The unconference toolbox
July 4th, 2023
So, you’ve been invited to an unconference! Maybe you’re not entirely sure what that means (did the organizers misspell "conference"?), or maybe you’ve been to dozens of these before and you’re looking for some ideas for how to run an awesome session.
This blog post will be a quick primer on what an unconference is, and then we’ll share some tips on how to make a session excellent, both as the host and as a participant.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
What is an unconference?
Unconferences are participant-driven. The agenda is created by the attendees when they arrive at the event, and anyone can propose and host a session on a topic they want to discuss. This is in contrast to a typical conference, where the organizers design a schedule of talks and events in advance.
An unconference is a shared project. The unconference format is designed to break down the distinction between session hosts and participants. While a conventional conference treats attendees like a passive audience to be entertained by the organizers, the unconference format gives everyone who attends an opportunity to make the event awesome. By giving each guest ownership over how the time is spent, it turns the event into a shared project. Building things together builds strong relationships, and it can blossom into longer-running collaborations after the event.
Unconferences are choose-your-own-adventure. At any moment there will be multiple talks happening in parallel, and you can attend whichever one piques your interest. At a typical unconference, a majority of participants will facilitate at least one session.
The unconference board is the center of the event. The board is a large grid representing the schedule. The time slots start out blank, and over the course of the unconference, attendees fill them out by proposing sessions. These can change throughout the event as people get to know each other. For example, if you meet someone with complementary expertise, you might consider inviting them to co-host it with you.
Selecting a session theme
All topics are fair game at unconferences (unless the organizers specifically state a more narrow theme, of course). Here are a few categories of themes to get your juices flowing:
- Your professional expertise (e.g. mining black holes, how to create real estate pro forma, environmental review regulatory reform)
- Something you’re passionate about (e.g. pottery, quantified self, your experience going through IVF, a standup comedy set)
- A group experience (e.g. improv, acrylic pouring, cooking class, giant jigsaw puzzle, blind "dining in the dark" dinner, board games, photography workshop)
- A physical activity (e.g. stretching, group hike, hunting for four leaf clovers, breathing exercises, square dancing.
Ideas for session formats
An unconference is an opportunity to mix it up when it comes to format. While conference-style talks can be awesome additions to unconferences too, sessions that take a more interactive or creative approach are where unconferences shine. Here are some ideas for formats that you might consider for your session:
- Fireside chat. An informal conversation between an interviewer and a guest speaker, usually in a cozy setting.
- Facilitated group discussion about an important question.
- Pre-prepared talk + Q&A. This one is the most similar to what you’ve seen at conferences. To take advantage of an unconference's informality, we encourage you to pause more often for audience reactions or questions.
- Lightning talks. You can organize a mini series of short, 5-10 minute presentations on a topic. The series could have a specific theme, or not.
- Impromptu panel. After a round of intros, you pick 2-5 experts and form a panel. You can be moderator, or you can ask one of the experts to ask good questions.
- Demo of a new technology. Brownie points if it's a live demo! But make sure you're prepared so that there aren't lots of awkward gaps.
- Live podcast. Ask another attendee if you can interview them.
- Science experiment. Design an experiment that the group can test together during the session. It doesn’t necessarily have to fit in the 1 hour session; the experiment could run throughout the event and bear results at the end, or possibly even after the unconference is over.
- Group brainstorm in a Google Doc. This is a much higher bandwidth brainstorm format than a single-threaded group conversation. Pose some good questions, ask everyone to type their responses underneath each question, and allow people to comment afterwards. Tip: start by spending 3 minutes "brainstorming ways to brainstorm", then pick your favorite 2-3 ideas and spend the session on those.
- Hot seat. Break into small groups of 3-5 (zoom or IRL), then pick someone to be on the hot seat first. That person chooses a "spicy-ness" level of questions they're comfortable asking. Spicer meaning more vulnerable/personal. For 5 minutes, anyone can jump in and ask questions, one at a time. Switch after 5 minutes. (Thanks to Bhaumik Patel for emailing us this suggestion!) Tips:
- Break the ice by going first in front of whole group. Choose the highest spicy level.
- Have sample questions people can ask.
- If someone is shy, let them know they can skip any question
- Suggest no more than 1 minute per answer to keep pace going.
Tactics for running a great session
Here are some creative facilitation moves that might improve the flow of your session. You don’t need to do all or even any of these. They’re just here to give get your juices flowing as you plan.
- Ask everyone why they're interested. "Let's go around and say a sentence or two about any specific questions you'd like me to address." Good for making a Q&A more targeted to people's curiosities.
- Intros. "Let's go around and say a sentence or two about why you're here and your familiarity with this topic."
