How to plan a successful unconference in 10 steps

by Ben Martin CAE on June 17, 2008 · 3 comments

File this in the “worked for Ben, maybe it’ll work for me too” folder.

I recently organized an unconference for my association and was very pleased with the results. Many association execs I speak with these days seem interested in holding unconferences or unsessions within larger conferences, so I thought I’d share my experience. Here’s how I did it, step by step.

1. Secure a location and date. Our unconference was for real estate bloggers, so I wanted a location that could accommodate about 30-40 attendees and that had wifi access for the same number. I also wanted a setting that would encourage collaborative learning, so flexible space without fixed furniture was a must. I also wanted an LCD projector. I booked the space about six weeks in advance. Fortunately, one of our local associations was willing to host us for free.

2. Set up a wiki. To get organized, I set up a free wiki with wetpaint.com. One of the pages has been taken over to organize another event, but otherwise, you can still see most of the content from our unconference wiki. I set up pages on the wiki for a pre-unconference happy hour, special dietary requirements, a space to ask questions of a special guest lunch speaker, the meeting location, a draft schedule, and most importantly: the “talks”.

3. Collect proposals to talk. I intentionally did not call for “speeches” or “presentations”. Peer-to-peer learning implies that everyone has something to share or teach, so in order to create an environment in which all attendees could feel at ease about sharing their knowledge, I tried to keep the language more informal. I seeded the list of talks with a couple of topics that I’d be willing to talk about, and asked a few friendly members to propose talks of their own.

4. Spread the word. I used a variety of means to tell others about the unconference. Twitter was actually the place where I placed most of my efforts. I also blogged about it on our association’s blog, some other blogs that I contribute to, and put it out on event pages like Upcoming. I also encouraged everyone who RSVP’d to tell others.

5. Take registrations. Unconferences are known for being free or very cheap. However, meeting planners know what a nightmare free meetings can be to accurately plan for. We asked registrants for a $10 donation to Habitat for Humanity in order to reserve their spot at the unconference. This way, registrants at least had some skin in the game if they decided to cancel.

6. Pre-uncon. At least once a week leading up to the unconference I sent an email to all registrants reminding them to contribute to the wiki, especially encouraging them to suggest a talk to review the talks that had been proposed, and to ask a question of our guest lunch speaker.

7. On-site unconferencing. We started our day with one minute participant introductions and then voted on which talks we wanted to hear. We voted by show of hands, giving each participants three votes to select from the 20 or so topics that were proposed. Introductions and voting took about 45-60 minutes. After determining the schedule, we started straight into the talks. Each talk got 45 minutes to an hour. We took a quick break to get lunch and then listened to a guest speaker as we ate. Our meeting officially ran for six hours, but many people lingered for another 30-60 minutes after we adjourned.

8. Stay out of the way. Other than playing emcee and helping with one talk, I mostly stayed in the background, trying to make sure we got through all the talks and stayed about on time.

9. Document it all. We did this in several ways. The first was unplanned, but not unexpected: The unconference participants spontaneously crowd-sourced the note-taking by posting their thoughts to Twitter. Several participants brought cameras or used their cell phones to snap pictures and posted them to twitter, utterz or flickr. I attempted to get everyone to tag their stuff with a single tag, but had mixed results. Also, a member brought along a digital camera capable of taking one hour of video on a memory card, and he recorded several of the sessions. Finally, we posted an mp3 of the radio show we broadcasted from the unconference and all of the aforementioned stuff to the wiki. What radio show? Read on…

10. Go out with a bang. We have a member who hosts a call-in internet radio show who proposed doing his show live from the unconference as his talk. He showed the participants how he sets up his radio show for 10-15 minutes and then we went live. Everyone in the room whipped out their cell phones and called in for the show so they could hear the other guest callers. In addition, the participants were invited to approach the mic and share their experience. This was quite possibly the most amazing educational experience I’ve been a part of. Find something a little “out there” to do together at the end, or at least find a spot for it at some point in the unconference.

Those are my 10 steps to running an unconference. It worked for me! Your mileage may vary. Check out the unconference article at Wikipedia for more planning help, if you want it. Please share any good or bad experiences you’ve had in organizing an unconference! I’ll be doing another one in September and I want to improve.

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We are not the audience (but we still want to learn): Give us peer-to-peer learning | Ben Martin, CAE
November 11, 2008 at 10:49 am

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Maddie Grant June 17, 2008 at 3:47 am

fabulous! Definitely the way to do it properly. Or, you can post a message on Twitter and go hang out in the sun with a bunch of your peeps under the pretense of talking about social media… : )

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Peggy Hoffman November 11, 2008 at 2:03 pm

Enjoyed this and immediately saw the connection to chapters – we’re struggling with how to do the “events” cheaper, easier, better, cooler. Chapters have long focused on being event machines when they really should be connection machines. I’ll be sharing this posting over on my blog for sure.

Side note, we ran a leadership “unconference” for an association’s chapter leaders last month and it was quite successful. The leaders went away feeling like this was their conference. I think by adding the wiki we could double the power.

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