Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the annual Families in Global Transition conference (aka on Twitter as #FIGT2013). The theme this year was ‘Cultural Integration and the Illusion of Closeness.’
It was, in a word, exhilarating. Inspiring. Tremendous. Thought-provoking. Reassuring.
Okay, it was many words, all those and more. Two thought-laden days dedicated to exchanging up-to-the-minute information, latest trends, greatest needs, groundbreaking insights. All focused on helping those living highly mobile, cross-cultural lives.
Think of the most welcoming, supportive tribe you can imagine. Folks who know what it’s like to move globally and transition across cultures. Then add creative types thinking outside the box, braniacs doing much-needed research, savvy small/medium/large businesses and organizations coming up with innovative ways to do things better, solution-seekers focused on solving the knottiest problems.
FIGT is considered ‘the global leader in cross-cultural education and training’ to support those living abroad. If you’ve encountered the opportunities and challenges of doing so – if you’ve dealt with (or simply heard of) culture shock, transition phases, emotional/social/cultural intelligence, identity development and congruence, Third Culture Kid issues, repatriation, the potential damage of unremitting loss and unresolved grief – you’re likely benefitting from years of candid discussions and research at FIGT targeted toward enhancing the positives and ameliorating the impact of the negatives for a happier, healthier expat experience.
Not hand-wringing whiners or complainers, but action-oriented, problem-solving doers.
I came away energized, impressed and with ten reasons why this conference somehow managed to exceed my already high expectations. We’ll do this David Letterman-style, counting down from the tenth to the top reason.
10. Opportunity to Finally Meet People in the Flesh Whom You ‘Cyber Know,’ or Have Read or Heard About:
I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to finally meet Tina Quick (International Family Transitions), Judy Rickatson (ExpatriateLife), Laura Stephens (Laura J Stephens), Rachel Yates (Defining Moves), Apple Gidley (The Telegraph’s Expat Apple), Colleen Reichrath-Smith (CJS Careers), Rebecca Grappo (RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC), Duncan Westwood (Clinical Director of Expatriate Care and Development at the Toronto-based International Health Management), Ann Baker Cottrell (Sociology Professor Emerita, San Diego State University), Janet Bennett (Executive Director and co-founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute), Anne Copeland (Interchange Institute), Trisha Carter (CICollective), Kilian Kröll (Third Culture Coach), Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly (Cross-Culture Training), Kathleen Gamble (Expat Alien) and many, many others.
Jo Parfitt was busy in Brunei but there in spirit, so we had a photo op for all of her Summertime Publishing attendees. Had Julia Simens (JSimens – currently in Borneo, 500 miles from Jo) been able to attend this year I’d have had almost all of my expat emotional resilience mentors/inspirers in one place.
Maria Foley (I Was An Expat Wife) and I have worked together and enjoyed Skyping hilarity before, and had the chance to do so again when she was patched into a panel discussion on expat blogging I did with friend Norm Viss (Expat Everyday Support Center) and Rachel, hosted by Judy.
Seriously, this place was a festival of friends-in-the-making: those you ‘knew’ and those you just hadn’t met yet.
One woman came up to introduce herself on the first day and I remarked how she looked familiar. Turns out I’d come across her blog a few days earlier and had really enjoyed a post she’d done on the challenges of relationships in which one person is located in a different city/country – usually for employment purposes – than the other person/family. And voila! I’d met Katia Vlachos (Diary of a Move).
9. Great Mix of Business, Educational and Social Events:
While this was my first time attending the FIGT conference, I was fortunate to have previously met in person Norm and two other fellow attendees (beloved FIGT co-founder Ruth Van Reken, and the effervescent Eva Laszlo-Herbert, also of The Hague). That’s in addition to the aforementioned people I ‘knew’ online prior to meeting them face-to-face, or the great FIGT staff members who helped prep us through emails and online sessions for our presentations.
Good conference planning ensures that even if you’re a newbie traveling all by yourself, having never met a soul prior to arrival, the physical layout and the agenda itself are put together to ensure you have plenty of opportunities to meet, mingle and mix without fear of feeling on the fringes or left out.
8. Excellent Opportunities for Sidebar Conversations:
Ever attend a conference that was so big or where they had you so over-scheduled you barely had time for a bathroom break, let alone a spare moment to reflect or chat quietly with others? Been there, done that, didn’t appreciate it.
At a few hundred attendees, FIGT is nicely sized. Similarly, the schedule includes choices and small pockets of free time to seek out someone for clarification on a point they made or introduce yourself to someone you’ve been meaning to meet. Between sessions I had a couple people come up to me and explain that as they were only able to attend that first day, they wondered if I would share the handout for my presentation the next day. Email addresses and contact info were swapped, conversations continued and connections were made.
On Saturday morning I needed some quiet time to regroup, so skipped a Concurrent Session and grabbed a table in the main hall to compose my thoughts and prepare for a later discussion. On my way to get a cup of coffee in the lobby, I encountered FIGT President Peggy Love. After exchanging pleasantries, Peggy and I ended up having a deeper conversation on a couple issues of mutual interest.