- Play with the length of time. Unconference boards are typically broken down into 1-hour blocks, but that doesn’t mean your session has to be 1 hour! You could take over 2 contiguous time blocks to make a mega 2-hour session, or you could use just 30 minutes if you don’t need the full hour.
- Invite specific people to attend your session. Think about who at the event will have interesting things to add to the discussion and ask them if they’d like to attend your session.
- Promote your session in the group chat. Many unconference organizers will create a group chat for everyone to get announcements throughout the event. 10 minutes before your session starts, you can message the group chat to tell them about your session and who you think would find it interesting.
- Invite everyone to sit on the floor. This can make the session feel more playful and casual. (You can also just remove all of the chairs from the room beforehand, then they will have to sit on the floor!)
- Choose an appropriate seating layout. If you want to encourage interactivity, choose a space where chairs are arranged in a circle. If you want to draw everyone's attention to a speaker or a panel, choose a space where chairs are oriented towards a stage.
- Bring a physical artifact. Having a physical object related to what you’re working on can make what you’re talking about more real. You can think of it as grownup show and tell!
- Find a cohost. Think about who might have overlapping/complementary expertise and invite them to run the session with you.
- Discuss a topic you’ve written about in depth before. Some of the best sessions we’ve seen have been writers sharing a quick overview of an essay or book they’ve written, and then giving audience members time for Q&A so the discussion can go beyond what they’ve published publicly. Another variant of this is that you could print out copies of the essay and ask people to read it in silence for the first 5-10 minutes of your session.
- Oblique strategies. This set of cards with cryptic prompts is helpful for breaking creative blocks. Draw a card at random and it might help stimulate new ideas and ways to approach your work.
- Create a way for people to keep up the discussion after. Start a group chat, promote a mailing list, or plan a dinner after the event.
- Limit the number of people in your session. If you want to have a small group discussion, for example, you can tell people "The first 8 people who show up will get to be part of the discussion. If you come after that, you can sit quietly as an audience member" or some variation.
- Ask someone to be the notetaker. Have them share their notes afterwards with the group or with the rest of the unconference.
Common failure modes
- The host is under-prepared. This is the most common failure mode. Although unconferences are designed to be casual, you should still take the role of hosting a session seriously. We've seen amazing sessions that required zero prep, but it's a high variance strategy. A host should at least be able to ask the right questions if a conversation falters.
- The session feels scripted. Long, non-interactive presentations miss what makes unconferences special. The fix is to encourage group participation.
- Intros take up the whole session. Beware the Law of Intro Inflation: that each intro tends to take slightly longer than the previous one. For a group of less than 10 people, intros usually take about 10 minutes. For 10-20 people, you'll need to ask people to keep it to 2 sentences or less. For a large group of 20 or more people, beware, and don’t hesitate to be the Bad Cop!
- A few loud voices dominate the conversation. A great facilitator is a great host, which means encouraging quiet participants to contribute and being willing to gently interrupt the long-winded.
- The topic goes off the rails. If your topic degenerates into a debate about capitalism, a great host will find a way to get it back on track.
- The format is over-structured. We've seen 45 minute sessions with 15 steps (e.g. 1 minute of silent brainstorming, followed by 3 minutes of talking to your neighbors, repeated 4 times, etc). Sometimes this works, but what usually happens is that participants feel like their conversations are repeatedly cut short.
- Only a few people show up. This can often be a feature and not a bug, and pivot to a more intimate, tailored conversation. Sometimes these end up being the best sessions, because they give the small group a chance to go deeper. You can also always cancel the session.
- Too many people show up for your format. The fix depends on the format, but it could involve trying it anyway, pivoting to select an expert panel, dividing the crowd into small groups, etc.
- First-timers don't participate. Unconferences are wonderfully informal, and you don't need experience to host. If you're shy, try cohosting with another attendee! Alternatively, you can prepare a session and decide after day 1 whether or not to put your session up on the calendar. It can also be encouraging to ask others for their feedback on your topic.
How to be a great session attendee
Everyone is responsible for making an unconference great, not just the session host! Here are some ways you can support the host in making each session great:
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions and add comments, as long as the host seems they would appreciate it. Unconferences are designed to be more interactive than traditional conferences, and it should be more of a back-and-forth between hosts and participants rather than a performer-audience relationship.
- Help the host keep time. It’s easy to lose track of time, especially when you’re facilitating a great discussion!
- Share your own experiences, though also make sure you’re respecting the host’s intention for the session and not dominating the conversation.
- Don’t look at your phone! This one should be obvious, yet somehow it seems not to be…
Help us make this post better!
Do you have ideas for how to create a great unconference experience? Email us at devonzuegel [at] gmail [dot] com and jasoncbenn [at] gmail [dot] com! We’d love to hear what you've seen work in the wild.