Zen & the Art of Baking Up a Conference

Written By Robert Hawke

It was 9:41 on Friday May 9th. Colleen was looking at me with a touch of alarm on her face. “Do you want to get things rolling in a few minutes?” I asked.

“I was thinking now,” she said. We were supposed to start at 9:30 sharp and I was the one who was holding things up.

There were 55 people in the room ready to go for the first For Me With Me: A Forum for People Affected By Cancer. Literally months of preparation had gone into preparing for this day. A team of people at ELLICSR had started with a grand idea: “What if we engaged people affected by cancer and actually co-created a day with them?” Usually when you create a large event, you know what kind of cake you are baking. By that I mean that you know what the finished product will look like and then you deliver it on the day of the event. We​ were doing something different. We were giving people a ton of ingredients to create with and they had the option of cooking up whatever they wanted. We had a structure, certainly, and some wonderful speakers, but we also had left a fair amount of the day open to interpretation and what the participants wanted to do.

Image of Rob Hawke speaking in front of a crowd
Rob Hawke starts For Me With Me with a warm-up exercise.

Many times at a conference, all of the shiny, perfectly planned sessions that you plan turn out to not be as important as the moments that happen out of the spotlight – in the hallways, during the breaks, etc. We wanted to reverse that. We wanted to bring those stimulating conversations and friendly debates out of the corners to centre stage. We wanted a lot of that intimacy and spontaneity to be shared by the entire group.

The only problem is, when you do that, you give up control. You have to accept and embrace the creation of the moment. In essence you have no idea what the cake is going to look like until it comes out of the oven. Will it be a three tiered cake? A Bundt cake? A devil’s food cake with nuts? We had no idea. It wasn’t up to the folks who organized the day. It was up to everyone in the whole room – our collective creativity, our combined wisdom.

There were strangers in the room who were about to be friends and very courageous people who were going to share their insights with their peers. Who knew how far this day would carry us or how far the influence would spread?

Seconds later our sound man signaled that the mics were live… None of us knew how this was really going to go. I stepped onstage and took a breath.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to For Me With Me: A Forum For People Affected By Cancer…”

Let the baking begin.

Want to know what was cooked up at For Me With Me? Stay tuned for updates over the next few weeks.