Unconferences: How Participant-Driven Events Increase Engagement & Knowledge Sharing
Dull, dated, and boring are frequently stigmas about conferences. People generally think that they show up listen to an opening speech, go through the motions of preset sessions that may or may not be relevant to them, and then break for an hour for lunch. Following that, back to more set sessions. Rinse and repeat the next day. As the importance of attendee engagement skyrockets, the structure and method of organizing conference must evolve and adjust to the ever-changing industry.
What are Unconferences?
Unconferences, sometimes also called open-space conferences, are less structured and attendee-driven. Unconferences don’t typically have a preset talk track, topics, sessions, or a strict agenda. The entire event thrives on the engagement and participation level of attendees. There is no agenda set by a group of organizers, the agenda is built by the attendees based on what they want and need to hear, problems that need solutions, or the most current industry trends.
Unconferences are usually managed and monitored by a facilitator that takes suggestions for sessions, filters through them and determines the interest level among the group and then decides which topics to use for sessions or talk tracks. Usually the goals of an unconference consist of: building a sense of community, exploring ideas and initiatives, and, most importantly, solving problems.
There are only two main guidelines or rules that unconferences need to follow. The first is the fact that nobody gives a presentation at an unconference-they’re all about discussion. The second is the Two Feet Law (or Law of Mobility), which means that any time an attendee finds themselves bored or discontent because they aren’t able to contribute or they aren’t learning anything new, they should use their two feet to go somewhere else in the event and search for sessions that can maximize their learning, networking, and contributions.
Why Use the Unconference Event Model?
Attendee engagement is a top priority of conferences. A conference or event cannot be successful if the attendees aren’t engaged. Without engagement, an event delivers no real results or benefit to the attendees or presenters, vendors and exhibitors. By having an attendee-sourced agenda, this ensures that the event will be engaging and relevant. However, keep in mind that unconferences work best when the majority of the people are experienced or have a high level of knowledge, and are motivated to engage.
Event professional and entrepreneur, Joshua Kauffman gives insight into why unconferences are so popular-and effective. “So much of life and work is overly structures that it doesn’t give us, or our ideas, the room to run and grow freely. By contrast, the unstructured, high-energy environment of the unconference amplifies ideas.” Since these types of events seem to have a sense of self-organization, it minimizes the passiveness some attendees experience. One of the biggest benefits of unconferences and not having a set agenda is that the most current and pertinent questions and issues are addressed no matter if they arose a month ago, a week ago, or yesterday. Attendees also have the ability to be in complete control over their experience and learning process.
Types of Unconferences & Methods Used
This is the most common method and is the foundation of nearly all unconferences. Attendees or participants are given guidelines or rules to help them navigate through the experience and curate the best content for all parties involved. Whether the group consists of 50-500 or more, an agenda can be made by attendee suggestions and needs in real time. There is usually some kind of “bulletin board” method where attendees share their ideas for topics or the issues that need to be solved. Attendees vote and choose which topics are to be discussed, the sessions are assigned times and locations to meet, and the person who suggested the idea becomes the leader of the breakout session on the determined topic.
These are similar to typical, traditional panels where 4-6 participants discuss, however the participants in the discussion don’t sit in a line facing the audience, instead they sit in a circle facing each other while the attendees form addition circles around them. The participants discuss a predetermined topic, question, or issue while the attendees (or witnesses) listen.
The discussion begins with the panelists and after some time opens up to the witnesses. A panelist gives up their space in the center circle and the witness can join in the conversation by filling the spot. This goes on until the question or problem is solved and the discussion is closed. Once the discussion is closed, a recap of the content and ideas is shared. Since the attendees are witnessing a conversation, they gain clarity on the subject matter by listening to other experts share their experiences and knowledge.
While this isn’t a type of unconference, it is definitely a common method or activity used during it. This activity includes the whole group of attendees and helps attendees gain knowledge of the others’ perspectives. Marked on the floor is a spectrum ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
A moderator is assigned to the activity and asks participants questions regarding current industry trends, issues, and challenges. The participants are then directed to take a stand where they fall on the spectrum. After everyone has placed themselves in the accurate location, the moderator selects people from all over the spectrum and interviews them, asking why they feel the way they do, giving their perspective to others. This helps establish networking connections and helps foster engagement and discussion among attendees during further sessions.
Think of speed demos like speed dating, but for showcasing products or services. Attendees are divided up into groups and move around the room while presenters stay put. Professionals present short (around 5 minutes) presentations or demos about what they provide. After the time limit is up, the attendees proceed to the next demo or presentation in the lineup. This continues for the set session time.
This gives attendees the opportunity to quickly get a glimpse into others’ offerings, as well as learning about new concepts or technology. For the presenters, it provides them with an outlet to present a shortened and refined demo that highlight the most important factors, while also not struggling to maintain viewers’ attention, due to the short duration. It also gives the presenter the ability to perfect their pitch through repetition.
A sounding board is highly beneficial when there is a mix between experienced professionals and inexperienced. Sounding boards are intended to facilitate more networking and communication between experts and new professionals. Sounding boards can be done a number or ways, but essentially you pair up people with more experience and expertise with the less experienced attendees.
Attendees are broken into small groups that include experts and young, new professionals. Topics or problems are determined and conversations among the attendees pursue until the allotted time is over. Sounding boards are essentially a way to share knowledge and gain advice in a more intimate manner, leading to better outcomes. By placing people in small groups, they feel more comfortable engaging to network and share knowledge.
Unconferences are conferences that don’t follow the typical guidelines or agenda of a conference. Instead, there’s no predetermined agenda, keynote, speakers, presenters, or sessions. Everything is sourced from the attendees with the sole purpose of ensuring that the content is relevant, useful, and engaging. By gaining the topics and talk tracks directly from attendees in the beginning of the conference, it fosters idea generation and knowledge sharing.
The flexibility of unconferences allows attendees to take their time on more important issues and discussions in order to find the most satisfactory solution. In the day and age where attendees are being more demanding and are willing to give feedback, event professionals need to harness this information and put it to use with flexible conference agendas and sessions, or unconferences.