These aren’t the unconferences you’re looking for

unconferences
I’m noticing that event promoters are increasingly using the word “unconference” to describe traditional conferences. <Sigh>. Please stop doing this! There’s a big difference between unconferences and traditional events.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines an unconference:

“An unconference is a participant-driven meeting.”
“Typically at an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting.
Unconference, Wikipedia

Well, surely titan Google would accurately describe their annual Search Central conference?

Nope.
unconferences In case you can’t read that, it says:

“In particular, the word ‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend and actively participate in. You will shape the event by taking part in discussions, feedback sessions, and similar formats that need your input.”
The Search Central Unconference is back, Google Search Central Blog

Wow. According to Google, “‘unconference’ means that you get to choose which sessions you want to attend”. Umm, Google, that’s what happens at every conference! Oh, you also get to “actively participate in” sessions? Google, we call that “having a discussion” or “a breakout”.

Dave Smart’s blog post My experience of the Google Search Central unconference makes it clear that Google chose the entire conference program beforehand.

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Sorry, Google, but calling your conference an unconference doesn’t make it one.

Let’s call what you’re doing an ununconference.

Sadly, Google is not alone.

A few examples of ununconferences

Here are three ununconferences that people promoted this week. I noticed several others, but adding all those black bars to remove identifying information takes time. Twitter is full of folks who already know they’ll be “speaking” at an ununconference (e.g., the second example). The last example announces that their “unconference” is closing session proposal submissions six months before the actual event!
unconferences

Conference programs that are predetermined with attendee input are not unconferences

I have been convening and facilitating unconferences for 29 years. (I prefer the term peer conferences, but no one else cares.) Why? Because they provide a far better conference experience. Better, because creating the conference program in real time at the start ensures that the event optimally meets participants’ in-the-moment wants and needs.

In 2o10, I explained why asking attendees in advance for program suggestions doesn’t work. And a couple of years later, I shared why a program committee or the mythical “conference curator” don’t do any better:

“In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want.
Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator, February, 2012

Seth Godin puts it this way: “We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be.” Just about every unconference I’ve convened or attended, has brought to light participants whose valuable knowledge, expertise, experience, and contributions were unknown to the conveners (and most, if not all, of the attendees). You can’t do this effectively at a traditional conference with a predetermined program.

Unconference is not a marketing soundbite

Marketers: stop using “unconference” as an event marketing buzzword. We’re not selling cereal here. Robert Kreitner says, “Buzzwords…drive out good ideas.” Unconferences are participant-driven, which involves building the program in real time during the event. Having (well-designed) discussion sessions during an event is great, but that doesn’t make a meeting an unconference.

Meeting conveners: Learn about what unconferences actually are before calling your event one. (Any of my books will give you detailed information about these meeting formats, and how well they work.)

I care about how people use the word “unconference” because I’ve met too many folks who believe that an event that’s billed as an unconference must be one. Then they attend and are underwhelmed. I’d hate to see unconferences suffer because marketing folks see the word as a way to make an event sound hip, sophisticated, and cool. Let’s banish the ununconference instead!

A free guide to creating peer conferences

free guide to creating peer conferences

The Association for Software Testing (AST) has just issued a free guide to creating peer conferences. I believe the software testing community adopted my term “peer conference” for their get-togethers after a conversation I had with pioneer software tester James Bach in 2004.

Reminiscent of my first book, Conferences That Work, AST’s guide provides a comprehensive entry-level guide to starting, preparing for, and running a peer conference. While it doesn’t offer the level of detail in Conferences That Work, it’s an excellent introduction to the key issues. Although it’s written for software testing conferences (hence the references to Lean Coffee and k-cards) first-time organizers of small conferences of any kind will learn a lot.

This short guide includes useful sections on:

  • defining the conference’s mission;
  • codes of conduct;
  • diversity;
  • dissemination; and
  • email templates and helpful checklists.

The text includes many links to more detailed explanations. As a result, the guide is a compact resource for anyone with little or no experience who wants to offer a great, well-run, conference.

So I strongly recommend this free guide to creating peer conferences. (Did I mention it’s free?)

Photo attributions: 2018 “QA or the Highway” software testing conference {top}. My old friend Fiona Charles at UKSTARConf 2019 {bottom}

Make your entire conference a braindate

entire conference a braindate Why not make your entire conference a braindate?

