results versus focusing on tactics that simply log activity. This is more than strategy; communication professionals must gain deep competency in how our businesses actually work to better position ourselves to make real impact.

What I will implement at work: We cannot become trusted consultants to our leadership if we are simply “taking orders” and not identifying how solving breakdowns in communication can greatly improve operational inefficiencies, and demonstrate real savings, cost avoidances, or service improvements that impact the bottom line.

Take a break now, and switch to the other side of your brain. I had no idea what to expect out of the seminar “From Design Thinking to Communication Doing” with Ezri Carlbach and Martha Muzychka. I must admit, I didn’t really know what design thinking meant going in, but my right brain was ready to absorb it.

This session threw all conventional presentations out the window—no slides (yea!). Ezri and Martha stripped our thinking down to a bare slate at the start, saying, “Designs for tomorrow merely tweak ‘today’ because we automatically begin with constraints we place on ourselves.” Think about what that means when you begin any creative process.

We split up into pairs, armed with blank storyboards and a challenge on how to improve a certain process. We interviewed each other to gain the story behind that person’s experience with the process, and unearth the emotional connections with what happened. My partner was from Japan, and he wanted the work culture to change so that people had more time with their families and didn’t burn out from overwork.

We storyboarded solutions to our partner’s problem, and then prototyped it with paper, pipe cleaners, mini Rubik’s cubes, tape, foil, M&Ms, and a few other items to “build” what our solutions looked like. We also weren’t allowed to use words. Imagine trying to prototype an idea, not a thing!

What I will implement at work: I appreciated that this exercise forced us back into being journalists (you know who you are!) and real “connectors,” asking the right questions to get the right motivations in a short amount of time. It was really amazing to see all the different directions each person took to prototype their “solutions.” Instead of focusing on what we think an end result is supposed to look like or how it’s supposed to work, let the desires of your audiences shape that direction.


About the author

Shea Sullivan is a marketing and communication strategist with 18 years in energy, engineering, construction, health care, and media. She is currently a proposal specialist for Bechtel based in Houston and focused on downstream oil, gas, and chemical prospects. Shea was formerly a change communication consultant on a ConocoPhillips project, and an advertising associate for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma. She served multiple terms on the board of IABC Tulsa and won several awards. Shea holds an MBA from the University of Tulsa, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. She served on the 2017 World Conference Program Advisory Committee.