|Over 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:
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?