One of Skift’s “10 event trends for 2020” is networking. The report predicts:

“Activities such as braindates that deliver more meaningful connections will become mainstream at events.”

The author, Julius Solaris, tweeted:

“…braindates are in our top 10 trends for 2020…Too much of an undervalued tool and approach. Time to end that.”
November 20, 2019 tweet

I like the braindate approach, but it doesn’t have to be something that’s grafted onto a conference. Why? Because good event design is about how a conference works.

Participant-driven and participation-rich meeting designs incorporate a braindate’s purpose — one-to-one or small group connection around relevant content — organically into every session. In addition, the beginning of a peer conference uncovers the topics that people want to talk about, as well as providing plentiful opportunities for participants to discover others who share their challenges and interests.

By the time a peer conference is underway, you will have learned core information about many of the other participants. And they, of course, will have learned important things about you!

So there’s no need to add a braindate process to a well-designed meeting. Instead make your entire conference a braindate!

Photo attribution: Flickr user viejozapato

Creating Conferences That Work with Adrian Segar

For an excellent summary of the work I do, check out this interview and podcast, Creating Conferences That Work by Celisa Steele of Leading Learning. The podcast recording is nicely summarized in the show notes, so you can just read about what interests you, and then listen to any or all of the interview sections from the links on the page.

Here’s an overview:

Read the rest of this entry »

27 years of peer conferences

27 years of peer conferences Good things come in threes. Though I usually overlook anniversaries, I noticed one this morning. The first peer conference I convened and designed was held June 3 – 5, 1992 at Marlboro College, Vermont. So, as of today, the community of practice that eventually became edACCESS has enjoyed 27 years of peer conferences. [That’s 3 x 3 x 3. I told you good things come in threes.]

Twenty-three people came to the inaugural conference. At the time, I had no idea that what I instinctively put together for a gathering of people who barely knew each other would lead to:

  • a global design and facilitation consulting practice;
  • over 500 posts on this blog, which has now become, to the best of my knowledge, the most-visited website on meeting design and facilitation;
  • three books (almost!) on participant-driven, participation-rich meeting design; and
  • plentiful ongoing opportunities to fulfill my mission to facilitate connection between people.

However, none of this happened overnight. For many years, designing and facilitating meetings was a vocation rather than a profession, usually unpaid. Furthermore, it was an infrequent adjunct to my “real” jobs at the time: information technology consulting, and teaching computer science.

27 years of peer conferences. From little acorns, mighty oaks. I would never have predicted the path I’ve traveled — and continue to look forward to the journey yet to come. Above all, thank you everyone who has made it possible. I can’t adequately express the gratitude you are due.

Improve meetings by de-emphasizing old-school status

Improve meetings by de-emphasizing old-school status You can improve meetings by de-emphasizing status.

Apart from my first book, I haven’t written much about status at events. It’s time to revisit this important topic.

I think about status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees.

There are two key kinds of event status — let’s call them old-school and real-time.

Read the rest of this entry »

Two scientists walk into a conference…

Two scientists walk into a conference One of the most satisfying outcomes of the peer conferences I design and facilitate is how they bring people together who would never otherwise have met — and in doing so change the world.

This is obviously important, but why do world-changing connections seldom occur at conventional conferences?

Here’s an illuminating story from the pages of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons, the noted mathematician founder of Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, and a funder of a variety of research projects:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Conference Arc — the key components of every successful participation-rich conference

Traditional conferences focus on a hodgepodge of pre-determined sessions punctuated with socials, surrounded by short welcomes and closings. Such conference designs treat openings and closings as perfunctory traditions, perhaps pumped up with a keynote or two, rather than key components of the conference design.

Unlike traditional conferences, participant-driven and participation-rich peer conferences have a conference arc with three essential components: Beginning, Middle, and End. This arc creates a seamless conference flow where each phase builds on what has come before.

Participant-driven and participation-rich peer conference designs improve on traditional events. They don’t treat openings and closings as necessary evils but as critical components of the meeting design.

Let’s examine each phase of the peer conference arc in more detail.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to use dot voting to choose the sessions your attendees need and want

dot voting How do we build conference programs that attendees actually want and need? Since 1992 I’ve experimented with multiple methods to ensure that every session is relevant and valuable. Here’s what happened when I incorporated dot voting into a recent two-day association peer conference.

Read the rest of this entry »