6 Takeaways from Forward 2017 According to a Freelance Creative
Storytelling Communications

6 Takeaways from Forward 2017

5 Minute Read

I’ve been in your shoes. You haven’t bought that conference ticket, and you’re second guessing yourself over and over as the event draws nearer. Suddenly, the big day arrives, and the social media messages start piling up. Everyone seems so engaged, they’re learning a ton, rubbing elbows with the best of the business—and you’re not there.

It’s only been a few days since Skyword’s Forward 2017 ended, and while you may have gotten a sneak peek of the awesomeness on social media, you missed out on a whole lot more than you saw. (Sorry!) I’ve been in that position, and this year I took notes so that I could share the most important takeaways with you.

But next year…buy your ticket early. Forward 2018 will be an experience you do not want to miss.

Storytelling Captures Attention

One of the quotes that struck me the most is from the very beginning of the conference. If you didn’t get to watch the opening video, check it out now.

You done? Great. What did you learn? Michelle’s dad loves his daughter so much that for his wedding toast, he provides the guests with a data-driven presentation, complete with charts that tracked everything from boo boos (only two hospital visits!) and height (a growth spurt at age seven!) to social media usage (184 likes on a Facebook photo album in 2011!).

And did he wow any attendees with his precise reporting of the happenings in Michelle’s life from childhood until marriage? Absolutely not.

Why? As the video points out, “Life is remembered as a story, not data.” As marketers, we all want our audience to connect with our content. So, how do we do that? We embrace storytelling. Of course, data is important to supporting a story, but connecting with your audience is the only way they’ll begin to care about your content.

Gain Trust

In a world full of fake news and alternative facts, it can be difficult to put trust into brands and businesses. How do we attract an audience and then convince them we’re to be trusted? The obvious answer is that by sharing valid information and supporting all of your claims with statistics and sources, you make it clear that you’re a writer with integrity.

Trust can also be built by admitting that you’re not a supercomputer. You’re only human. The content consumers of the world don’t expect you to know everything, but they do expect that the information you’re sharing with them is something you know well. If you want to earn their trust, don’t commit to work that you can’t complete to the best of your ability.

Julie Snyder of Serial speaks at Forward 2017

In her inspiring closing keynote, Julie Snyder, producer of the podcasts Serial and S-Town, said, “It’s a really ballsy thing to do to be honest in your reporting and admit you don’t know everything.”

Hold Your Audience’s Attention

In the breakout session “The Content Marketing Death Spiral,” Allen Gannett compared consumers to hummingbirds. Strange, right? Not really. Hummingbirds travel constantly, flying from flower to flower in search of nectar to eat. In fact, they eat one and a half to three times their body weight every day and have a metabolism that’s almost 100 times faster than that of an elephant. Think about the people who read your writing. Think about yourself! How much content are you consuming? Are you finishing it?

“Attention is the most valuable resource,” says Gannett. “You can’t measure attention in dollars and cents. You measure attention in time and engagement.” So what changes will you make in your content to ensure your readers stick it through to the end of your articles?

Take Chances and Test Things

I wish I had counted the number of times I heard presenters speak about how content marketers need to take chances. However, I remember words better than numbers, so here are some of the quotes I jotted down.

Mary Ward, VP of account services at Ion Interactive, told us, “Interactive content lets you test things quickly and easily.”

And I may not be quoting him exactly, but Allen Gannett said something very close to this: We’re not really embracing how to use data to really personalize the audience’s perspective. Saying “hey ‘first name’” in an email blast isn’t that cool. We all do it in email marketing. How can we do better and not do lazy personalization?

mary mazzia pic by erin

And finally, during Mary Mazzio’s introductory keynote speech, she told us that, when taking a risk, “it’s okay to just go for it,” even if you’re terrified.

What kind of risks will you start taking?

You Need a Strategy

Before you put any new content out there in the world, ask yourself one question.


You need to know what you’re doing with your content before you publish it. You can’t throw content out there and expect it to stick. You certainly can’t expect it to work for you if you don’t know the results you need. In the panel “Building a Brand Newsroom,” David Beebe said, “People don’t have a strategy in place. They just want to do it because it’s the cool thing to do.” This is why content is failing. It isn’t that your writing is bad, it’s that it doesn’t know how to best serve you.

We Are the Front Lines

In his opening speech, Skyword’s CEO Tom Gerace told us, “You are the change makers”—and I couldn’t agree more. As the world continues to shift from advertising to content marketing, we are the people who are leading the way. It’s a both a huge responsibility and incredible opportunity. (Can you tell I’m excited?)

However, with the great opportunity to play a role in the world of content comes great responsibility. “Everyone is a producer,” says Phil Alongi, when talking about the roles smartphones and social media play in news. “Content comes from every place.” We need to stand out from pseudo news and provide content so stellar that we attract the little hummingbirds of our audience and keep their attention.

I’ll leave you with one quote from Mary Mazzio: “We are in the get shit done business.” Let that thought echo in your head for a second.

We are in the get shit done business, friends. Are you ready to get to work?

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All photos courtesy of Erin Ollila

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Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at www.erinollila.com.

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