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 unconference?

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 30 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 2010, 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. As 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!

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 »

How to crowdsource a conference program in real-time

Here’s a real-life example of how to crowdsource a conference program in real-time.

In May 2017 Liz Lathan, Tom Spano, and Nicole Osibodu invited me to design and facilitate the session crowdsourcing at the first Haute Dokimazo unconference in Austin, Texas. Eighty invited participants from around the U.S. spent a joyful and productive day at the Austin Children’s Museum’s Thinkery where we crowdsourced a program focusing on event portfolio needs and wants of brands and agencies.

Watch this three-minute video for a taste of the event — then read on to learn how we crowdsourced the program.

Pre-crowdsourcing work

Every peer conference has an arc that includes and integrates three elements: a beginning, middle (the program itself), and end (reflecting, evaluating, and developing individual and group outcomes & next steps). The beginning is when crowdsourcing takes place. Before crowdsourcing it’s critical that participants get to learn about each other as much as possible in the time available. The best way I know to support initial inter-participant learning and connection is The Three Questions process I devised in 1995 (see my books for full details).

After quickly introducing and having the group commit to six agreements to follow at the event, we had forty-five minutes available for The Three Questions. To ensure each person had time to share, we split the participants into four equal sized groups. Facilitators, trained the previous evening, led each group.

Once group members had learned about each other, we reconvened to crowdsource the afternoon program.

How we crowdsourced the Haute Dokimazo program

Crowdsourcing took just 25 minutes. Participants used large colored Post-it™ notes to submit session topics. We used pink notes for offers to facilitate or lead a session, and other colors for wants, as explained in the diagram below.
crowdsource a conference program
We read the topics aloud as they came in. Once we had everyone’s responses, the participants left for their morning workshops. Meanwhile Liz Lathan and I moved the note collection to a quiet space, clustered them…
crowdsource a conference program
…and worked out what we were going to run, who would facilitate or lead each the session, and where it would be held.

The resulting sessions

During lunch we checked that the session leaders we’d chosen were willing and available for the schedule we’d created. Finally, we created a slide of the resulting sessions. We added it to the conference app, and projected the afternoon program on a screen during lunch.

This is just one way to crowdsource a conference program in real-time. Want a comprehensive resource on creating conference programs that become what your attendees actually want and need? My next book Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need contains everything you need to know. Learn more, and be informed when it’s published in 2019.

Ground rules at the Lost Levels unconference

ground rules REMINDERS at lostlevels Ground rules? We don’t need ’em!

Yes you do!

“Game makers find inspiration at Lost Levels, an intimate and involving gathering where anything seems possible”
Laura Hudson, The radical games event where the next speaker is you

The Lost Levels four-hour gaming unconference incorporates these agreements:

  • Make space for others!
  • Watch out for blocking views
  • Be an active listener
  • (and indirectly) Be amazing!

Don’t feel you need to use the Lost Levels agreements at your event. You should tailor ground rules (aka agreements or covenants) to fit meeting needs. But there’s something to be said for incorporating Lost Levels’ agreements into your events.

Image attribution: Laura Hudson, boingboing

The biggest unconference mistake you can make

biggest unconference mistake Biggest-error-message
What’s the biggest unconference mistake you can make?

Sometimes, good intentions pave the road to hell.

A conversation I dread

CONFERENCE ORGANIZER: “Hey, Adrian, we’re incorporating participant-led sessions into our conference this year!”

ADRIAN: “That’s great! What are you going to do?”

CONFERENCE ORGANIZER: “Well, some program committee members are skeptical that this format will work, so we’re going to add an unconference track that people can attend if interested.”

ADRIAN: Nooooooo! Don’t do that!

I’ve had more than one conversation like this. Here’s why adding an unconference track to a conventional conference program is a big mistake. (Probably, the biggest unconference mistake you can make.)

Why you shouldn’t add an unconference track to a traditional conference

Consider these three points:

  • To date, relatively few people have experienced a unconference session (one shaped on the spot by the needs, experience, and expertise of the people present);
  • Lecture-style formats comprise the vast majority of people’s formal learning experiences. So, if you haven’t previously experienced an unconference session you’re probably skeptical that it’ll be useful to you; and
  • We are creatures of habit, and most of us are cautious about trying something new.

When you combine these observations, the unfortunate outcome is that very few people will attend an unconference track. Most attendees will stick to the conventional and “safe” concurrent sessions on pre-announced topics.

I was a skeptic myself when I started using participant-led formats back in 1992. A number of years passed before I stopped worrying whether this new-fangled way of running events would work for the next group I tried it with. It turns out that when a participant-led session or sessions are the only conference activities going on, people dive in and nearly everyone likes what occurs. But when you give people a choice between what’s familiar and what’s not, all but the bravest take the safer path.

I’ve made the unconference track mistake. I’ve stood in a room set for three hundred attendees and had thirty show up, while four other concurrent sessions siphoned off 1,400 people. Yes, those thirty participants had an amazing time. But the overall perception of the vast majority who didn’t attend (and the conference organizers) was that participant-led formats were “not really wanted” and could be safely ignored.

Don’t make this mistake!

So how do we avoid making this mistake? Make participant-led sessions plenaries or simultaneous breakouts. You certainly don’t have to make unconference sessions 100% of your conference, but there should be no other type of conference activity going on at the same time.

There will probably always be conference organizers who are skeptical that participant-led sessions can work. A compromise may appear to be the way to keep such people happy, but it will invariably create a self-fulfilling prophecy; the “experimental” track will be poorly attended and the skeptics will say, “I told you so”.

We all get tripped up from time to time by the unintended consequences of our good intentions. When planning to add participant-led sessions to your next event, resist the alluring compromise of an unconference track. Instead, dedicate a morning, afternoon, day, or days to well-designed participant-led sessions. Then you’ll see just how well these still-novel but increasingly popular formats can work.

Drive-by experts at your conference

drive-by 458488027_223bb21119_b

Want to discover the experts at your conference?

“It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations. This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.”
—David Weinberger, Globalization of local experience

This is exactly why the Conferences That Work format works so well. Peer conferences allow participants to discover the conference experts in (what was formerly known as) the “audience” they want to meet, connect with, and learn from. Instead of restricting teachers to the few folks at the front of the room, peer conferences allow us to tap the experience and expertise of anyone that’s present.

In other words, Conferences That Work extend the effectiveness of the online conversations that David describes above to face-to-face meetings.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jannem