Mad Men

When I was first asked to speak at a digital marketing conference, I had to read the email several times. Still confused, I sent a reply to the conference organisers reminding them who my normal demographic is (um, I work in development… you know… with NGOs) and what my traditional public speaking schtick is (and I usually talk about how to do development better?). When they told me that the theme of the conference was “GO DO GOOD” (and, yes, it was always written in caps) the invitation started to make sense. The proposition the conference was exploring was how brands and advertisers could… yes, you guessed it…“GO DO GOOD”. Interesting enough: can people who peddle Coco Puffs and Coca Cola be world changers? Sign me up!

So I accepted the invitation, and soon enough began to anticipate the event, seeing it as yet another chance to try out our Troublemakers message. With a decidedly different audience, of course. I would take the opportunity to “disrupt” – yup, I got the jargon – these marketers’ sense of what “doing good” looks and feels like, and challenge them to use their considerable resources and social platforms to make some Trouble in the name of doing good. And maybe I would even make some Trouble, myself. What did I have to lose?

As the day drew closer I wrestled with how I should adapt my Troublemakers pitch to my slick audience, and I entertained making a number of adjustments. Every night as I fell asleep, my thoughts went something like:

  1. Should I flash some fancy graphics? (Nope. I can barely manage Powerpoint.)
  2. Try to be particularly glib or provocative? Go for laughs or gasps? (Too risky. One dud and I’m dead)
  3. Use music? (Seriously? A soundtrack?)
  4. Wear high heels? (Done. And I still have the blisters to show for it)
  5. Run out onto the stage (Um, not if I do #4)

Worrying would eventually give way to acceptance that I had nothing to offer but myself. My authentic self. And if that self wasn’t well-received, I would chalk it up to experience and maybe get a free glass of wine at the cocktail party.

The day finally arrived last Tuesday, and I have to admit, I loved attending the conference. Precisely because it wasn’t my traditional demographic — because it felt like a holiday from earnestness, donors and familiar jargon. I learned new jargon! They had a band! Sure, some of the crass commercialism was objectionable, but totally amusing for one voyeuristic sort of day.

When the very sarcastic and probably very highly paid Master of Ceremonies eventually announced my session, I walked on stage to the sound of my heart racing. And I sat down on that stage – the first person to do so that day. Mostly because my feet were sore, but also to make a point: that I could stand out by sitting down. Then I told my Troublemakers story, and I become aware of my voice shaking and straining at key points.

I had boiled my talk down to a fairly simple message: that doing good cannot – should not – always feel good. And I ended by urging them: GO DO GOOD. Go make some Trouble.

That evening at the cocktail party slick people sought me out to to shake my hand; they offered to buy me a glass of wine; and they thanked me. For being honest and real and provocative.

And it was exhilarating. Free wine is always exhilarating. But it was also exhilarating to know that my authentic self was good enough. That my message was relevant with an unexpected audience. That my call – to be more honest, brave, and challenging and in our social change efforts – was well received by people who sell Cocoa Puffs and Coco Cola. That a group of charlatans with a conscience got Troublemakers. They really got it.

A week later I’ve been left with healing blisters and one major takeaway: the world is craving authenticity. How do we operate from an authentic place – even at a glitzy conference — in order to walk bravely in this world? This is our challenge – this is what we Troublemakers have come together to learn. I’m so looking forward to continuing to learn with you all.