Thoughts on unconferences

People love unconferences like Foo Camp, Seattle Mind Camp (quick plug: tickets are on sale now), and Bar Camp, where the attendees make the content. Unfortunately, a common piece of feedback I hear is that they got more out of hallway conversations than the sessions. I’ve also found this to be true. I think that this is partially because people don’t decide to present until they arrive and partially because they don’t have experience with the unconference format. Scott Berkun, an O’Reilly author, has written a great post that provides a lot of helpful tips and hints for running sessions as well as some great patterns to use when creating your unconference talk.

Here were some of the gems from his post:

Things to do

* Create both a topic and an angle. It’s one thing to say “lets talk about AJAX”. It’s another to go with “AJAX war stories: the good and the ugly of real AJAX development”. It’s the same basic topic, but a theme calls people to action, or opinion. It lets everyone know what thoughts to stew over before the session begins, increasing the odds people will have interesting things to share.

* Emphasize interactivity. Make it easy for people to participate, ask questions, or add to your expertise. This is called facilitation and its a skill: pay attention the next time you see a meeting or brainstorming session run well. Use the whiteboards if there are any, writing down key points, suggestions or references you know people will want. (Or ask someone to volunteer to take notes at the begining of the session).

Things to avoid

* Don’t disapear as the organizer. If you wrote the session on the board, you need to assert yourself if the conversation devolves into a shouting match, a soloiquoy, or dead silence. Be the shepherd – visible, as involved as necessary, a beacon of sanity (or insanity depening on the topic).
* Don’t walk in without a position. Conversations need seeds: offer a position, or a set of questions, to get the ball rolling. Many start with a 5/7 minute presentation by the organizer on a topic, followed by completely open and free-flowing conversation and debate. Those 5/7 minutes, if interesting, give enough fuel and grounding for everyone to build a session around. A list of thought provoking questions can be a great, low cost bag of seeds.

I’d like to add one that he didn’t cover:
Always include your name on the schedule. There are tons of talks happening at once and when I am determining my schedule knowing the name of the speaker is an important factor. It also means that if I miss your talk that i can follow up with you afterwards.

  • I attended a the Unconference. People seem to identify ‘un’ with unorganized but the conference was anything but. It moved at a very quick pace and was absolutely effective in producing fantastic and informative sessions for its attendees. I believe one of the keys to Mashupcamp is that it also has a Wiki and Website. The ‘unconference’ need not be over when everyone flies home!

    Special thanks to David Berlind and his team for it. It was brilliantly directed 2 years running.

  • “I hear is that they got more out of hallway conversations than the sessions.”

    This is the most common piece of feedback I hear about any conference – not just unconferences. Most conferences are places to learn yes, but the main benefit to them is meeting people who you share common goals with and trade ideas with – people who you likely may never have met.

    I would challenge those who put on big, “legitimate” conferences that per minute of conference time, unconferences provide more useful information and, what’s more, actual opportunity to interact with the speaker(s) in meaningful ways during and after the session.

  • I have to agree with Ben in terms of unconferences being more valuable than traditional conferences. I recently attended PodcampBoston and am helping to organize PodcampNYC ( and was greatly impressed with the high caliber of the presentations I saw in Boston. The interactive format of the talks also meant that presentations were more of a dialogue than monologue. People asked questions all throughout talks and a very electric atmosphere pervaded my weekend in Boston. Typically my experience in traditional conferences is I may be hearing great material, but the actual session doesn’t necessarily benefit me more than if I watched a video of the talk after the fact.