Not a Meeting Series: The Unconference


You know your event should be innovative and you really want it to be, but aren’t quite sure how. With buzzwords like “unconferences,” “PechaKucha,” and “Spectrograms” being thrown around, it can get a little confusing. In each installment of this series, we’ll dive into not only what these terms mean, but examples of each and how you can bring these innovative elements to your next meeting.

Basic Definition

A participant-driven conference

Conference Type


The unconference could be pretty uncomfortable for traditional meeting planners as it puts almost all of the decisions regarding content and the agenda in the hands of the attendees. However, this type of ownership of the event, peer-to-peer collaboration, and creative learning can lead to unprecedented attendee input, participation, and engagement. Some of the main tenants of unconferences are to let everyone be heard and to avoid top-down organization or sponsored sessions. 

How to Pull it Off


As with any other event, basics will be planned ahead of time (ie. dates, venue/space, catering, AV, and anything else you believe will be necessary for your participants to learn in a flexible, collaborative environment). Many unconferences allow anyone who's interested to attend, however, you'll have to assess if this works for your group. You'll probably also want to set an overarching theme for the event. 

Send communication to your attendees letting them know what to expect once they arrive. Empower them to bring their ideas for sessions (both topics or a quick presentation/demo/activity if they'd like) and explain that they'll be creating the agenda on the first day. You may consider getting the conversation started pre-event via discussion boards on the event app or website. Participants could start to suggest sessions and those who are interested in similar topics can discuss merging sessions or keeping their sessions separate, but dividing sub-topics to go more in-depth during their session.

Another aspect of many unconferences is to make the registration fees drastically reduced from a traditional conference. Many are free, however, there is debate on whether that's actually as beneficial as intended. However, making the event affordable through sponsorships or creative planning and ideas is embraced throughout many unconferences and should be a consideration when planning one. 


Meeting Room setup


This should be flexible depending on what the attendees of each session want, but setting tables and/or chairs in a circle or semi-circle can be a good way to start. Some facilitators may have a small presentation prepared, so be sure to have appropriate AV set in the rooms as well. Try to have the overall setup feel more relaxed and participatory. If soft-seating or mixed-seating is an option, this can help. Some groups may want to access white-boards or flip-charts, or need to charge their devices; maybe even add some fun with paper tablecloths and colored pencils for note-taking or go slightly higher-tech with a shared Google Drive or Docs. Be sure to think through what the participants may want or need and try to have those items out for their use.

Setting the Agenda


When attendees walk in, a large blank agenda should greet them on the wall. Welcome attendees and make sure they understand how to generate sessions. Notecards or paper can be on the tables where participants can write topics or questions to get things going. Participants should come to the front of the room and announce their session title as they post it on the agenda/wall. It is helpful to create a detailed session title vs a one-word topic. Let attendees know how to access the schedule once it's made (ie. the event app). Attendees can also name a leader and note-taker for their session.

Encourage experienced unconference attendees to welcome and encourage those who are new. Depending on your group, a quick group or icebreaker activity may help people to feel more comfortable and ready to participate.

Facilitating a Session

The attendee who had the idea for the session has 'called a session' and should be prepared to facilitate it or appoint someone who is knowledgable on the topic to facilitate. A facilitator welcomes and encourages attendees to join in. The facilitator can introduce the session topic and should help get the discussion going. This could just be with an opening question or even a quick presentation to get the ball rolling. There is no right or wrong way to have a session, but should always lean towards collaboration and discussion.

Remember to be flexible. If only a few people show up to your session, you can have a deeper, more meaningful discussion with people who share your passion for a topic. If you're struggling to fill the time allotted, feel free to move on or make a list of actions participants may want to take away from the session or overall event. If discussion is hot and time is up, see if you can keep it going in another space or a follow-up session later in the conference.

Consider ending the session by getting everyone's email addresses in order to followup with the sessions notes, any ancillary materials that may be helpful or continued discussion. Notes and materials could also be posted to the conference website for those who had to miss the session.


Types of Sessions

This is only limited by the imagination and can go any direction the attendees would like. Attendees are encouraged to go to whatever sessions they want and to leave sessions at any point they feel they aren't getting as much out of it as they could. This is called the Law of Two Feet. Here are a few ways sessions could be delivered:


Group discussions
Short presentations followed by discussion
Your Big or Little Question on any topic - anything you want to know that you think others in the room could help to answer),
Show & tell a quick demo, a recent project, etc. to get discussion started
A quick tutorial session on how to do something specific that you think could be helpful to others
Surveys - start with a few polls to get people thinking. This could be done with polling software or even have participants walk to different parts of the room to vote
Games - many social games/competitions can be a great team-building session activity

Keep it going! Maybe a demo or brief presentation in a break area or hallway would be beneficial, or a graphic instruction/infographic printout posted in the lunch room or bathrooms could be the way to go. Start a conversation on Twitter using the event hashtag.

End of Day

Be sure to leave some time for a de-brief with participants. They should communicate what they've learned, their personal goals/takeaways from the meeting, and suggestions for the next meeting. This can take place in both small and large groups.

Get Inspired

As always, use what works for you. There are unconferences with a majority of sessions that are filled in by the attendess and a smattering of planned sessions to mix it up. There are also traditional conferences that allow for a small amount of attendee-lead sessions. If you want to just dip your toes in the water and get some experience with an unconference more slowly, that might be the best route for your meeting. Another variation is a curated unconference, where discussions and ideas prior to the event are handed over to a group of organizers who take that information and build sessions (still transparently and still centered around discussion), but pre-scheduled. Here are some great examples of unconferences that are happening all the time. Take a look around and get inspired!