Why #CREATIVITY matters, more than you think

Between June 12-14th, I felt lucky and honoured (neither an exaggeration nor a courtesy statement) to emcee one of the most thought-provoking events in this year's calendar of on-stage assignments, UNESCO's 12th Annual Meeting of the Creative Cities Network (#UCCN). As the name suggests, the event brought together delegates from the most remote corners of the world, to a 4-day session, split between two Polish cities, Kraków and Katowice.
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In other words, over 300 people spent literally thousands of hours, travelling hundreds of thousands of miles collectively, covering all continents and a very long list of countries, from Austria to Australia, Belgium to Burkina Faso, China to Columbia and so on and so forth. 'So what?' you might ask. Well, the simple answer would be, respect for your audience remains the ultimate benchmark of event quality and organisational leadership. As far as big summits, congresses and international meetings go, regardless of the discipline or the industry at stake, quality is best reflected in the actual design of what happens when, why and for how long. In an ideal world, event organisers should never give up perfecting their formula for finding the perfect balance between uncompromising approach to content (i.e. what corporations like to call 'deliverables') and event packaging, which is far from being only about what things look like and much more about strengthening the receptive powers and enthusiasm of specific audiences.

In the age of TEDs and the likes

If there is one thing leading conference formats (like TED) or startup pitching competitions have changed in the way we look at modern presentation skills, it essentially boils down to the most fundamental ingredient of any good speech, i.e. respect for your audience!By 'respect', I obviously don't mean just the use of language in direct communication, but something infinitely more complex and, as a consequence, important than mere good manners. From conference speaker/organiser/planner perspective, 'respect' is, first and foremost, about:

  • your ability to do proper research around your audience (who are those people? what do they do professionally? what are their needs and expectations? how patient will they be when confronted with fluff and ever more attempts at reinventing the obvious?
  • your ability to prepare the kind of presentation that jumps right in, i.e. takes as little risk as possible of collectively wasting the time graciously offered to you by your audience
  • your ability to develop, structure and rehearse your presentation in a manner that leaves little choice to your audience but to listen attentively, not because it's polite to, or for lack of a compelling alternative provided by organisers, but because your presentation style speaks volumes about the fact that you have understood and acknowledged the implicit needs of your audience.

Mind you, all it takes to understand those needs is modicum of empathy (in other words, trying to imagine it is you sitting there, bored to death by having to listen to one platitude chasing another) and a little, even if temporary, shrinkage of your own ego. If, for whatever reason, you find any of the above difficult to understand or imagine, make sure you get some professional feedback, unbiased by workplace hierarchy or your subcontractors' wanting to please you when asked for an honest opinion. There is a reason why even some of the best speakers out there look for critical feedback, why conferences hire auditors and event planners make sure a professional coach spends time with each and every person about to go on stage.

How is it relevant to #UCCN?

As organisations grow in size and complexity, it inevitably becomes their instinctive reaction to start developing more and more procedures that, on the one hand, help them prevent organisational chaos, on the other, increase their systemic immunity to the word 'creative', which in case of events with the word creativity shining bright from the event title, might be a little too ironic to digest comfortably. And so, if you're so lucky to be able to bring together mayors of creative cities worldwide, you'd better make sure that the conference format you're developing for their collective benefit (and yours!) makes the best possible use of their time and commitment. To achieve that, dear UNESCO, it makes perfect sense to leave much more freedom and creative space to your future host cities. Let them demonstrate creativity in practice by allowing them to develop the congress agenda creatively, be a guiding hand, a true coach, a source of data, knowledge and recommendations.

The power of the first impression

One of the many important reasons why the above matters is that, in a world where large organisations find it increasingly difficult to get rid of their massive public-perception labels (e.g. bureaucratic, boring, predictable), it is always worthwhile to attempt a structural improvement, or indeed, starting from scratch, when it comes to the first impression you create on people who are yet to discover you exist. After all, even in a city like Kraków, which puts culture above much else, most likely, less than 1% of the people in the street would be able to explain what #UCCN stands for. Think of the creative potential!

At the end of the second day of #CreativeCrossroads (the main theme of the 12th UCCN meeting in Kraków and Katowice, aka Krakowice), I facilitated a very short debate with city mayors, which touched on many of the topics alluded to above. Originally, it was scheduled to last for 90 minutes, however, after a long day packed with dozens of presentations, the word 'mercy' was very much on my mind when thinking about the audience. Instead, I exhausted my questions in less than half the time, and yet, it will remain one of the most interesting debates I have ever had the privilege of chairing, one where the messages spoken out loud are at least as important as the ones communicated a little less directly, between the lines. Here it is:


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