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May 2, 2006

How to Unconference

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 10:27
conferenceOver the past dozen years, I’ve presented at about a hundred different conferences. I’ve turned down many more opportunities, and unless it’s a NFP event I now ask for a fee to present. I’m not a great bums-on-chairs presenter, and I’ve discovered that many of my favourite bloggers aren’t that great either — a lot of us are just better at conveying ideas and information in writing than orally. I find I learn a great deal as a presenter — preparation for a live audience makes you take a more critical look at stuff you’ve written, tighten it up, synthesize, update, and the audience always gives you some different perspectives from what your blog audience offers.

So I’m intrigued by the idea of Unconferencing. There is a reason why people like conferences with a lot of unscheduled time between sessions, and why the hallway discussions are frequently more animated than the discussions in the conference rooms. Some people believe it’s because the quality of speakers is inadequate (specifically because they lack the ability to make complex, important subjects understandable and interesting), but I’m inclined to believe it’s more because most people get more value out of one-on-one and small-group conversations with both peers and experts, where they get to discuss the issues and get answers in the context of their particular situation. This is the same reason that students often get much more value out of personal coaching than they do from listening to lectures.

What has changed the equation substantially is the sheer amount of free reading material that’s available online on just about any imaginable subject. The self-initiated learner can now often learn more in an hour’s online research than in an hour listening to the most profound and articulate expert. And while some don’t have the skill or interest in doing such research, and are willing to pay money to hear someone step them through something they could teach themselves for free in the same time, the freeing of information has raised expectations and lowered the satisfaction of many audiences with formal conference presentations and panels.

At one extreme, Unconferences can be totally unscheduled meetups, with no set topics (just an umbrella theme), self-organized in real time using Open Space or some similar technique. You spend the time talking about the issues you want to talk about with others who want to talk about the same issues. Everyone is an equal participant, and everyone needs to take the responsibility to prepare for the sessions by pre-reading and thinking in advance about the subjects.

While I love such events, they ask a lot of attendees, in many cases more than attendees may be willing to contribute. I think there is a happy medium that is less demanding of attendees than a completely self-organized and egalitarian Unconference (in return for which they are expected to pay the conference fee, the price of ‘taking more than you give’ during the event), but still much more engaging and participatory than formal conferences. Here, based on some of the best sessions I have attended and ‘presented’ at, are some suggested guidelines for such an Unconference:

  1. Each session at the Unconference should have one Discussion Leader rather than a Speaker or Panel. In my experience panels are almost invariably ‘too many cooks’: They inhibit audience participation, and there’s never enough time for all panel members to make a meaningful contribution to the discussion. So: One Discussion Leader per session, with a minimum of 45 and a maximum of 90 minutes per session.
  2. Each session should have a theme rather than a title, and the Discussion Leader should be prepared to say something new about each of at least two subjects (and ideally three or four) related to that single overarching theme. The purpose of the ‘something new’ is to jumpstart the conversation among the attendees. It can be an idea, a discovery, an area for collective exploration, or a controversial statement.
  3. The Discussion Leader should provide short handouts (hard copy, graphics preferred, no cryptic bullet points) on each of the two to four subject she is prepared to discuss. This will satisfy those attendees who want takeaways for their attendance fee. It also gives multi-taskers the opportunity to read while they listen, and to formulate some thoughts and questions they can contribute to the conversation.
  4. The Discussion Leader should start by spending one minute laying out the two to four subjects and orienting the attendees to the hand-outs supporting each subject. She should then start to discuss the subject she thinks is most likely to generate a valuable and insightful conversation among all attendees. This discussion should be purposefully directed to engage the attendees and to invite them to participate (asking open-ended questions, laying out a problem for collaborative resolution, saying something controversial or provocative, inviting stories and examples and different perspectives from attendees etc.) If the attendees don’t ‘bite’, it’s on to the next subject, until some animated discussion ensues. The key is to provoke discussion on subjects the attendees can be expected to know enough about to add meaningfully to the ideas and perspectives of the session. That means the Discussion Leader needs to know roughly who is in the audience before the session begins (background, reason for attending etc.)
  5. Once an animated discussion (or at least, a Q&A with the Discussion Leader involving several attendees) has begun, the Discussion Leader’s role changes to facilitator. Her task is now to keep the discussion dynamic, relevant, non-repetitive, and interesting. If it gets stale or runs out of steam, then it’s back to the Discussion Leader to provoke something new or change direction and draw out the audience again.
  6. The layout of the room needs to be considered. Ideally, a circular or semi-circular layout is best. Cafeteria layout (tables with 4-8 chairs each) is OK, especially if (in a large room) there’s a microphone for each table and the Discussion Leader can stand where she is visible to all tables. Theatre seating is sometimes inevitable, in which case it’s useful (in a large room) to have several wireless microphones to pass around, and, if possible, to get each person speaking to come up to the front so they can face the audience.
  7. If the audience is very large (say, over 60 people) engendering genuine conversation becomes much more problematic. I find most ‘keynote’ speeches disappointing — they’re usually rehashes of stuff I’ve already read or heard, and usually there’s better value in skipping them and scheduling one-on-one discussions with people you want to spend time with during them. If you know you’re going to have that large an audience, and the organizer of the conference is flexible, it might be worthwhile suggesting two smaller sessions with a maximum capacity of 50 people for each. There are some people who can wow a large crowd, and if I have nothing better to do I’ll go and see them, but I recognize that what makes such sessions so appealing is largely their entertainment value rather than information value. 

Notice I don’t call the attendees ‘participants’. It’s great if even half of the audience does participate in the conversation, but I think it’s presumptuous to think that most attendees will, or will even want to. But even non-participating attendees are likely to find more value in a meaningful conversation that brings multiple perspectives, frames and ideas to the subject, than a single speaker’s monologue. Iterative discussion among two or more people brings clarity.

I’m sure you’ve attended conferences that had some of the attributes of an Unconference. What do you think of the seven ‘specifications’ above? Think for a moment about the best learning events you’ve paid to attend: What worked, and what didn’t? When is an Unconference the best approach, and under what circumstances are more traditional, ormore radical, approaches more effective?

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