We’re not sure if it’s an accepted word in the English dictionary, but in science, business, technology, and other circles, the unconference -- short for unconventional conference -- is becoming increasingly popular.
It’s the anti-thesis of your usual conference, which is usually done in a hotel ballroom, with a fixed schedule of speakers and lecturers, venues and time constraints, and where the attendees go to “learn something from the experts.”
The unconference is what all these...are not. Unconferences are about conversations, not presentations, says entrepreneur and unconference facilitator Joshua Kauffman, according to Forbes.
And if a certain session does not inspire attendees enough to contribute to the conversation, they should get up and find -- even start -- a different one. This is Kauffman’s Law of Two Feet.
Unconferences are not so new. As early as 1985, events with unconference formats have been held in the U.S. In 2006, blogger Scott Berkun wrote about how to run a good unconference even as he warned that these may have their bad moments, too -- for instance, dud topics and guys who talk about themselves or their products all the time.
Here are five ways to run an “unconference” of your own:
1. Choose the right formatThere are various kinds of meetings depending on the objectives of the participants. In “birds of a feather,” participants organize themselves to discuss topics without a pre-planned agenda. Here, participants rewrite or overwrite the program even as it accompanies traditional conferences.
“Hackathons” are common for tech topics and those which include project development. Usually, small teams work together in addressing specific parts of a project. In the “curated unconference,” potential topics and structures are gathered by participants prior to the event. The “world cafe” style allows participants to tackle several topics in a limited and pre-set amount of time. Other formats are the “fishbowl,” “Ignite” and “Pecha Kucha” -- all having to do with time limits so that as many participants speak up as possible.
2. Have a clear missionPeople normally attend unconferences to interact with others who share their interests and to learn useful information or skills related to their business. Know exactly why your participants signed up and use this to create the environment in which the unconference is held.
3. Involve participants in the planning and structuringThe participants -- not the speakers, not the organizers -- are the main actors in the unconference. Empower the participants by letting them know they can influence the content and have a say in the structure of the meeting. If they are aware of this at all times, then they would be more invested in the success and outcome of the unconference.
4. Provide an open, relaxed atmosphereA good atmosphere defines the success -- or failure -- of any gathering. It should be relaxed, open, friendly, and fun. No participant should be made to feel as though he or she were less worthy to be in the event, or that any idea is more important than the others.
5. Remember: the journey is as important as the destinationThere is no perfect unconference. Sometimes the participants do not mix well or do not bring out the best ideas in each other. One or two may try to dominate the conversation. In these cases, it never pays to be frustrated. Focus on the process and see why things did not yield as much results -- and do better the next time.
While there is no single right way to organize an unconference, one key advice is to think in terms of “we” rather than “me.”