Do you like to attend an unConference or even organize one yourself? As individuals, we have attended several unConferences ourselves. As organizers, we are quite fresh. We did some research on how to best run or attend an unConference and compiled a small guide we'd like to share with you.
What the heck is an unConference? 🙂
The unConference 101
At a conference, you spend most of your time passively listening. An unConference gives you the chance to share your own expertise and engage in conversation with a number of like-minded experts in your field. Here, you move beyond
- There are no selected "speakers", only participants and no pre-defined schedule!
- All attendees decide together what they are going to talk about at the beginning of the event.
- Every participant can pitch their own topics/sessions to the audience, , no matter how well known you are in the industry!
- Based on the interest of the audience, sessions are added to the schedule or not
- Et voila, we have our very own mini-conference ready!
Mindset & Principles
- Whoever comes are the right people
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
- Don't be sad if your session is not getting accepted - you're here to enjoy the conference
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it is over it is over
- The law of 2 Feet: You are free to come and go from sessions as you please. If you feel you are not learning or contributing in a session, use your feet to find a new one.
Forget everything you've learned about traditional conferences!
- Sessions can be
- Sessions are aimed at smaller groups to be more collaborative and fun vs passive conference formats.
- The format can be anything like a
simple group discussion,
show & tell,
lighting talkor even a
experimentalas you like!
- Don't worry how many will show up! Even a
few attendeescan make a great session and sometimes bring up more intimate discussions
- Afraid you need to deliver a
perfect speech? Don't worry - even a quick
lighting talkof a recent discovery is worth the fun.
- Be Brave! Others are interested in making your session work too! We are all in this together.
- The group discussion: Someone picks a topic they’re into, writes it on the board, and forms an interesting discussion around it.
- Interactive Workshop: Show people how to build XYZ. Demo a cool open-source framework or library. E.g. how to build a WebRTC app in 45 min with open-source platform ABC.
- The show and tell: The organizer has a cool project, demo, beta, or something to show and let people play with. It’s the springboard for all the conversation in the session. Alternatively, individuals are asked to bring their own thing to show and tell (perhaps with a theme), and the session works round-robin.
- Learn how to do X: If you’re inclined to teach, this can be simple and awesome. Teach folks how to juggle, do basic yoga, magic tricks, you name it. Just make sure you bring whatever gear you need, and that you have some plan for teaching 5, 10, or 15 people how to do something all at the same time.
- The interactive game or thing: Many sessions are based on social games, or the learning of how to play them. Mafia (aka werewolf) is currently all the rage, but anything goes. Some people do game shows or competitions (e.g. Halfbaked): these are awesome but require some preperation on your part (what are the rules? Who are the judges? Did you dry run it at all before inflicting it on a group of strangers?)
- The semi-talk: Mentioned briefly above, this is a 5/15 minute presentation by the organizer, used as fuel for the session.
- The lecture: This is tricky, as the basic format is low-interactive. But if you’re a rock star, or have a big, well-developed idea (a book in progress, a manifesto) you can pull this off. If only 10 people show, you should switch gears to something more interactive.
- Non-session interactive thing: Why be bound to the tyranny of the session? Set up a demo in the hallway. Put a machine you’ve made by the couches. Write up an essay and tape it on the doors to the restroom stalls. There’s no reason you have to run a session at all to contribute. Be creative. These are often the most memorable things at unconferences.
Something new: There are other ideas worth trying – but whatever you do, let people know the ground rules in the first 2 minutes. If they don’t like it or had different expectations, give them a chance to bail before they feel obligated to stay.
Things to do
- Create both a topic and an angle: It’s one thing to say “lets talk about WebRTC”. It’s another to go with “WebRTC war stories: the good and the ugly of real WebRTC development”. It’s the same basic topic, but a theme calls people to action, or opinion. It lets everyone know what thoughts to stew over before the session begins, increasing the odds people will have interesting things to share.
- Don’t be scared to pick tough topics: The only filter at an unconference is you. One trick is to pick topics you always wished they’d talk about at big fancy conferences - but never do. Now is your chance. Odds are high you’ll hit on surprisingly popular themes.
- Emphasize interactivity: Make it easy for people to participate, ask questions, and use the group to add to your expertise on the topic. This is called facilitation and it's a skill: pay attention the next time you see a meeting or brainstorming session run well. Use the whiteboards if there are any, writing down key points, suggestions or references you know people will want. (Or ask someone to volunteer to take notes at the begining of the session).
- Be a good host: Like throwing a party, good hosts are friendy, introduce people, and set the tone. Be friendlier and more extroverted than usual, just like you would if throwing a party at your house. If you know a few people in the room, use them to your advantage (tasking them with seed questions or early participation). If you think you’re a lousy solo host, partner with someone to run the session.
- Take advantage of the unique opportunity: There’s a special mix of experience and opinion in the room and that’s the unConference magic. Throw questions to the floor often, probing for expertise in the room: “Who knows about X? Has anyone done Z with Y?”
- Relax and have fun: If you have fun with the session idea, and show up smiling, everything will go easier. Remember: you set the tone. If you’re friendly and relaxed, people will tend to be friendlier and more relaxed. If you’re scared and quiet, people will be cautious and tentative.
- Continue the conversation: Get people’s names and e-mails and follow up with any notes or photos to help continue the conversations. Often people are torn between two sessions and miss yours despite their interest: post to the conference wiki afterwards, leaving people who missed your session a way to catch up and still make connections (or contributions).
