August 14, 2007

10 Top Tips for Unplanning the Perfect Unconference

Unconferences 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.

  1. Trad_conf 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.
  2. Practical_conf 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.
  3. 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.
  4. New_conf 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 ;-)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 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.
  9. Students_in_conferences 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 :-)
  10. 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:

and some ideas for those wanting to create education training events around the same ideals:


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I have experienced participating in BLC and Darren Kuropatwa's workshop in Denver from a distance (Argentina). Just backchannel. I can say it is hard to imagine presenting without opening participation to the world, or giving those silent voices in the audience a way to become the main voice.

I will be presenting to an audience without wi-fi, or Twittercamp. Few have heard of blogs (except for mine). I will be picking my network's brains and blogs about it. ;-)

Thank you for this organised post. It certainly helps to get my mind grounded after so much inspiration last week.

Hi Euan,

I am going to come to teachmeet07 but cant's edit the wiki for some reason as it only shows a specific part. Now you know I'm am not thick when it comes to using wikis so don't know what's wrong tonight. I was going to give a quick 7 minute talk on mobiles since I am talking earlier about them but can do some fun quirky things. Can you add me to the wiki instead?



What a great summary! I think there is a lot for us to learn from this advice. As I am looking at some events this autumn I am keen to see how we can integrate the ideas into what we do.

These are important concepts for you to share with the wider educational community Ewen. Thanks for spending the time to document what has become the 64K dollar question in terms of teacher training.

Oops..... isn't it funny that after you post a comment you notice a spelling mistake..... and everyone has made a similar mistake, spelling your name incorrectly: Euan and Ewen but not Ewan!

So sorry Ewan.


(times like this you wish there was a comment edit feature)

This one allows you to edit individual paras - took me a minute, too - with the overall edit button right at the top. Go to the 'people' list and then click the wee edit above it. If you're still having trouble get back in touch. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Great points Ewan, ta much.

I'm in the very early stages of planning something in the Manchester area, so I'll hope to be able to integrate many of these.

Reboot 9.0 had it off to a tee...


Can I check, are pupils welcome at TeachMeet07?

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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