This happened over and over and over again, to everyone in attendance. Networking was in full swing. How could it not be when everyone you encountered had an interesting story to share?
Hear a great presentation and want to ask a follow-up question? Just catch the speaker later in the day. Want to introduce yourself to a particular person? Ditto. Hit it off with a couple folks you met in a session? Make plans to grab dinner at one of the many restaurants conveniently located within walking distance of the Civic Center where the FIGT Conference was held.
It’s how I connected with reps from the World Bank, International Monetary Foundation, US Department of State and other companies/agencies about my work in emotional resilience, a topic near and dear to their staff members and families.
Want to tell Pico Iyer that you always aspired to grow up and be him? Simply mention it as you’re chatting while seated near him in a small group session. Yes. I. Did.
7. Consummate Key Note and Closing speakers:
Everyone knows a great opening speaker can set the tone for an enjoyable, informative conference experience. Similarly, a talented closing speaker serves to wrap up the conference experience and send you off on a positive note. Nailing top-rate speakers for both of these crucial bookend presentations? That’s the sign of a well-planned conference orchestrated by people who truly understand the issues relevant to attendees and have access to the right speakers.
You can’t beat celebrated, humble and utterly disarming author/writer/expat Pico Iyer (see Apple Gidley’s Telegraph post on interviewing him) and the multi-talented Arab-American playwright/storyteller/actress/ATCK Leila Buck. You just can’t.
6. Wide Array of High-Caliber ‘Extras’ to Take Advantage of If You Wished:
FIGT planners covered all the bases, from a ‘first time attendees’ webinar to previously mentioned prep sessions for presenters to training opportunities held the two days prior to the conference. I jumped at the chance at 1 1/2 days of personalized training with Tina Quick, and it was worth every penny. All attendees were invited to pre-conference sessions on FIGT membership, trends in relevant research, a welcome reception and the immensely popular Writer’s Session featuring Apple Gidley interviewing Pico Iyer (link above). FIGT ran a bookstore throughout the conference, handy for picking up a copy of that book you’ve been waiting for; they also featured author signings to meet and greet the folks who’ve penned some of your favorites.
5. ‘Real’ Presenters…:
Some of us were newbies, some of us have been doing presentations and speaking engagements for quite awhile. It didn’t matter. The programming committee was looking for compelling topics on a wide range of subjects relevant to issues in expat life. The tone was conversational and sincere, not slick and staged.
4. …Sharing on Topics They (and You) Care About:
Another sign of a well-constructed conference? When you’re given a choice of breakout sessions with such relevant titles you wish you could attend more than one (or all of them).
Even better? A conference that gives you plenty of opportunities to seek out the presenters whose sessions you cannot attend and ask for their handouts and/or business cards and contact information. This worked both ways for me. I was approached by several people who caught my 6 1/2 minute ‘Ignite’ session and wanted to learn more, and similarly I sought out others with questions (including my quasi-stalking of Pico Iyer – he was a good sport). Now that’s a great conference.
3. Great Mix of Formats in Which to Receive Information:
This is important because we all take in information and are entertained in different ways. The FIGT conference planners clearly gave great thought to offering an array of different learning experiences.
A host of one-hour Concurrent Sessions throughout both days of the conference let you delve more deeply into subjects of particular interest. Seven of us were tasked with giving super-short ‘Ignite’ presentations. If they satisfied your curiosity, fine. But if they whetted your appetite for a little more in-depth discussion or follow-on information, you could join any of us the next day as we and others hosted slightly longer Kitchen Table Conversations. Thanks to the divergent interests of the conference attendees who joined me the second day, these two half-hour conversations were each focused on entirely different aspects of my initial Ignite talk. I really enjoyed hearing the participants share their own insights, perceptions and experiences.
2. Emphasis on the Interactive, Practical and Actionable:
Presenters in the Concurrent Sessions were required to make them interactive, with attendees breaking off into pairs or small groups to complete short exercises or discuss penetrating questions. These events not only reinforced the information being conveyed, they provided additional opportunities to get to know fellow attendees. Some of the most interesting conversations (and possibilities for future collaboration) I engaged in took place during these entirely chance introductions. Similarly, a mandatory (and very welcome) requirement of all presentations was the expectation that speakers would develop a handout of useful information that would ensure relevancy of the topics to the lives of attendees.
1. Inspiring Kaleidoscope of Creative Calls to Action:
I don’t wish to use the word ‘inspiring’ loosely. Check out any dictionary and you’ll find the word goes well beyond creating positive feelings; it embodies the concept of affecting, guiding, influencing, moving , encouraging or filling you with the urge or ability to do something. Oh the possibilities!
I dare anyone to attend an FIGT conference and not walk away with your head swimming with ideas, what-ifs, projects, connections. I dare you.