How to Master the Art of Unconference-ing

You’ve probably heard the word “unconference” bouncing around among colleagues and friends, or you’ve seen it to describe daylong events. For those of you wondering what on earth they’re about and how to properly participate, fear not: it’s time for a crash course so that you’re prepared for the real deal.

It’s safe to say we’ve all been to a traditional conference before. Frankly, I find them quite boring and ineffective. There’s a keynote speaker who’s well known in the industry that you probably won’t get the chance to chat with in person, because he or she will be off to another event as they try to fit everything in to their busy schedule. There are endless panel discussions that don’t even try to engage the audience, and they leave little room for a Q&A afterwards. You’re bored and on your phone checking emails and Instagram so often that your battery runs out twice as fast as usual. The people you want to meet aren’t available, and although you often end up getting to know some interesting attendees, you wish you didn’t pay $500 for that privilege. You leave the conference tired, hungry, and feeling that the whole experience was a time-waster.

There is an alternative to this, the unconference. At an unconference, session topics aren’t predetermined, there aren’t any keynote speakers or special guests, and most of the time there aren’t any pre-arranged discussions scheduled. Instead, the event’s success is determined by the participation of each attendee. They are the ones to decide what will be discussed and later convene in individual sessions. There is no agenda until the participants create it by posting their desired session topic and time on a board. Everyone’s responsible for the discussions, filling the schedule, and setting the stage for dynamic discussion and innovation.

I’m a seasoned participant of unconferences, having attended several in NYC over the last couple of years. However, the bulk of my experience comes from actually running one myself. I co-organize a meetup in New York City called ArtsTech, which focuses on the intersection of art and technology. The Artstech executive team decided it was time to have our very own unconference, which I helped organize in April of last year at AOL HQ. We bended the rules a bit, and had some predetermined “featured sessions” scheduled in so we could give potential attendees a better sense of what to expect. We listed our info, including our pre-determined “featured sessions” on our tumblr page, which you can read here.

ArtsTech Unconference last May

ArtsTech Unconference last May

Every unconference is different. But, there are some basic principles for creating an effective unconference, explained nicely on the Digital Inclusion Summit website:

-The people who come are the best people who could have come.

-Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.

-Give back to the conference by participating actively. “Active participation” might mean giving a presentation, helping with a presentation, blogging or podcasting the event, or whatever other creative ways you can find to contribute.

-The session: It starts when it starts; It’s over when it’s over. Feel free to use extra session time for other discussions or activities.

-The Law of Two Feet: If you are not learning or contributing to a talk, presentation, or discussion, it is your responsibility (and privilege) to find somewhere where you cancontribute or learn.

-No commercials/selling.

What a typical unconference board looks like, this one from the ArtsTech Unconference

What a typical unconference board looks like, this one from the ArtsTech Unconference

One of the most important things to remember as a participant of an unconference is that every attendee contributes to the sessions; you are a participant, not an audience member. Be sure to ask questions, raise ideas, and listen to what others are saying. It’s all about breaking down the barriers you find in a traditional conference by giving attendees a voice. You are your own expert.

You can either actively participate or listen at other people’s sessions or, ideally, you will lead your own session. The sessions don’t have to be prepared in advance; if you get an idea while at the event, call a session. Spaces are often equipped with projectors or whiteboards and post to help facilitate the session. These sessions take different formats, and can include brainstorming an idea, asking the group to help answer a big question, a short learning workshop, showing a cool project or demo that people can interact with and share, guiding a debate, or discussing a common interest. Session times vary, typically ranging from 15 minutes to an hour.

Scott Berkum wrote a great post on how to run an unconference session. A few of his tips and tricks for leading and participating in a session are:

-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.

-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 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.

-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.)


ArtsTech gave out some cool swag: Unconference tote bags

ArtsTech gave out some cool swag: Unconference tote bags

Participants at ArtsTech between sessions.

Participants at ArtsTech between sessions.

Here are some extra tips for session organizers to ensure a successful and worthwhile session:

-Be flexible, and go with the flow.

-Lead a session posing at least one thought question, something that can drive participation and conversation among attendees.

-Don’t disappear, and make sure to stay accessible after the session so that your fellow attendees can approach you with questions or to continue the conversation.

-It’s okay if only a couple people show up. It doesn’t need to be a full house for you to lead a thoughtful session. Having a small group of people makes the structure even easier, and you can have more one-on-one time with attendees.

-Document your session. Have someone take photos and notes of the discussion, that way you can keep track of the dialogue, and show it to others who wanted to attend but couldn’t make it.

Most of all, enjoy yourself. Don’t be afraid to speak up and meet new people. You’ll soon forget about those horrific conference experiences and become a lifelong believer in the unconference style!

I attended a workshop on wearable tech. The sessions can be very hands-on!

I attended a workshop on wearable tech. The sessions can be very hands-on!

There is an unconference happening today in Boston by Mass TLC, and another by the female tech organization, She’s Geeky, in San Francisco on January 30th. If you know of any additional unconferences happening soon that you’d like to share with iLab readers, please add them to the comments below.


IMG_9202I’m the managing editor of Women’s iLab and the Community Marketing Manager for Kite, a social reading startup. One of my labors of love is co-organizing #ArtsTech meetup, which focuses on the intersection of art and technology. One of my greatest passions is world travel: when I’m not home in New York City, you’ll find me somewhere in Europe, Asia, or Latin America. I graduated from the George Washington University with a BA in Art History. Get in touch with me on twitter @amaiou.
Read more about and from the author: Amanda’s WiLab Profile

Originally posted 2014-11-13 08:00:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter