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.
unconferencesIn 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!

Unmembership and unconferences

Unmembership and unconferences roots

Unmembership and unconferences?

Sparked by my article Is unmembership the future of associations?, Joe Rominiecki, senior editor of Associations Now, has published an interview with me: How “Unmembership” Gets Back to the Roots of Associating.

The interview helped me verbalize the close connection between the reasons why associations begin and new conferences are born. I’ll leave you to read Joe’s excellent article for the details.

Photo attribution: Flickr user buehlerphoto

Why I don’t like unconferences

Why I don't like unconferences

“Why I don’t like unconferences.” If you know me you’re probably scratching your head at the title of this post.

“Adrian,” you’re thinking, “unconferences are what you do! How can you not like unconferences?”

Well, it’s the word “unconference” I object to, not what it represents. Unfortunately, “unconference” has come to mean any kind of conference that isn’t a traditional conference. Originally the word “unconference” was coined to describe a participant-driven meeting. However, in recent years — rather like the encroachments on “counter-culture” and “green” — people use “unconference” to imply that their conference is cool in some way, even if it still employs the programmed speaker-centric event designs that we’ve suffered for hundreds of years.

What “conference” once meant

The meaning of the word “conference” has been corrupted to virtually the opposite of its original intent. As I describe in Conferences That Work, “conference” was first used around the middle of the 16th century as a verb that described the act of conferring with others in conversation. Over time, the word’s meaning shifted to denoting the meeting itself.

Regrettably few of today’s “conferences” provide substantive opportunities for conferring: consultation or discussion. Instead they have become primarily conduits for the one-to-many transfer of information on the conference topic.

I believe that participant-driven event designs are a response to this drift of meeting process that has occurred over the years. In a sense, participant-driven events are the true conferences: events that support and encourage conferring.

To be accurate, we should be calling traditional conferences “unconferences”, reserving the word “conference” for the participant-driven event designs that are slowly becoming more popular.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen, so I talk about “participant-driven events” and avoid using the term “unconference” whenever possible.

In the end, I know my thoughts on the meaning and use of a word carry little weight. With rare exceptions, our culture, not the pronouncements of an individual, determines the meaning and usage of words. But if you agree with me, feel free to follow my example and spurn unconferences—but just the word, not the concept!

Demystifying the unconference

demystify unconferenceIt’s time to demystify the unconference.

Nine hundred years ago, when the world’s first universities began and prestigious libraries might contain a few hundred hand-copied books, the way you learned something was to travel to where a man (in those days it was always a man) knew it, and sit and listen to him teach it to you.

This model for learning sank deep into our culture. Today, on a computer we can hold in our hands, we can search the internet for information or watch videos of the finest presenters. Yet, even though we have amazing content at our fingertips, our meeting designs have not changed much from the classroom model required by the technologies available during the Middle Ages.

Over the last twenty years, new face-to-face meeting designs—such as Open Space, World Café, Conferences That Work, Future Search, and Everyday Democracy—have appeared that challenge the entrenched dominant learning paradigm of passive reception of predetermined information. Although each design has unique features and goals, what they all have in common is that what happens at the event is participant-driven, rather than being largely prescribed by the conference organizers. Such formats are unconferences.

Here are some of the key features of an unconference:

  • You can design them to work on a group problem or goal. Or as a time for individualized learning and sharing. Longer events can also include traditional sessions, keynotes, etc.
  • Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is center stage, rather than something that happens in the breaks between sessions.
  • The culture is participatory, not passive. This has a highly positive effect on the environment, outcomes, and community created at the event.
  • Learning happens in small groups, rather than in large general sessions.
  • Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
  • Unconferences harness the experience and expertise of the participants, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
  • Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference. The event is, therefore, more likely to satisfy their wants and needs.
  • Interesting, unexpected things are likely to happen. While traditional conferences discourage risky learning, unconferences create an environment where participants can create sessions on the spot. Unconferences welcome questions, and encourage sharing.

It’s no coincidence that unconference designs appeared as our society responded to the increased availability of information and ease of sharing made possible by the personal computer and the internet. And yet, despite the pervasive reality of ubiquitous knowledge and connectivity, professional event planners still rarely use these new designs.

One reason is the fear that an unconference just won’t work. I’ve run unconferences for twenty years, and reviewed thousands of evaluations. I can assure you that the level of satisfaction with unconference formats is much higher than traditional events. (One of the reasons for this is that I’ve found that traditional program committees predict less than half the sessions that attendees actually want.) Other reasons include the misconception that crowdsourcing session topics before an event makes it an unconference, the understandable fear of giving up control over one’s event, and general unfamiliarity with unconference revenue models, facilitation requirements, and logistical considerations.

All these barriers to the implementation of unconference meeting designs are readily overcome with education and experience. Most event planners (and their clients) have begun to hear the rumbles of dissatisfaction from attendees who are no longer satisfied flying hundreds of miles to listen to speakers they could have watched on YouTube, or to attend a conference where a majority of the sessions are not what they really wanted. Instead, these attendees are increasingly demanding meetings that concentrate on what only face-to-face events can provide—like Howard Givner’s experience of a recent unconference:

“…one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”

We know how to create these events. Our clients are starting to ask for them. So, if you haven’t already, attend an unconference in 2011 and experience a participant-driven event firsthand. Or talk to people who have. Then you’ll be ready to begin to build unconference designs into your event planning future.

This article was first published in Lara McCulloch-Carter‘s free eBook What’s Next in Events 2011.

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms