Unconferences – the future of business events? (Part 2)

I explained yesterday why so many conferences and events don’t work – today I’ll expand on the concept of the “Unconference”.

Unconferences take everything you thought you knew about conferences and turn it on its head.

1) The object of an unconference is not to make money. They are cheap to organise and even cheaper to attend. The most I've ever paid to attend one is £5. Many are free.  There are no money-spinning exhibition halls. There may be a few sponsors to help pay for the room hire, but they keep a low profile: definitely no overt selling or hogging of agendas.

2) Due to 1), they usually aren't in glamorous occasions. Less Honolulu, more Birmingham. A students' union building out of term time, not a five star hotel.

3) Due to 1), there are no glossy delegate packs or goody bags.  Registration at an unconference consists of handing over your fiver and writing your name and Twitter name on a sticker. If they've found an extra sponsor, you may also get a raffle ticket that doubles as a beer token.

4) Most importantly of all, there's rarely an agenda. And there are NEVER any keynote speakers or plenary sessions.  Usually what happens is this:

The unconference leaders invite everyone to gather around - standing up, ideally - and introduce themselves.  Name, where you're from, and the answer to a random question like "what one word best summarises you or why you're here?" (Last week I went to an Unconference where 120 people took less than half an hour total to introduce themselves. The week before I went to a conventional leadership retreat where 30 people took more than an hour to introduce themselves....)

Then come the session pitches.  Attendees take it in turns to go to the front and pitch an idea for a session they'd like to lead.  Unless the rest of the attendees *really* don't like the idea (last week a man pitching something about Sharepoint, for example, got soundly booed), the session idea gets written onto a post it and stuck on a white board.

Once the crowd has run out of ideas, the Unconference leaders take a few minutes to sort the ideas out into a schedule for the day for each of the available meeting rooms.  Pitchers who've suggested similar ideas may be asked to share a session (which is typically only 40 minutes long), and if the Unconference leaders are sensible they'll make sure that sessions on similar themes won't be scheduled at the same time.  Once that's done, there's some brief chaos as attendees study the whiteboard and scribble down times and locations of the sessions they're interested in, and the Unconference is properly underway.

One other great characteristic of an Unconference is that attendees are encouraged to vote with their feet. If you find yourself in a session that turns out to be less than relevant or interesting, it's entirely OK to leave and find another more up your street. And knowing that, most session leaders try very hard to keep things entertaining.  Audience interaction is strongly encouraged: most Unconference sessions turn into an open discussion in which anyone can venture an opinion, ask a question, share a story or offer a solution.

Traditional PowerPoint presentations are almost unheard of, although screenshots are sometimes shown, or websites mentioned in the discussion will be brought up.  Social media plays a big part too: some in the room will invariably be sending tweets with the session hashtag - allowing people who can't be in the room to join in the conversation.  Others might be liveblogging or livestreaming: literally recording the highlights and learnings of the discussion as it happens, so there's no danger of anything being lost.

It's hard to convey the experience of an Unconference until you've tried one.  They leave you feeling inspired, informed, engaged, and better connected.  Try one for yourself and see.

You can contact Alex at alex@beaglethinking.com and follow her on Twitter at @beaglethoughts

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