A day at OTA

On Friday I had the chance to participate in the OTA Sessions, a one day conference in Sioux Falls that was on par with any entrepreneurial/innovation/creative class-type event that I’ve ever attended.

I knew the ticket price and the 4+ hour drive each way would be worth it based on these four names alone:

Baratunde Thurston (Cultivated Wit) - this was the second time that I’ve seen the comedian, entrepreneur and author of “How To Be Black” deliver an outstanding keynote (first was SXSW in 2012). Baratunde’s presentations are great, salient and fun at the same time. Additionally, I’m impressed by the way he localizes them in such a way that, as an an audience member, you really feel like he wrote the presentation just for this event.

Take this slide as an example, where his joke was, “How do I pander to this audience [of MN/SD/ND attendees]? Make fun of a neighbor”

Scott Harrison (charity: water) - After I saw Scott present for the first time nearly four years ago, I immediately came home and told my wife that he’s the most compelling speaker I’ve ever seen. This is now the third time I’ve seen him tell his/charity:water’s story and I stand by that statement. While he doesn’t localize like Baratunde, he’s able to evoke the full attention of his audience without it. His delivery style and the content of the presentation combine to tell the story of the water crisis and show how easily it can be solved in such a tangible and captivating way.

Antonio Neves (Thinq Action) - I got to know Antonio when he emcee’d Thinc Iowa in 2012. He’s the type of person that enables and empowers others to be successful and was a great choice to lead off an event like this - it set the perfect tone for the day. He has a lot of great online content (just search “Allies of Glory”) and would be a great speaker for any audience.

Roman Mars (99% Invisible) - Roman hosts one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible (which he describes as a “tiny radio show about design”), and is based out of San Francisco. He did a sort-of hybrid version of his show live with multiple stories (some of my favorites) and an added visual element of what he describes so well in words. It was really enjoyable.

Psst, Roman, thoughts on the City of Des Moines flag? I dig it more after thinking through the NAVA guidelines. (Edit - we're number 14!)

I’ve worked on a lot of events like OTA in the past five years and each time we always tried to include a few speakers that “you didn’t know about but should have”. Headliners (like those four dudes above) help sell tickets which make the event possible. And, at OTA they were great. It’s those others that you don’t have any expectations for that can really make a mark.

Kate Bingaman-Burt was that person at OTA. She lives at the intersection of teaching, illustration and research. She had a really fun and engaging presentation style and I found a lot of parallels between her thoughts on drawing and my thoughts on writing. She made herself draw - and share - everyday to learn to love it. I make myself write and share everyday because I feel better on days that I write and share. But, it’s not instinctual and I have to make myself do it.

A few other thoughts on OTA

It’s always weird for me to just “attend” conferences. I’m so used to being on the production end that I probably look at things through a different lens than normal attendees.

  1. I was following the #ota14 hashtag on twitter and saw zero negative tweets. Maybe that’s just South Dakota-nice but more likely its a real testament to the quality of the event.
  2. I had totally missed what “OTA” meant until it was explained to me. I thought it was initials, O-T-A but its pronounced “oh-tah” and comes from the three states in the region it serves: South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota (all ending in -ota).
  3. Conferences like this (including the ones I’ve helped produce) have a hard time defining what they are on their website - one of the presenters even mentioned this on stage (initially preparing for a different audience)
  4. I had a family commitment Saturday morning so I had to leave as soon as the conference was over Friday night missing an opportunity to explore and get to know Sioux Falls, which is a bummer.

Geoff Wood has been helping tell the story of the Iowa startup community since 2009. He writes on this blog daily which is just one of many such projects.

Photo Credit: Me and my trusty iPhone from the third row.