10 Top Tips for Unplanning the Perfect Unconference
What's the secret of some of the unconferences in recent years that have had educators and learners excited, enthralled and changing their ways of working and thinking? Well, I'm not sure there is a secret per se, but having unplanned a good dozen or so unconferences and visited a score more there are some things that keep cropping up from which we can all learn.
As we head hurtling towards an online-offline unconference at the Scottish Learning Festival, that is, TeachMeet07 on the evening of September 19th (sign up now!), I've also been preparing some of the ground for another year of TeachMeet Roadshows in East Lothian, informal, funky training events which have already proven highly successful in getting some swift and sustained adoption of new technologies in our classrooms. Both use the following ten top tips.
Get started on your (cool) terms
"Right, if I can have your attention please. Just a minute. Great. Now, I would like to introduce to you..."... Oh dear. We all know it. It's like being back in the rows at school, waiting to see someone very important attempt to hold our attention for an hour with more bullets than you could point at the Sundance Kid and that drawl we remember from the adults in Charlie Brown (it was actually a trombone, did you know?).
If you want people's attention before you get started proper, don't let someone else bring you down before you even get started, and don't start by effectively telling off your participants. Learn from the way jazz musicians get started. Make the opening to the presentation enticing, using some video or the cadence to some quieter musak you've cued up to grab attention or mark the beginning of your spot.
Conference participants, not bystanders
From the weeks before the conference even takes place get your attendees to suggest topics, spread the word and market the conference to their friends, by displaying a logo or taking part in Facebook groups, for example.
The worst thing that can happen for a conference or training event is for people to go home actively disagreeing with what one (or all) the presenters had to say. You've got to provide an opportunity for people to make their views known and give the presenters a fighting chance of bringing them around.
Q&A is one way to do this but people haven't really had time to digest and come up with a good question. By far the best thing to do is get people up presenting themselves. Back-to-back shorter presentations of soapboxes are often entertaining, always interesting given the divergent views and let people get it off their chest. It also opens up the conversations in the more informal parts of the conference, since people know who they want to go to talk to.
- Make the conference the coffee break
We all know the best parts of conferences are, of course, the coffee breaks and social events, where you get a chance to pore over someone's laptop for 15 minutes and learn one new really cool thing you can actually use, have late-night discussions over serious stuff, helped along by a few drops of amber. Why not just make this the conference itself? Provide coffee and tea all day long, lots of muffins and biscuits like they did at Reboot and, even better, open a bar like we do at BarCamp.
Flat pack your conference
Let people make up their own conference. One of my favourite parts of BarCampScotland and Reboot9.0 were the large blank sheets of paper as you walked in - the participants plan what they want to hear and when, by putting up what they are going to talk about next to a time and a location in the venue. Make sure you offer a number of large, medium and small rooms for the large, medium and small egos ;-)
- Don't hold yourself to one sponsor
A good unconference does cost some money although if everyone pulls in it needn't cost a fortune: food, drink, space, projection facilities, audio visuals, publicity beyond the web... Getting a good sponsor might seem the answer to your dreams, but it might end up being a noose around your neck. Do not take all the funding from one place, and then be held to their publicity, their terms and their way of doing things. Some BarCamps put an upper limit of £150 ($300) per contribution to have a feast of many, not a gathering for one. Once you've had a successful event or two under your belt the sponsors will come to you.
- Encourage speaking at the back of the class
It's cool to have a place where people can extend the discussion beyond whatever the presentation is about. This is called a backchannel. You can use a blog set up to receive mobile phone messages, but it's easier to get everyone onto a Jaiku channel, or display messages left by people from the mobiles or computers on Twitter (Twittercamp is lovely to do this).
At LTS, because the digital savvy of many attendees at the Learning Festival won't stretch to Twitter, we've set up our own text service, for launch on Sept 7 or thereabouts, which will display comments on keynotes under the blog posts that talk about them. Clever, huh?
In some conferences it's displayed behind the speakers. Much better, in my opinion for what it's worth, is to equip the stage with a large monitor so that speakers can take a peak and have a chance to respond to criticisms or misunderstandings before they're picked up by too many other people. Presenters also need to be aware that there is a public backchannel in the first place.
- May the wifi be with you
You need wifi. Ideally you have electricity in abundance, too, for bloggers to blog, photographers to Flickr and for the backchannel to survive. Good wifi is a must, but make sure everyone knows about it so that they actually bring their laptops and cameras.
- Tag, tag, tag - and tell people about it
Make sure that everyone coming to the conference, everyone who wanted to and couldn't and all the major events sites (e.g. Upcoming.org) know what the conference tag is, otherwise all that online coverage is going to be lost. Tags need to be short, memorable and mean something to the people there.
Cover the event yourself - but get young people to do it
At every nearly every conference I organise I make sure that I have some young people producing the podcasts, the videos or some blogging. This isn't because I want cheap labour, it's because of the angle they take on it and what they are able to contribute in this way to the arguments given in the conference. Their legacy is also far more long-lasting than that of the adult participants this way :-)
- Don't give a giveaway
People increasingly don't need a memory pen, a linen bag, a pen, a pad (they're blogging, remember)... What's more, people are beginning to become more conscious of the environmental impact of all those wasted products and paper. Far better to make your giveaway on the web or via Bluetooth to people's mobile phones.
Here are some more hints and tips for budding unconferencers:
- Different types of unconference
- Some photos from BarCampScotland that give some clues
- The Unconference Blog
- Open Space Events
- What is speed geeking?
- The BarCamp way
- The BloggerCon way
- ...and, of course, Wikipedia
and some ideas for those wanting to create education training events around the same ideals: