How to make the most of an UNconference

In a traditional conference, the agenda/program and the speakers are selected weeks or months before the date of the event. There is a C4P months before, aspiring speakers send their proposals and the organization chooses and configures the agenda.

Unconferences are quite different. The agenda is configured on the fly as the spontaneous speakers speech their proposals during the marketplace, first thing in the morning the day of the event itself, and talks/workshops are selected democratically by all the participants. The marketplace is just a circle made of people standing and listening to the person in the center who’s got a few minutes to explain her or his proposal. There is no psychological gap between “speakers” and “attendees” as everyone is a participant from the very beginning, there is no panel. This makes for a very friendly atmosphere where everyone feels equally empowered to talk to others. You don’t ask me for an autograph here, you buy me a whisky and then I buy you another one 😀

It’s crucial to have a seasoned facilitator with experience in unconferences/open spaces in order to explain the basic rules to people and to make them feel welcome and willing to participate. It’s also very important to have a comfortable venue and good organisation.

Now, you don’t want everybody to improvise everything during the event. I bet you want to listen to interesting talks and enjoy nice workshops. Well, in an unconference, it’s your responsibility to make that happen. This is the big difference with a regular conference, your are accountable for the quality of the event.

It turns out that speakers should not be that spontaneous, the quality of the event goes higher when everyone aspires to conduct a session. If most people propose a session, chances are that not all of them will make it into the agenda so there will be a selection and this will raise the quality of the program. It’s great to facilitate and to join totally improvised sessions but it’s usually better when someone has prepared something upfront. The good news is that you don’t have to prepare a master class or a master workshop, you just need to facilitate a session where you aim for certain things to happen. Perhaps you want some answers to your questions, or to listen to people who have already overcome the issues you are experiencing at work. You could ask for advise or even for a hands-on session on something you want to learn about. But even for that, you should think of it upfront and prepare questions or challenges to conduct the session. If your session gets selected you will get exactly what you want to learn thus getting a lot of value from the event.  If you don’t make a proposal nobody else may guarantee that the topics of your interest will be explored. You may propose a debate/discussion/round table around some topic, therefore you will probably need a bullet list to conduct the session. On the other hand, participants really appreciate when someone come up with a prepared talk/workshop. I encourage you to work on a talk or workshop exactly as you do for regular conferences. Get your slides or materials ready, rehearse as much as you can and deliver a well-prepared session. Yes, it could be the case that you work on your stuff at home and then it doesn’t get selected for the agenda, but you can reuse your material for any other conference anyway.

Your speech during the marketplace is critical to get your session chosen. You get a minute or two to explain your idea and then you write the name of your session and your name on a piece or paper than goes to the panel. When there are more than 50 proposals in the marketplace, participants usually forget your speech and all they are left with is the piece of paper with the title and your name. If you speech is brief, clear and to the point you get more chances to be remembered and selected. You need to grab all the attention during your speech and make sure you focus on just one idea. You could write down your speech days before the event, something from 50 to 150 words is more than enough and then in the marketplace you just read it to the audience is that is more comfortable for you. Because it’s not about being a showman, it’s about being clear and communicate. Reading your speech is perfectly OK. Then make sure the title of your session matches your idea and your speech to be remembered.

When you decide to attend to a regular conference, sometimes you base your decision on an expected outcome. You like the program, the speakers, the networking. The same applies to an unconference. Define your goals, aim for a certain return of the investment, and contribute to the event so that it happens.

What are you going to propose for the next open space? Don’t forget that having fun is one of the top most priorities in any unconference!

See you there 🙂