At a traditional conference or industry event, the speakers and presentations are decided well in advance of the event. Last-minute changes will happen, but on the whole everything happens in a standardised format, and with pre-planned sessions. Very often, not all submissions will make it into the conference.
At an unconference, an overall theme or general topic will be shared beforehand, but the schedule itself is decided at the start of the event. For example, CheckCon’s brief is a reflection on the experiences, successes, challenges and lessons learnt since the Arab uprising of 2011. Unconference speakers, presentations, and styles of sessions will be determined by the participants themselves. Since everyone at an unconference has contributed directly to its design, the event will reflect the interests and concerns of all participants.
How does an unconference run?
The structure of an unconference will look roughly like a conference, with group sessions and breakout sessions. However, everything is guided by the unconference participants, who will typically attend the event with an idea of what session (or sessions!) they are prepared to lead or take part in. Breakout sessions are flexible, and might be demonstrations, panel discussions, speaker-led presentations, workshops, or other training opportunities.
In the run-up to an unconference, there is typically a space to propose ideas for sessions. (CheckCon’s wiki is here.) This is a chance for all participants to raise issues for discussion or offer to share areas of interest or expertise. Participants can also propose sessions on the day. An unconference has a high degree of flexibility, and the ability to respond to current news or developments in the field. Sessions can vary in length, depending on how things are going. For example, three smaller discussion clusters could position themselves in three corners of a main room, while a presentation that attracts a larger group would hold its session in a more intimate space.
How do you prepare for an unconference?
Come prepared with at least one session idea to propose – either to lead yourself, or something that can be lead by another participant.
A successful unconference depends entirely on the group’s participation! Be willing to chip in on discussions, speak up during planning, and be a part of the day.
The rules of an unconference
There are four unconference rules:
- The people who come are the best people who could have come
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
- It starts when it starts, it’s over when it’s over
- The Law of Two Feet: if you find yourself in a situation where you’re neither learning nor contributing to a talk or discussion, use your two feet to go somewhere where you can actually contribute or learn