Advice about leading a session…
Things to avoid
- Don’t disappear as the organizer: If you wrote the session on the board, you need to assert yourself if the conversation devolves into a shouting match, a soliloquy, or dead silence. Be the shepherd – visible, as involved as necessary, a beacon of sanity (or insanity depening on the topic). Put your name on the session board so people can track you down later.
- Don’t walk in without a position: Conversations need seeds: offer a position, or a set of questions, to get the ball rolling. Many start with a 5-7 minute presentation by the organizer on a topic, followed by completely open and free-flowing conversation and debate. Those 5-7 minutes, if interesting, give enough fuel and grounding for everyone to build a session around. A list of thought provoking questions can be a great, low cost bag of seeds.
- Never assume people in the room know more/less than you: You never know who you’re going to get; ask for a show of hands on how long people have worked with, or studied, whatever the topic is. Then you’ll know where you stand (expert or idiot?) before you waste everyone’s time talking at the wrong level.
- Never get bummed that only 2 people show up: If you meet 2 people at a conference who actually share your interest in something, that’s a win, isn’t it? The smaller the number of people that show, the less structure you need. It’s easier to chat and share stories with a handful of people than it is with 15 or 20.
- If you convene a session, it is your responsibility to “hold the space” for your session. You hold the space by leading a discussion, by posting a “first question,” or by sharing information about your program. Be the shepherd – stay visible, be as involved as necessary, be a beacon of sanity that guides the group.
- Ask for help holding the space if you need it. You might, for example, put a session on the board and know that you are so passionate about the topic that it would be better if someone else, someone more objective, facilitates the discussion. Choose someone from your team, or another participant who is interested in the topic.
- Don’t assume people in the room know more, or less, than you do. You never know who is going to be interested in your session. You might want to start by asking people to hold up their hands if they’ve been involved with the topic for more than five years, for one to five years, or for one year or less.
- Don’t be upset if only two people show up to your session. Those two people are the ones who share your interest.
- Don’t feel that you have to “fill” up an hour of time. If what you have to say only takes 15 min and the group has finished interacting–then the session can end. At the start of the conference, we will discuss guidelines for how this can happen.
- Don’t feel pressure to have everything take “only” an hour. If you start with a short presentation, and then a group conversation gets going, and your discussion needs to continue past an hour – find a way to make this happen. You might be able to keep talking for awhile in the room you are in, or move to another part of the conference area, or post “Part 2” on the agenda At the start of the conference, we will discuss guidelines for how this can happen.
- Be Brave! Others are interested in making your session work!
- Do think about the ideas that you want to cover in your session, and how you want to cover them. But don’t feel as though you need to prepare a great deal. (If you’re over-prepared, your session might lose energy.)
- Experiment with the kind of sessions you lead. There is no such thing as “failue” an an unconference.
Example of how an unConference can look like?
Before the unConference
- Choose a high-level topic e.g.
Today's challenges in the WebRTC worldor
Building React Webappsor
- Promote the event to the selected audience
- Optionally you can allow participants to promote they sessions before the meeting to make the event more attractive to others and e.g. let the audience vote on it already
- Make sure the audience understands the nature of a unConference vs normal conference
During the unConference
1. Networking Warm-up (e.g. 30 min)
- Attendees are arriving in the (virtual) Lobby
- Time to run into people and getting to know each other
2. Session Planning (e.g. 1 hour)
The length of the planning session depends on the length of the conference and the available session slots the audience has to vote on
- At the beginning of the conference, all attendees get together to define the agenda.
- Every attendee can pitch sessions they want to host (Sessions are e.g. 45 minutes max)
- Attendees vote on the most interesting proposals/sessions for the available time-slots e.g. 3x 45 min slots with 3x simultaneous rooms = 9 total sessions available to attend
- The moderators fill in the schedule publicly available for all attendees
- Once completed, a whole mini-conference is setup based on the topics the audience is most interested in 🔥
You can also submit your idea before the event e.g. via a website or a form.
3. The unConference (e.g. 4h)
The length of the unConference up to you. It can be an evening, half a day or span across several days.
- The actual fun starts 🤟🏽
- Sessions can be run simultaneously, depending on the length of the conference and amount of sessions e.g. 3x 45 min slots with 3x simultaneous events = 9 total sessions
- Everybody is free to join a session based on the format and the attendee limit
- After all sessions are finished, we are all excited to meet for virtual drinks, aftermath and fun networking
After the unConference
- Think of how you can keep the discussion going
- There could be a channel (e.g. Slack, Telegram) where people can easily stay connected
- Stay connected to the audience
- You could ask people to sign up for a mailing list to inform them about new events you are planning
- How to run a great unconference session
- How to Run a Remote Unconference
- Improving unconferences: at the event level – some notes on improving the structure of unconferences themselves (Highly recommended).
- How to facilitate an unconference – basic advice on planning and running these events.
- How to DIY unconference – advice on planning and running an entire unconference.
- Open space technology – The basic ideas behind unconferences.
- FOO camp details – example of how one unconference works.
- Bar camp details – example of how a series of unconferences works.
- Advice for planning a bar camp – advice on how to run your own bar camp style unconference.
- The problems with training – based on my experience managing training for designers.
- How to get the most out of conferences – good general advice for attending anything.
- unConferencing – how to prepare to attend an unconference